College professor’s alleged harassment is exposing campus policy flaws

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Buildings_and_streets_at_the_University_of_Rochester
University of
Rochester

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Commons


Current and former employees of the University of Rochester are
charging the university with denying female students a safe
learning environment by dismissing repeated sexual harassment
allegations against a longtime professor, then retaliating
against employees who objected.

According to a complaint filed with the Equal Employment
Opportunity Commission on Aug. 30, T. Florian Jaeger, a professor
in the department of brain and cognitive sciences, has made a
habit of sleeping with graduate students, making inappropriate
remarks about women in front of their colleagues, and pressuring
underlings into compromising situations.

The complaint documents dozens of alleged instances of Jaeger’s
misconduct over the past decade. But at this point, the employees
who filed the EEOC complaint have exhausted UR’s options for
filing misconduct allegations—the university’s internal
investigation found that Jaeger did not violate any university
policies—and believe the process is riddled with conflicts of
interests that preclude a just conclusion. So the complainants
aren’t asking for his termination or censure. Instead, they’re
pushing for a complete overhaul of the system by which the
university arbitrates sexual harassment claims.

The University of Rochester’s policy on student-faculty
relationships is murky, as are many such policies; it’s a
notoriously difficult area to legislate. Though there
is much debate over the
propriety of professor­–grad student sex, most university
handbooks—including UR’s—include statements that submit
consensual relationships with any “power differential” to
stricter scrutiny than those between peers and explicitly forbid
sexual relationships between professors and the students they
directly teach or advise. The University of Maine’s handbook says
that “faculty and staff members are strongly advised not to
engage in relationships” with students. The University of Iowa
warns: “There are special risks in any sexual or romantic
relationship between individuals in inherently unequal positions
of power.” In UR’s case, the complainants claim that Jaeger was
able to exploit gaping loopholes in university policy to get away
with behavior that should have been unacceptable.

Richard Aslin, a complainant who held several leadership
positions in his 33 years at UR, resigned in June over the
university’s handling of the case. “I was dean for five years at
Rochester in the ’90s, and saw in my role as dean some of the
unprofessional behaviors of faculty members I had to adjudicate,
but this one is the worst I’ve seen,” Aslin said. “That’s why I’m
so dumbfounded that the university didn’t similarly judge this to
be an extreme case.”

One of the main EEOC complainants is Celeste Kidd, an assistant
professor in UR’s brain and cognitive sciences department. In the
days since Mother
Jones
 published Kidd’s
allegations
 and a summary of the EEOC
complaint, students and alumni have written angry reviews
on UR’s Facebook
page
 and
launched a
petition
 to get the university to terminate
Jaeger and re-evaluate its sexual harassment policies. On
Wednesday, students planned to stage a
sit-in
 in a classroom just before one of
Jaeger’s scheduled classes, then protest at UR President and CEO
Joel Seligman’s office. After the administration canceled
Wednesday’s class and Jaeger stepped down from teaching the
course altogether, the protest became a
rally
 on the campus quad, where students
called for a harsher university response and shared stories of
sexual harassment and assault unrelated to Jaeger’s case.

Kidd first met Jaeger in early 2007, when he interviewed the
then-undergraduate for a spot in the graduate program, and
immediately witnessed what she believes to be inappropriate
behavior. The EEOC complaint alleges that during that recruitment
process, Kidd watched Jaeger kissing and “groping” a fellow
graduate recruit at a conference; that she received Facebook
messages from him that said he’d like to listen to her read him a
manuscript while he’d “lie lazily on the couch” and she “paced
around occasionally in front of the fire”; and that she learned
from him that he attended naked hot tub parties with graduate
students.

Once she came to Rochester, Kidd claims in the complaint, Jaeger
insisted she rent a room from him because he didn’t like living
alone and couldn’t afford it. His behavior allegedly got worse.
Kidd says he made regular explicit comments to her, including
describing the taste of one of his graduate students’ vaginas and
making guesses about how Kidd’s ex-partner’s ethnicity
corresponded to his penis size. At conferences, Jaeger allegedly
had Kidd drive him to and from sexual trysts. When Kidd hosted a
prospective graduate student at the university, Jaeger allegedly
told Kidd he felt a “connection” with the student and asked Kidd
to arrange for the two of them to meet alone; when she refused,
Kidd says, he told her she had a “professional obligation” to go
along because his research aligned closely with that of the
recruit’s. Once, when Kidd was on a date, Jaeger allegedly showed
up uninvited and told the date that Kidd needed to have sex
because she was too “tightly wound.”Science_building_at_the_University_of_RochesterCarlson
Science Library at the University of Rochester
Wikimedia Commons

Kidd told me that she knew Jaeger’s behavior was harassment from
her first interview with him but that she didn’t want to be
labeled “a complainer” before she had proved her worth to the
department. One previous adviser told her that she’d encounter
sexual harassment no matter where she went, so Kidd made up her
mind to try to live with it.

