Sayeed, and UW-Madison, take another hit

To recap: Akbar Sayeed is a University of Wisconsin engineering professor whose training methods were so abusive they led to the suicide of a graduate student, John Brady. This was a bit too blatant for the university to look the other way, so they punished him with a two year unpaid leave, after years of screaming fits and tyrannized students. He used his time off to apply for a research position at NSF, which he left abruptly 8 months before his appointment at UW-Madison would be restored.

More information is trickling out now, and it’s not good for the university. UW-Madison failed to inform NSF of Sayeed’s salary status and why he was going to be available to work there, which are facts required for his temporary position. And now we know why he left NSF.

…NSF provided an additional statement that said the program under which Sayeed was hired requires institutions to report employee status.

“Unfortunately, the institution did not accurately disclose that information,” said Amanda Hallberg Greenwell, head of NSF’s Office of Legislative and Public Affairs. “When NSF received complete information, we terminated Dr. Sayeed’s assignment.”

I can imagine what happened here. If it were disclosed that he had driven a student to kill himself and that the university placed him on unpaid leave, NSF wouldn’t have hired him (probably — I’m beginning to develop a jaundiced opinion of institutional concern about humane behavior). Sayeed certainly would have avoided reporting himself, and sympathetic admins at the UW would have been reluctant to sabotage his opportunity at employment, so they conveniently neglected to mention certain salient facts.

After all, he’d been getting paid $166,650 per year to yell at students, and it would have been so mean to slam him down to $0 abruptly, just because one student had died on his watch.

Funny how all that works. Also funny: that he was a bad teacher getting paid 2½ times what I do, probably with a much lower teaching load. There are some remarkable inequities within academia.

NSF sets some standards, at least.

NSF imposed a new requirement last fall requiring institutions to disclose if any faculty members with NSF grants committed harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault. Depending on a university’s policies and codes of conduct, bullying may be included in the policy.

The policy is not retroactive, applying only to researchers who received an award after Oct. 22, 2018.

Universities seem to be falling behind. There are rules underlying tenure; I would think that “harassment, including sexual harassment or sexual assault” ought to warrant revocation of tenure.

I don’t call that teaching

I guess Professor E.David Davis of the North Carolina State University never learned how to teach, although he did learn how to be a sexist jerk.

Maira Haque is a junior at NC State and was outraged by what she said Davis said in class to another student. Haque says Davis called on a female student in the class and when she didn’t have the answers to his questions about an assignment, things escalated.

“You’re 20 years old and you forgot to bring this assignment in. Were you dropping the head as a child? Do you have memory problems?” Haque said.

Next, she said, the professor selected another student to answer a question and she too didn’t have the answer.

“She didn’t have the paper either and before he even could begin berating her or anything, she said ‘I have memory problems too,’” Haque said. “And that made everyone laugh, but he kept going and he was like, ‘I guess the women in this class are useless. I guess I should call on a man.’

How well does belittling your students work as a pedagogical exercise, I wonder. Students are already anxious and overworked, I don’t need to ramp that up; if I see a number of students struggling to keep up, that tells me that I need to slow down and try to help. That’s my job.

Don’t worry about Professor Davis. He had an excuse for his behavior. It’s the same excuse I’ve heard from assholes for years.

The professor justified his comments by saying, “Well, obviously, it was a joke. Women are obviously useful because we need them for a species to reproduce,” according to a Twitter video.

“It was just a joke”, compounded by the distasteful argument that “we” (I presume he means us men?) need them just for their ovaries.

That guy should not be teaching at all. I won’t say that it sounds like he’s been dropped on his head a few times, but will instead suggest that his university send him off for remedial training in basic education skills and in humanity. We need to help him catch up with the good faculty, you know.

How’s MIT doing lately?

MIT seems to be having a bad day week month year, and new horrors keep tumbling out all the time. Thanks, Jeffrey Epstein, the one good you did in your life was to make corruption visible!

