Derrida Papers Controversy Turns Out To Have Sexual Harassment Component

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A little over a month ago the Chron reported that the University of California at Irvine was suing the family of Jacques Derrida over the philosopher’s papers. Two weeks later the LA Times reported that U.C. Irvine was dropping its suit. Want to know where the feminist legal issue is? On February 25th the LA Times reported:

When a vampire expert allegedly seduced a tipsy UC Irvine student four years ago, he inadvertently set off a chain of events that now jeopardizes the school’s control of a dead philosopher’s prized archives.

The story came to light after UCI announced last week that it would drop a lawsuit against the widow and sons of philosopher Jacques Derrida, the acclaimed founder of deconstruction, an influential but bewildering theory that questions the concept of absolute truth.

In 1990, Derrida signed an agreement to donate his scholarly papers to UCI, where he taught part time. But after his death in 2004, Derrida’s heirs began questioning the pact. The university tried to negotiate, then sued three months ago, a maneuver that outraged professors in California and beyond.

Buried in the news that UCI would resume negotiations with Derrida’s family was a mysterious footnote: The feud over his archives was sparked by a letter Derrida sent to UCI shortly before his death.

In it, the pipe-puffing Frenchman threatened to pull the plug on the archives because he was furious about “some things the university was doing,” said Peggy Kamuf, a USC professor and Derrida friend.

Kamuf wouldn’t elaborate, but details have slowly emerged. According to multiple sources, Derrida wanted UCI to halt its investigation of a Russian studies professor, Dragan Kujundzic, who was accused of sexually harassing a 25-year-old female doctoral student. So he tried to use his archives as leverage to derail the case, they said.

UCI officials declined to comment on Derrida’s letter or Kujundzic last week. But court records from a lawsuit filed by the doctoral student might fill in some of the gaps.

The 2004 sexual harassment lawsuit contends that Kujundzic, who taught a popular class on vampires and signed his e-mails with a colon to symbolize Dracula bite marks, used his position as the student’s advisor to manipulate her into a series of sexual encounters. …

… The student said she felt coerced to engage in sex or risk having her academic career ruined. UCI’s probe of the affair sided with neither party. Investigator Gwen Thompson concluded the relationship was consensual but said Kujundzic violated a university policy that barred professors from dating students they supervised.

Kujundzic argued that he wasn’t the student’s advisor, an assertion UCI rejected. In mid-2004, university officials began weighing penalties for the Serbian-born professor.

Derrida, who at the time was dying from pancreatic cancer, tried to intervene.

“Toward the end of his life, he enjoyed the same status as Aristotle among the ancients, and every perception of injustice was routed to his desk,” said Avital Ronell, a Derrida protege who teaches at New York University. “Even as he was crawling with fatigue, he put himself in the service of those seeking his help and needing the strength of his prestigious signature.”

UCI was apparently unmoved. On Aug. 31, school officials demoted Kujundzic, reduced his salary, banned him from campus without pay for two quarters and ordered him into sexual-harassment counseling, according to court records.

Kujundzic and the University of California were later sued in Orange County Superior Court by the student, a case that was settled out of court this month for an undisclosed amount.

Derrida’s archives, caught in the crossfire, remain in limbo. Last fall, after negotiations broke off between UCI and Derrida’s heirs, the school sued his family, which lives in France. …

There is a lot going on here, but I guess I should leave readers to [wait for it] deconstruct the matter for themselves. Or, you can see what KC Sheehan has to say about it. See also. Incidentally, if you are wondering what happened to Kudjundzic, he is apparently now on the faculty at the University of Florida.

–Ann Bartow

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0 Responses to Derrida Papers Controversy Turns Out To Have Sexual Harassment Component

  1. Pingback: The Debate Link

  2. Eric says:

    I’m sort of intrigued by the vampire angle.

  3. Antenna Clasis says:

    To The Debate Link, there may be a joke in the article, but to those most affected by this case, there is not much to joke about.

    I think a passage from the above that needs highlighting is this: “Investigator Gwen Thompson concluded the relationship was consensual but said Kujundzic violated a university policy that barred professors from dating students they supervised.”

    I would be interested to know what readers think of this kind of policy and whether it succeeds in recognizing the impossibility of disentangling consent from the kind of power relations that inscribe themselves into such supervisorial relations.

  4. Ann Bartow says:

    I think the vampire angle may be distracting us from the sexual harassment issue, unfortunately.

  5. Podshaia says:

    Attendant circumstances dictate the syntax of any expression of consent. Conjectural exchanges of willful offers and acceptance depend on the relationship between the individuals. Power differentials direct, shape and limit exercises of volition. That is their nature, and that is why they must be subject to careful scrutiny and ample guard. Other factors may also effect substantive changes on one party’s ability to consent to sexual advances. The article claims – in a tone that bespeaks humorous stylistic delight at misfortune – that the victim was”tipsy.” But what exactly does that mean? Were her cheeks merely flushed after a couple of sips or was her balance literally tipsy? Consider this:”The student said she felt coerced to engage in sex or risk having her academic career ruined.” Now this: Kujundzic was her academic advisor, approximately 20 years her senior, and he approached her at her new student reception. And this:”The woman said she fended off the married professor’s entreaties to have intercourse but performed oral sex on him that night and again the following evening.” Now this: Derrida”tried to use his archives as leverage to derail the case”by writing a letter opposing her charges.