When she became a professor, her attitude changed. “I knew how
much productivity I lost that first year of grad school. I didn’t
get as much done due to the mental anguish of trying to navigate
these impossible situations that I couldn’t figure out how to
escape on a daily basis,” she said. “As a mentor, you want to do
everything you can to help your students be able to focus on this
very difficult ask of learning these highly technical skills that
are required to be successful in science. I couldn’t stand the
idea of not trying to do something to protect them.”

Jaeger did not respond
to Slate’s emails and
calls requesting comment, but this week, he
sent an
email
 to students in the class that was
canceled. “I am incredibly sorry for the emotional turmoil you
must be experiencing, following the allegations raised against me
in the EEOC complaint as well as news coverage,” he wrote.
“Allegations of sexual discrimination, harassment, or misconduct
are shocking, in particular given the long horrible history of
violence and harassment against women. It is important that they
are pursued rigorously.” Jaeger wrote that he is “glad that there
is now generally so much support for people who speak up against
discrimination,” even though many of the online comments “are
personally painful for me to read (as most of these comments do
not grant me ‘presumption of innocence’, to put it mildly).” In
the email, he claimed that he’s been hearing from former students
“expressing how positively they experienced the atmosphere in the
lab (about half of those emails came from female lab members)”
and promises that the 2016 investigation “presented an
opportunity for me to educate myself further about how women are
affected in academia, to reflect on how I acted in the past, and
how I want to act in the future.”


Academic_building_around_quad_at_the_University_of_Rochester
Bausch
& Lomb Hall the University of Rochester

Wikimedia Commons

In the complaint, other former graduate students and junior
faculty members recount a number of disturbing acts that they say
Jaeger committed as a member of the department’s senior faculty.
They claim he once asked a group of graduate students and
postdocs how to use a cock ring, invited some students (and not
others) to drug-fueled “retreats” in the Adirondacks, had loud
sex with a graduate student from another university in a house he
insisted on sharing with UR graduate students at a summer
institute, made lewd remarks about female students’ bodies in
front of other faculty members, and demanded female students take
meetings with him in his home instead of his office or a public
place even after they expressed their discomfort.

The complaint claims that Jaeger sent one former graduate student
with whom he’d had a relationship unwanted photos of his penis
after they had broken up. Several female students reported to
faculty members that they shaped their educational experiences
around Jaeger due to his pattern of behavior, avoiding lectures,
conferences, and department gatherings where they knew he’d be
present.

The first formal report against Jaeger came in 2013, when a
then–graduate student named Keturah Bixby—one of the EEOC
complainants—gave the department chairman, Greg DeAngelis, the
names and contact information of several female students who had
allegedly witnessed Jaeger’s inappropriate behavior. Three months
later, after speaking with just two of the students, DeAngelis
allegedly told Bixby that although Jaeger’s alleged behavior was
“undesirable,” it didn’t violate any university policies.
Previously, when Kidd had questioned Jaeger about the propriety
of his sexual encounters with graduate students, he allegedly
told her that senior members of the faculty and administration
knew about and approved of his relationships. After Bixby’s
report was dismissed, the complaint says, it seemed Jaeger had
DeAngelis’ explicit blessing. (DeAngelis also did not respond to
a request for comment.)


Within_Wilson_Commons_at_the_University_of_Rochester
A common area at the
University of Rochester.

Wikimedia
Commons


But other senior faculty members weren’t made aware of the
allegations against Jaeger until much later. Early in 2016,
Aslin, then the director of graduate studies in the brain and
cognitive sciences department, was part of a faculty discussion
about possibly hiring someone who’d had a relationship with a
student or former student. One of his colleagues told him she’d
be wary about hiring such a candidate because he might end up
behaving like Jaeger. Aslin didn’t know what she was talking
about. “I was appalled, frankly, that that kind of behavior had
been going on for a number of years and no one had come forward
to explicitly complain about it to senior faculty in the
department,” Aslin said, noting that part of the reason the
students kept quiet was Jaeger’s alleged claim that the
department leadership already knew.

Aslin filed a formal complaint with the university soon after he
heard the allegations against Jaeger. According to Aslin and the
other EEOC complainants, the resulting investigation, which found
no evidence that Jaeger had violated university policies, was
unsatisfactory. It didn’t mention the fact that Jaeger had slept
with an undergraduate who had worked with him for two years. The
EEOC complaint claims the investigator “responded dismissively”
to requests for her to interview the student, saying that since
she had recently graduated when the relationship began, it didn’t
count. (According to the complaint, Jaeger and the former
undergraduate were still doing research together, and he was
still providing her with references during their sexual
relationship.)

When asked whether or not professors at UR are allowed to sleep
with their graduate students, UR spokeswoman Sara Miller pointed
me toward a segment in the faculty handbook on “intimate
relationships.” The policy forbids faculty members from accepting
any position of authority over students with whom they have a
romantic history or current romantic relationship. It also
prohibits faculty members from sleeping with undergraduates or
anyone at the university over whom they hold “academic
authority,” a term that includes “teaching, mentoring,
supervising, and making professional recommendations,” according
to the handbook.