  • You know, Richard Stallman has always been an egotistical jerk, so he had to poke his head up and demonstrate it once again. His latest is to claim that Epstein’s “harem” — I guess that’s his word for “victims” — were “mostly willing”. Ugh. You aren’t helping, rms. Crawl back into your hole.
  • Joi Ito pressured other faculty, like Naomi Oxman, to participate in rewarding Epstein for his “anonymous” gifts, and they in turn pressured their students to create and send gifts to him. What’s interesting is that the students were the ones to immediately question the whole process, and to feel guilty about succumbing to pressure afterwards. I guess MIT hadn’t had enough time to pound the ethics out of them yet.

I’ve noted elsewhere that the rich get richer, and colleges with already massive endowments tend to be the recipients of more corrupt gift giving…so they inherit all the filth that comes with the filthy lucre. I suspect our small liberal arts colleges would be just as guilty if billionaires were trying to impress their peers by giving us money.

But…but…that’s the whole goddamn problem!

MIT is struggling with the disclosure that one of their star professors, Joi Ito, accepted a heck of a lot of money from the pedophile Jeffrey Epstein. So, at one of their meetings, Nicholasa Negroponte decided to “help”.

Throughout, the meeting had proceeded calmly. But as one of the organizers began to wrap things up, Negroponte stood up, unprompted, and began to speak. He discussed his privilege as a “rich white man” and how he had used that privilege to break into the social circles of billionaires. It was these connections, he said, that had allowed the Media Lab to be the only place at MIT that could afford to charge no tuition, pay people full salaries, and allow researchers to keep their intellectual property.

Negroponte said that he prided himself on knowing over 80% of the billionaires in the US on a first-name basis, and that through these circles he had come to spend time with Epstein. Over the years, he had two dinners and one ride in Epstein’s private jet alone, where they spoke passionately about science. (He didn’t say whether these occurred before or after Epstein’s 2008 conviction.) It was these interactions, he said, that warmed him to Epstein and made him confidently and enthusiastically recommend that Ito take the money.

It was at this point that Negroponte said he would still have given Ito the same advice today. Different people in attendance had conflicting interpretations of his statement. Some understood him to mean he would act the same way even knowing what he knows now about Epstein’s alleged sex trafficking. But Negroponte told the Boston Globe that in retrospect, “Yes, we are embarrassed and regret taking his money.”

Oh my god. Stop shooting yourself in the foot.

Negroponte has all these privileges. MIT is a good university with an excess of wealth and privilege. Isn’t it nice that he hangs out with capitalist looters? Shouldn’t all our science and education be funded by making friends with rich criminals? Yeah, let’s all cozy up to perverts and bankers and stock market speculators and hope they shower us with gold. Money is magic! It doesn’t matter where it comes from!

Some in the audience were shocked and horrified, the ones with some awareness and social consciousness. Negroponte just got up and admitted that all the great things that benefited all the lucky people at MIT were the product of unclean hands, and that he’d happily take any money from anyone, no matter how they acquired it.

I guess ethics isn’t one of the scholarly disciplines MIT is known for.

Oh, dear. Daniel Povey has been fired.

Earlier this spring, there was a major protest at Johns Hopkins University — students actually occupied the administration building to protest the formation of a private police force on campus. It warmed my heart to see such classic action.

Some professors didn’t like it at all. Daniel Povey gathered a group of like-minded conservative thinkers who weren’t affiliated with the university, grabbed some big ol’ boltcutters, and assaulted the protesters late one night. Punches were thrown. Povey and his friends were thrown back. He’s calling it a “counter-protest”, but protest movements don’t involve planned violence, and usually involve peaceful non-violence training, rather than angry mobs.

Daniel Povey has now been fired from his non-tenured position at Johns Hopkins. I find that interesting in itself, in that the institution he pretended to have been defending wants nothing to do with him.

According to Povey’s termination letter, he was suspended and banned from campus in May over allegations that he “engaged in violent and aggressive behavior when attempting forcibly to enter Garland Hall,” and his conduct “was motivated by racially discriminatory animus and created a hostile environment.”

