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  • Writer's pictureZack Kulm

The Late Jacques Derrida Openly Defended Professor Accused of Sexual Harassment

Since 2017 a resurgence of social justice has spread across the nation condemning sexual harassment and violence towards women. Men in power who have abused their standing with lewd or sexual misconduct are finally answering for their actions. Men of power, like Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, and Charlie Rose, have carpeted the news, where they have consequently lost their high profile status while having their legacies understandably obliterated in the process.

This is a deep-seated issue ingrained in American society that is just now being given the focus it deserves. We must question those prominent figures in our cultural past who have condoned such violence towards women — especially those in positions of power.

In an incident back in 2004, famed French philosopher and major figure of postmodern philosophy, Jacques Derrida, known for developing a form of semiotic analysis, coined ‘deconstruction’, came out in support of a colleague accused of sexual harassment.

University of California, Irvine professor, Dragan Kujundzic, a Russian studies professor who taught at the college was accused of sexual harassment by one of his female grad students. This story was originally covered by the Los Angeles Times in April of 2007.

In a letter to the UCI Chancellor, Ralph Cicerone, Derrida writes:

“When there has been neither any coercion or violence brought to bear on her, nor any attack (moreover very improbable!) on the presumed “innocence” of a 27- or 28-year-old woman, where does she find the grounds, how can she claim to have the right to initiate such a serious procedure and to put in motion such a weighty juridico-academic bureaucracy against a respectable and universally respected professor?”

Previously in the letter, Derrida is quick to note his friendship to Kujundzic, and downplay Kujundzic’s sexual encounters with the grad student. Derrida articulates his personal relationship with the Russian Studies professor, but quickly shows his hand by detailing a professional alliance where Kujundzic organized an exhibition at the library on Derrida’s archives.

Derrida goes on to threaten UCI, as he writes:

“Permit me to tell you as well: things are so serious that I advised my friend not only to defend his just cause, with the help of an attorney and his colleagues, but also to initiate as quickly as possible a legal procedure against the persons and the institution that have undertaken, in such an unjust, ill-considered, gratuitous, and precipitous manner, to tarnish so gravely his personal and professional reputation.”

Derrida, who had previously pledged to donate his archives to UCI, where he was a part time professor, used those same archives as leverage, threatening to terminate the agreement unless school officials halted their investigation into Kujundzic, who has since accepted a job at the University of Florida.

Derrida also writes:

“Another consequence: since I never take back what I have given, my papers would of course remain the property of UCI and the Special Collections department of the library. However, it goes without saying that the spirit in which I contributed to the constitution of these archives (which is still underway and growing every year) would have been seriously damaged. Without renouncing my commitments, I would regret having made them and would reduce their fulfillment to the barest minimum. I could no longer promise the work, devotion, and good will that I believe I have always demonstrated, wholeheartedly and enthusiastically, toward the operation of these archives meant for researchers who, from Irvine and from elsewhere, are already working there and could be working there more and more in the future — but always, as stipulated in the gift contract, with my authorization and after I have approved their request. This authorization would become increasingly selective and infrequent.”

Kujundzic violated university policy when he engaged in sexual encounters with his student — the same policy that is designed to prevent sexual harassment. The surviving grad student sued for $100,000, which Kujundzic payed $20,000 of the settlement out of his own pocket.

At the time, Kujundzic claimed the sexual encounters, of which there were four, were consensual; however, the fact that they were consensual is irrelevant. This is evident in itself with the sheer fact that Kujundzic and the university settled with the student. But it is also important to note that there is no such thing as consensual sexual relations in a relationship where one participant has significant power over the future of the other. To put it bluntly, this was a coercive encounter.

To UCI’s credit, Kujundzic was demoted, dismissed from the campus for two quarters, and ordered to enroll in sexual harassment counseling. Thus, his move to the University of Florida does seem opportune.

When Cicerone responded to Derrida with a letter of neutrality, Derrida wrote the Dean of Humanities, Karen Lawrence:

“On the other hand, I confirm with as much clarity as the first time that if the decision taken with regard to Dragan does not seem to me to conform to what I believe to be my professional ethic and that of a university worthy of the name, I will not participate in any conference devoted to me, at any date whatsoever, at the University of California, Irvine.”

We must realize, those in support of such repugnant behavior, too, must answer for their discretion. Derrida made it clear where he stands, and that is on the side of sexual assault. The people who support sexual misconduct also assist in perpetuating an atmosphere of indecency and fear towards survivors in all its forms.

Late night show host, Chelsea Handler said on Real Time with Bill Maher, “Every victim deserves to be heard. You know, anyone who’s alleging any sort of assault or abuse needs to be listened to.”

Derrida’s defense of Kujundzic is inexcusable because the professor knew of the consequences. It is important to question the ethical implications of a major figure in literary theory, who openly used his work as capital in order to subvert a university policy designed to prevent sexual harassment. The facts of the case not only cast a dark shadow on the philosopher’s name, but the awakening of these recent revelations could also pose troubling consequences for the legacy of Jacques Derrida.

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