In this case, the university’s investigation decided that the
professor-student relationship was not inappropriate because it
was consensual. Only two of Jaeger’s alleged sexual encounters
with students made it into the report: One was a romantic
relationship with the graduate student, identified in the
complaint as “Molly Marshall,” who said he sent her unwanted
sexts after their breakup. The other was a sexual relationship
with the UR recruit Kidd allegedly saw him grope, who eventually
matriculated at UR.

The investigator decided the sexual relationship with the recruit
didn’t count because Jaeger had not officially started his job at
UR when she applied. But the complaint claims that the
investigator omitted important information that Marshall offered
up, including her allegation that she felt pressure to continue
her relationship with Jaeger because she didn’t want to get on
the bad side of someone with formidable power over the social
scene in the department.

“The core allegations in this complaint were thoroughly
investigated and could not be substantiated,” Miller said in a
statement. “Dozens of individuals were interviewed in two
separate investigations—one by an internal investigator and one
conducted by an external investigator. We have confidence in the
integrity of these investigations, neither of which found any
violation of the law or of University policy.”

It’s very possible that Jaeger could have had a sexual
relationship with a graduate student or postdoc and stayed on the
good side of UR rules, if he completely detached himself from her
academic endeavors. (Indeed, the complaint alleges that the
investigator was preoccupied with this point, asking Marshall
leading questions such as “He wasn’t your dissertation adviser?”
and “He had no direct effect on your education?”) That doesn’t
appear to be the case with Marshall, who claimed in the complaint
that at least one professor had told her to seek academic help
from Jaeger.

In any case, the university’s harassment
policy
 is clear, even if its policy for
handling it isn’t: When members of a protected class (e.g.,
women) are subjected to pervasive, unwelcome sexual advances “or
other verbal or physical acts/conduct of a sexual or sex-based
nature” that interferes with their work or creates an
“intimidating, hostile, or offensive” environment, that’s sexual
harassment. The allegations outlined in the EEOC complaint, if
true, surely constitute a pervasive pattern of sexual conduct,
and multiple students—including the one with whom Jaeger had a
consensual relationship—said the conduct caused them to alter
their academic or professional lives to avoid Jaeger.


university of rochester
Wikimedia
Commons


The university and the complainants seem to clash on two major
points. The first is whether Jaeger should be disciplined for the
two relationships the investigation addressed, both of which
slipped through on technicalities. The second, larger
disagreement is over the veracity of the allegations themselves.
In the EEOC complaint, the complainants claim that the
investigator dismissed Kidd’s testimony as “not credible” and
opted not to interview several students who’d said they’d lost
educational opportunities due to Jaeger’s alleged behavior. This
past Sunday, Seligman sent a lengthy email to all students and
employees, asking them to “consider these allegations for what
they are: assertions that remain unproven despite two thorough
investigations.” He also compared Jaeger’s case to a notorious
fabrication of a brutal assault: “Allegations are not facts, and
as we saw in Rolling
Stone
’s withdrawn story about sexual assault at
the University of Virginia, even established media outlets can
get it wrong.”

Kidd says Jaeger’s alleged pattern of behavior is unacceptable,
even if the individual actions in the investigation didn’t
violate the letter of campus law. “It’s very, very obvious how
motivated your students are to please you and not piss you off.
It was immediately obvious to me the first time I interacted with
my first graduate student how careful I needed to be, as a
responsible mentor, to not abuse that,” she said. “You might
imagine, theoretically, that somebody could be abusing their
power without knowing it. When I became a professor, that became
implausible to me.”

Several UR faculty members allege in the EEOC complaint that
university leadership retaliated against them when they appealed
the investigation’s verdict and continued to press for
accountability. Two deans sent an email to the entire department
scolding the unnamed complainants as “regrettable and
unprofessional” purveyors of “gossip” that had “fractured the
department.” The provost sent an email accusing them of spreading
a “wealth of rumors and in some instances misinformation.”

If the allegations in the EEOC complaint are true, this case is a
good example of how university processes for adjudicating
harassment claims often fall short of basic standards of
impartiality. Aslin’s primary concern with UR’s existing process
is the Office of Counsel, which is responsible for arbitrating
claims brought against faculty members in addition to protecting
the university from legal challenges. This is a conflict of
interest, Aslin says, akin to a resident reporting a neighbor to
a police officer who has to both investigate the complaint and
represent the neighbor in court.

Without effective systems for unbiased investigation, schools
have an incentive to protect any professor from allegations of
repeated misconduct, because acknowledging the validity of one
complaint against one professor could open the university up to
lawsuits from every other possible victim. That tension is now
the primary focus of the UR faculty members’ complaint, Aslin
says, and the reason why he and others are still moving forward
with it when they no longer work at the school.

“I don’t think it’s my job to decide what the punishment is for
professor Jaeger. I think it’s the institution’s responsibility
to do that,” Aslin said. “Our primary focus is using him as an
example of the system going awry, and needing to clean up the
system so it doesn’t happen in the future, ever again.”



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