Povey has admitted leading a group of people to the campus building around midnight on May 8, carrying bolt cutters. “You believed the group of nonaffiliates you brought with you could become violent,” the termination letter also says. As a faculty member, “you created a dangerous situation that could have ended in serious harm to our students, yourself and others in the community.”

Povey was repeatedly told not enter Garland Hall prior to the exchange, despite his requests to enter the building to access computer servers there, according to the letter.

“These actions by a member of our faculty are entirely unacceptable. The safety, security and protection of our students and others are of paramount importance to the university,” wrote Andrew S. Douglas, vice dean for faculty. While the university will continue its investigation until it reaches its conclusion, “your own account of events based on your oral and written statements provides more than sufficient grounds for immediate termination, and we are hereby terminating your appointment with the university.”

Even more fascinating, though, is his rant about his firing. It’s as if he felt compelled to provide independent verification of everything he was accused of in the administration’s letter.

“My feeling is that this mostly has to do with underrepresented minorities, specifically black people (and trans people). There seems to be nothing that Americans, or American institutions, fear more than being accused of racism (or similar isms), which leads to ridiculous spectacles like what we’re seeing here, where such a huge organization can be paralyzed by a handful of deluded kids.”

If Povey had known in advance “that everyone inside the building was black (that was what I saw; although from media coverage it seems that there may have been a white trans person in the core group) — I wouldn’t have gone ahead with the counterprotest,” he said. “I’m not an idiot; I know that as a person who demographically ticks all the ‘oppressor boxes,’ I would have to be severely punished for opposing such a group.”

White men in “this environment seem to be expected to constantly atone for their existence by telegraphing their exclusive concern for every demographic group but their own, like a neutered puppy dog or some Justin Trudeau man child,” he said. “It’s pathetic, in my opinion, and I don’t accept it at all. I am not prepared to apologize for being who I am. I don’t think that empathy should preclude critical thinking or basic self-respect.”

Povey goes on to criticize critiques of “toxic masculinity,” compare current discourses on gender and race to Animal Farm and Nazism, discusses animus toward market-dominant minorities, and ends with some Bob Dylan: “I ain’t sorry for nothing I’ve done/I’m glad I fought, I only wish we’d won.” He at one point uses the word — widely considered a slur — “retarded.”

I’ll spare you all the long defense of Nazi Germany in which he argues that Hitler might have been “a little bit triggered” by all those rich Jews. You can read it if you want. You probably don’t want to, not recommended.

As you might have guessed, Povey is a white man, and he thinks he was fired because he is a white man, rather than for being an insensitive bigot who used violence to attack students.

He deserved to be fired, although as you might expect, he’s failing upwards. He brags about getting a better job in industry, in Seattle. Sorry, Seattle. I won’t be surprised if he gets enlisted in the Intellectual Dork Web, since he fits the bigoted profile perfectly, or gets a writing gig for Quillette.

All right, Daniel. You know what we say.

Vanderbilt is working hard to destroy its reputation

I think I like this person, although I don’t think we’ve ever met.

BethAnn McLaughlin has no time for James Watson, especially not when the 90-year-old geneticist is peering out from a photo on the wall of her guest room at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory’s Banbury Center.

“I don’t need him staring at me when I’m trying to go to sleep,” McLaughlin told a December 2018 gathering at the storied New York meeting center as she projected a photo of her redecorating job: She had hung a washcloth over the image of Watson, who co-discovered DNA’s structure, directed the lab for decades—and is well-known for racist and sexist statements.

The washcloth image was part of McLaughlin’s unconventional presentation—by turns sobering, hilarious, passionate, and profane—to two dozen experts who had gathered to wrestle with how to end gender discrimination in the biosciences. McLaughlin, a 51-year-old neuroscientist at Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC) in Nashville, displayed the names of current members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) who have been sanctioned for sexual harassment. She urged other NAS members—several of whom sat in the room—to resign in protest, “as one does.” She chided institutions for passing along “harassholes” to other universities. “The only other places that do this are the Catholic Church and the military,” she said.