    I strongly believe that we absolutely must interpret what happened within the totality of the circumstances. Even if individual aspects of the incident do not constitute full incapacitation, there are situations that render consent a distorted mythology. The victim had a tremendous amount at stake, and her interests would have been compromised no matter what she did. I think the fact that she refused his requests for vaginal penetration speaks volumes. I also think it important to note that Kujundzic, already occupying a supervisory position in her life, was able to pull a powerful ace – or at least what appeared to be such in the Aristotelian circle where she herself was located – out of his sleeve to strike back. Even if he did convince himself he gave her the opportunity to make her own choices – which I do not think he did – policies were in place and he knew what he was doing was wrong. He was punished, but not severely. He left Irvine of his own accord, and he is still teaching. But where is she? Could she have stayed at a school that put words of consent in her mouth that she did not feel were hers? A place where she believed she would see him again and again? A place where letters had been written (and announced in public) claiming that her body and, indeed, her career were worth nothing compared to pieces of paper?

    Sexual harassment investigations and lawsuits compound the already crushing injuries of violation. One result was publication of a humiliating article writing the victim off as a tipsy student seduced by Vampire wine and opera, a woman of pathetic folly who tried to cry wolf. Details from her perspective are scant, and I can tell you that there are many that would garner her more public support or at least lessen her vilification. I can also tell you that, yes, her career was ruined, that she can see the cracks in his ceiling every time she lies in bed at night, and that she tries not to close her eyes for fear of terrible dreams. At least the archives are worth $500K?

    If you would like to see Kujundzic’s idea of consent:

    http://www.gainesville.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20051031/LOCAL/51031018/1078/news

  6. bob coley jr says:

    one would think “any verbal contract” must meet the legal requirements for such! Is a “verbal contract” valid if the people were “tipsy” at the time? What is the value of the “contract” and does this value fall outside any legal bounds? Ofcourse , in my (and others) opinion it falls way beyond! If the value can be legaly argued to exceed the legal limits for a “verbal contract”, there may be recourse. I do not mean to lower the evilness of this by adding economics, I am just looking for ways to help. If the value of the archives is 500K WITHOUT a conviiction, what, if any, is the change in their value if there is one?

  7. Podshaia says:

    I think UCI’s suit for $500K offers a chilling allegory. Fiscal terms not in plain view when the incident occurred, but that certainly doesn’t mean they weren’t between the lines. In this respect, I think, Kujundzic provided an excellent example of the almost automatic response to sexual harassment allegations from people positions of power. Derrida was a man, at least in that circle, of almost unfathomable influence. His power consisted of a larger-than-life name that bore with it the clout of an ideational reputation that was an asset in more ways than one. In this sense you could almost say the victim and Derrida both suffered objectification, although her losses were disproportionate – no, something more than disproportionate. Regardless, this was an instance of quid pro quo sexual harassment, and both the quid and pro were contractual elements – although not simply verbally expressed -subjected to forcible conversion in the end.

    On that note, one thing that did not come up in the article was the fact that Kujundzic set up his first move by continually telling the victim that he was the only reason she was admitted to UCI and that he was responsible for her fellowship. One reason this frightened the victim was that she was recovering from a serious illness. She had been given a fatal prognosis, but had had surgery six months prior to the assault with unexpectedly positive results. Needless to say, she came to UCI with high hopes, but also with significant fears and insecurities; hearing someone say she hadn’t earned her position there was devastating. Kujundzic claims that he did not know the victim was taking medication for her condition that increased the effects of intoxicants. The victim contends that he knew because she asked for a glass of water and took the pills in front of him. She also alleges that she told him her tolerance was not what it used to be. Whether or not you find the victim’s statements to be credible, it is uncontested that Kujundzic knew she had had the surgery (they were, in fact, discussing it the moment he grabbed her the first time), and it is hard to imagine that a reasonable person would not have understood the heightened risk of incapacitation and the victim’s overall vulnerability to coercion. The amount of wine is contested. Kujundzic claimed that they each drank only two glasses. According to the victim, they finished three bottles between the two of them, an amount, I would think, that would have put the majority of people at risk. The victim also testified that, throughout the evening, Kujundzic chastened her for drinking”too slowly.” To overcome the obstacle, he repeatedly proposed toasts (to things like Derrida’s archives) and reminded her how disrespectful Russians consider failure to join in a salute. The article also does not discuss the attempts the victim made to escape the harassment while it was still going on (such as an anonymous report), the nature and extent of Kujundzic’s coercion, and the severity of the emotional damage she experienced. Also, it might be worth noting that she left the new student reception because he told her they were going to a restaurant for an advisor-advisee conference; he stopped to show her the pictures while she thought they were en route.

    This information is available in court records.

  8. Ann Bartow says:

    I have not seen these court records, so I have no idea about the accuracy of the assertions made in the above comment. I allowed it through moderation because it purports to tell a story different than that reported by the press, but need to note that it was posted anonymously and without documentation. If the court records become available online I will update this post with links, etc.

  9. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » Derrida Papers Controvery Update: The U of Florida “Knew Nothing” About Sexual Harassment Sanctions

  10. Antenna Clasis says:

    http://www.latimes.com/news/printedition/california/la-me-derrida11apr11,1,6384927.story?coll=la-headlines-pe-california

    An update on the case. It turns out that, despite assurances to the UC Irvine faculty, the archives suit against Mme Derrida is still going forward. There also details on the settlement more on topic for this blog.

  11. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » Derrida Papers Sexual Harassment Controversy Update

  12. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » Derrida Papers Sexual Harassment Controvery Posts Draw Comments

  13. Pingback: Feminist Law Professors » Blog Archive » Another Update on the Derrida Papers/Kujundzic Sexual Harassment Controversy