In the past 9 months, McLaughlin has exploded into view as the public face of the #MeToo movement in science, wielding her irreverent, sometimes wickedly funny Twitter presence, @McLNeuro, as part cudgel, part cheerleader’s megaphone. In June 2018, she created a website,, where scores of women in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) have posted mostly anonymous, often harrowing tales of their own harassment. In just 2 days that month, she convinced the widely used website to remove its “red hot chili pepper” rating for “hotness.” And after launching an online petition, she succeeded last fall in spurring AAAS, which publishes Science, to adopt a policy allowing proven sexual harassers to be stripped of AAAS honors.

It turns out, though, that being a vigorous voice for equality has a cost. You make enemies.

Indeed, McLaughlin has made bitter enemies: Last fall, she says, she was anonymously FedExed a box of feces. And her scientific career is now on the line. Her tenure process was frozen for 17 months starting in 2015 while VUMC investigated allegations that she had posted anonymous, derogatory tweets about colleagues. The probe was spurred by complaints from a professor whom she had testified against in a sexual harassment investigation. VUMC closed the probe without disciplining McLaughlin, but in 2017 a faculty committee, having previously approved her tenure, unanimously reversed itself, according to university documents. Absent a last-minute reprieve, she will lose her job on 28 February, when her National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant expires.

She had the support of her peers, which ought to be the final say in a tenure decision, but that was overruled by the administration, and I can guess what happened: an influential and moneyed person in the department got the ear of someone higher up, and poisoned the process. That’s not supposed to happen, but it does happen. Here’s the event that seems to have imperiled her career:

But the university halted her tenure process in December 2015, in the wake of allegations that arose during the investigation of a colleague. In early July 2014, former graduate student Erin Watt sued her former Ph.D. supervisor, neuroscientist Aurelio Galli, who was then at the Vanderbilt School of Medicine. Watt alleged in the lawsuit that Galli had sexually harassed and belittled her, leading her to quit the Ph.D. program.

In late July of that year, McLaughlin, her then-husband (a Vanderbilt neuroscientist at the time, who collaborated with Galli), and a visiting McLaughlin friend and collaborator, Dana Miller of the University of Washington in Seattle, were invited to dinner at Galli’s home. Miller and McLaughlin later recalled that while preparing dinner, Galli threatened to “destroy” Watt. Miller recalled him calling Watt “a crazy bitch” and vowing to “spend every last dime” to ruin her. The women say Galli showed them a handgun and noted that he had a permit to carry it. Miller, a lesbian, also told investigators that Galli made inappropriate comments about her sexuality.

Galli, now at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, declined to comment on the dinner party. But he told Science: “I have never done anything to any student or any faculty in terms of harassment or retaliation.” He provided an email that McLaughlin sent him the day after the party: “Dinner was fantastic. … Thank you,” she wrote with a smiley face.

In December 2014, a judge dismissed Watt’s lawsuit against Galli and he was immediately promoted. (Watt settled with Vanderbilt University, which she had also sued.) Miller says she was alarmed by Galli’s promotion, and in January 2015 reported the alleged events of the July 2014 dinner to a Vanderbilt administrator. McLaughlin testified in the ensuing investigation, backing up Miller’s account. In August 2015, investigators determined that the evidence they had obtained could not support a finding of harassment, according to a letter to Miller from Vanderbilt’s Equal Opportunity, Affirmative Action, and Disability Services Department (EAD).

Whoa. So much awful in that one story. A student, Erin Watt, abandons a career in science because her advisor was a jerk. Nothing happens to the jerk advisor except that he gets promoted, and uses his advancement to make a lateral move to another university. We have two eyewitness testimonials to horrible behavior by said jerk. The jerk then illogically tries to dismiss the accounts by waving around a thank-you note, as if it is impossible for an asshole to serve a good meal. And now various poisonous persons are using the fact that she reported the jerk’s ugly behavior to get her fired.

This does not speak well of the environment at Vanderbilt, which is a shame — I gave a job talk there decades ago and was impressed with the program, and it was high on my list of desirable positions.

I’ve also seen these tenure battles from a couple of perspectives now, and I can say that they’re always ugly and they never end well — even if you win, you lose. McLaughlin deserves to win, but she’s probably better off finding a new home, one that hasn’t been trampled over by the “harassholes”, where her talents will be appreciated. On the other hand, there is virtue in crushing your enemies. What a difficult situation!

No. A Portland professor is not being railroaded.

“No” is usually the right answer when an article is headlined with a question. Jesse Singal has authored an article in NY Magazine titled, Is a Portland Professor Being Railroaded by His University for Criticizing Social-Justice Research?, and think we can cut through all the garbage by simply saying “no.” Singal tries to present both sides, but one side is not at all convincing.

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a mini forum which showcased a variety of different views on the subject. “The entire force of their stunt lies in the fact that they managed to get several satirical papers published,” wrote the University of Washington biologist Carl T. Bergstrom. “But it makes no sense to judge the health of a field by looking at what an insincere author can get through peer review.” On the other side was Yascha Mounk, a Harvard lecturer in government, who condemned the circling of the academic wagons and what he viewed as unfair attempts to undermine the hoaxsters. “[E]ven if all of the charges laid at the feet of Lindsay, Pluckrose, and Boghossian were true, they would have demonstrated a very worrying fact,” he wrote. “Some of the leading journals in areas like gender studies have failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit.”

I think Bergstrom already answered Mounck’s objection. You can find bad papers getting published in every field, even, for instance, molecular biology. That there are swarms of worthless submissions and that a few of them leak through is inevitable and to be expected; we shouldn’t be blithe about it, of course, and we should act to tighten up procedures where ever the problem arises, but there was no serious, responsible call to action by the “grievance studies” experiment, other than to simply abolish all of gender studies.

I would point to one extreme example of bad science in molecular biology: the ENCODE project. Does the existence of that badly executed and interpreted project mean that all of molecular biology has “failed to distinguish between real scholarship and intellectually vacuous as well as morally troubling bullshit”? I don’t think so. And before you whine about the inclusion of morality as a criterion, I remind you that ENCODE cost $200 million dollars, and if you don’t think sucking away that much money lacks both scientific and moral consequences, well, I don’t think you’ve got much in the way of an intellectual contribution to make.

Here’s the money shot from Singal’s article, though, and why it’s safe to answer “no” to that question.

For the purposes of Peter Boghossian’s case, three facts about IRBs matter a great deal: “study” is defined rather broadly in the federal guidelines; possible risks to humans — even ones that non-IRB nerds may view as negligible — are taken very seriously; and IRBs tend to look especially closely at studies involving deception. For these and other reasons, each of the four IRB experts I spoke or emailed with agreed that yes, the grievance-studies hoax needed IRB approval; yes, it clearly involved human subjects; and no, PSU’s decision to investigate it on that front cannot be reasonably viewed, on its own, as politically motivated. In other words: This particular aspect of the university’s response smells more like a standard reaction to improperly vetted research than a witch hunt.

All the rest is noise; yes, people complain about the onerous paperwork of IRBs, and sometimes the committees tie up research, but only a fool would suggest that we get rid of them altogether.

One other point is that Boghossian is afraid he might get fired. He should be! Not because this one “study”, but because he’s already on somewhat shaky ground. Boghossian is a non-tenured, non-tenure track assistant professor! He has no path to promotion, and he’s probably on a year-by-year contract. This is not to say that it is a good thing how PSU manages their faculty: they have 9 tenured/tenure track philosophy faculty, an equal number of adjuncts, and 6 full time non-tenured instructors, of which Boghossian is one. He’s employed as long as his department finds him a useful contributor to their teaching needs, but if the negatives start to outweigh his utility, they could easily let him go at their next contract review. And this is academia…it’s not as if there aren’t heaps of philosophy Ph.D.s who’d love to get a full-time appointment in a lovely city like Portland.

I doubt that this fuck-up he’s made will get him fired, but it will put a black mark on his record, and administrators will remember it. I would suspect that he’s already signed a contract for next year — no one likes last minute, rushed job searches to fill an abruptly vacated position — so what will be interesting is what PSU does next year, after all the hubbub about this issue has died down, and it’s decided whether his appointment is renewed.

If I were him, I’d be shopping my CV around right now. Although he might be instead banking on notoriety to help him squeeze donations out of alt-right fanbois, since he’ll have his very own grievance to tout.

Boghossian in a panic!

He thinks he’s going to be fired from his position at Portland State. That’s not necessarily the case, but Boghossian has been found guilty of ethical misconduct for his “grievance studies” exercise.

Peter Boghossian, an assistant professor of philosophy at Portland State University and the only one of three researchers on the project to hold a full-time academic position, was found by his institutional review board to have committed research misconduct. Specifically, he failed to secure its approval before proceeding with research on human subjects — in this case, the journal editors and reviewers he was tricking with his absurd but seemingly well-researched papers.

Their defense is peculiar. James Lindsay literally says “It’s not actually scholarship”, Pluckrose says, “They can’t say we needed IRB approval…because there weren’t any real human subjects”, and that they couldn’t ask for IRB approval because that would tip off the (human) reviewers they were trying to trick. But that’s nonsense — of course you can do blind and double-blind studies on humans, IRBs approve those all the time. Here’s what they actually expected:

“An IRB protocol application should have been submitted to the Office of Research Integrity,” reads a determination letter from Portland state’s IRB dated last month. “University policy requires that all research involving human subjects conducted by faculty, other employees and students [on campus] must have prior review and approval by the IRB.”

Exactly. As an extra bonus, having an official declaration of exactly what they were trying to do and how they planned to analyze it ahead of time would have been more persuasive that they were actually doing a real study. But they weren’t, and they’ve even admitted it — if it’s not really scholarship, then what was it? I don’t know. Garbage? A publicity stunt? Propaganda?

It’s also the hypocrisy.

Over all, Christensen said he and Sears believe that Boghossian “wants to have it both ways.” That is, publicly presenting his project as a “rigorous study that exposed flaws in the peer-review system” while also “claiming that the hoax wasn’t a genuine study, and therefore IRB approval doesn’t apply.”

I don’t do research on humans, but even I know this kind of work demands IRB review (spider research doesn’t, at all), and I’m a bit shocked that they didn’t even discuss it with an IRB officer. I don’t even see any reason to expect that the application would be turned down, except possibly over its lack of rigor and poor foundation. By not going through the protocols — which even Boghossian admits are important and necessary — they did a disservice to research.

I agree with this assessment.

“We think that he did commit academic fraud, by design, and that some professional sanctions might be warranted,” Christensen continued. Boghossian and his colleagues “did misrepresent themselves, they did falsify their evidence and they did commit a serious infraction of research misconduct by deceiving these editors, wasting the time of the readers and then publicly slandering the journals and their fields. It is the right of any university to investigate fraud perpetrated by its employees.”

They also wasted the time of reviewers — you know that reviewing papers is unpaid service work for professors, right?

But guess who is defending Boghossian: Jordan Peterson and Steven Pinker. Of course.

At least we’ve got the authors on record now admitting that their “study” wasn’t a study, and wasn’t even any kind of scholarship at all.

Dysfunctional academics

The Avital Ronell story was ugly enough, but now more critics are emerging. This one is from a former colleague of Ronell’s who was displaced by her as head of the department, so there’s some obvious disgruntlement that might warrant dialing it down a few notches, but even so…the German department at NYU was a dysfunctional mess, largely because of Ronell’s ego.

Before I offered Avital Ronell her job, I’d had many in-depth conversations with her. She engaged my queries with what seemed like understanding. She said she’d throw herself into the building of an integrated study and research program. She promised actively to contribute to department research, conferences and publications. Once she had assumed the position, however, she broke all her promises. She did her best to sabotage the program. She pursued one goal: The work of Avital Ronell and Jacques Derrida must be at the center of all teaching and research. Instead of an academic program, we were left with boundless narcissism. Once she’d become the head of the German department, she had her secretary announce in a departmental meeting that in the German department no student’s written work would any longer be acceptable unless it cited Derrida and Ronell.

Whoa. No one would stand for that kind of nonsense in any department I’ve ever been part of — to dictate content in student work is simply not done. Somehow, I suspect that citing Ronell to criticize her work would not be acceptable.

From her second semester onward Professor Ronell reigned with an authoritarian hand, gloved in her well-proven hypocrisy. Instructors whom I had brought to the department either submitted to her regime or lost their jobs, always according to the letter of the law and in discussion with the dean, never in consultation with members of the German department. Once, she drafted a secret dissenting opinion against the unanimous decision of a commission and submitted it to the dean. The protest we as a department made to the dean against the dismissal of a junior professor fell on deaf ears. He would make no decision that ran counter to the will of the chairperson. The cynicism of Professor Ronell’s reasoning was hard to beat. The dismissal of this junior colleague was in this professor’s best interests, she explained, for she would not have felt comfortable in the department. In fact, Ronell wanted this colleague to leave because she was not prepared to be subservient. Someone else was found to fill in. Sure, the new hire had no experience, but at least she was ready to submit to Professor Ronell.

Now that I have seen — some deans see their role as one of imposing their vision of the discipline in the department. It never works. It only demoralizes the faculty.

The quality of teaching in the department unraveled. The carefully planned program of teaching German literature was ignored. Many students arrived in the department with minimal knowledge of German literature or history. The courses that were meant to correct this no longer existed. Now philosophy, from Hegel to Judith Butler, was taught. But multidisciplinarity quickly deteriorated into dilettantism. Students were encouraged to take philosophy seminars at other universities. Soon, students who had learned about deconstruction and feminism in Paris, but who had no idea who Gottfried Benn, Joseph Roth and Alfred Döblin were, were no exception in the department. As one student told me, “We study in a German department where French theory is taught in English.”

I am amazed even today that we succeeded in preventing the inclusion of a clause in the German department’s charter that would have exempted students from mastering the German language. It was Professor Ronell who, in all seriousness, made this suggestion. In fact, however, she admitted students who spoke English and French, but not a word of German — but they had studied in Paris and proven in their term papers that they were Derrida connoisseurs.

She tried to make knowledge of German optional in a German department? OK. That sounds a bit off. That’s like a biology department deciding students can graduate with no knowledge of biology, as long as they know some physics.

And then the article gets brutal.

Now, however, a few commentators will have us know that the case of Ronell is a fresh example of the oppression of a leftist feminist by conservative white men. This political polarization is crude, and its goal transparent: This is war, and ranks are closing around Ronell.

Leftist? Avital Ronell’s father figures are Martin Heidegger and, often quoted and paraphrased, Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan. Who could possibly describe them as left-leaning theorists? If Ronell has a political agenda, it is the liquidation of the legacy of 1968.

In the German newspapers Die Zeit and the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Ronell has been elevated to the “shining light” of feminist studies. I had to read this description twice before I could believe my eyes. Anyone trying to find a substantial contribution to feminist thought in her work will be searching for a long time. And “shining light”? If pure ignorance did not produce this phrase, then it is simply the reality-denying militancy of ideology. If “light” is supposed to refer to the Enlightenment, this is also a perversion of standards. Few other books in recent years have served the Counter-Enlightenment as well as Avital Ronell’s books. Her hypocrisy serves the commentators’ lack of insight. She likes to cast herself as diabolical and loves the color black — but only in the sanctuary of her inner circle. As soon as her audience grows beyond those confines, she performs a new role, namely, that of the fragile and vulnerable woman.

Everyone has an ideology. That she told everyone what her label was supposed to be doesn’t mean she fit it well, and we should not judge (or avoid judging) people because of the banner they fly. Leftists can be bad people, too.