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Why the Rochester Science Department Sexual Harassment Case Matters

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Earlier this month, a Mother Jones investigation revealed that faculty and former students at the University of Rochester filed a 111-page complaint with the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the University and brain and cognitive sciences professor T. Florian Jaeger, among others. The complaint listed several accusations of Jaeger’s sexual misconduct and harassment, including sending unsolicited pictures of his genitalia to students, trying to sleep with students at parties, and making students feel like they needed to please him sexually and socially to get ahead.

The complaint states that Jaeger created a “hostile environment” for at least 11 women. (Jaeger has not responded to Gizmodo’s request for comment.) Furthermore, rather than support those who came forward to complain about Jaeger’s behavior, the document alleges that the university botched the investigation and chose to retaliate against the complainants.

This is not an isolated case, but a systemic issue. In the last several years, questionable investigations into alleged discriminatory sexist behavior and sexual misconduct seem to have played out at the University of California, Berkeley, Texas Tech, The American Museum of Natural History, and elsewhere. With the issues plaguing the science field—its persistent gender imbalance and a pattern of gender and race-based harassment—these scandals became a big point of discussion in the scientific community. Due to the frequency of these incidents, there have been workshops on preventing sexual harassment at large scientific organizations like The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. Academics have written open letters, such as one to Yale condemning alleged sexual misconduct of a professor, and to the New York Times concerning the publication’s approach to sexual harassment allegations at UC Berkeley. But the problem hasn’t gone away, and it appears that this reprehensible pattern has been playing out in Rochester.

In the week that followed, the school’s president a released tone-deaf statement comparing the University’s reaction to a discredited Rolling Stone article based on a false allegation of rape, writing that “allegations are not facts, and as we saw in Rolling Stone’s withdrawn story about sexual assault at the University of Virginia, even established media outlets can get it wrong.” Students and professors took this to mean that the president was implying that the victims were lying about Jaeger. Students across the University have protested and attended town hall meetings, and the lawyer of one of the complainants won the right to sue the university for discrimination based on sex, violating Title IX of the United States Educational Amendment. The professors and students we spoke to simply want to attend a school that supports its students.

“I think this has unsettled our community,” Jessica Cantlon, University of Rochester brain and cognitive sciences professor and one of the complainants on the EEOC filing, told Gizmodo. “The faculty are upset and unsatisfied. I don’t think the response has solved any problems. It’s been too weak and slow, and many faculty find that unsettling.”

According to the Mother Jones report, cognitive science professor Celeste Kidd said that she was on the receiving end of Jaegers’ misconduct, receiving inappropriate texts from him as an undergrad before enrolling as a graduate student, and that her undergraduate advisor told her such behavior as Jaeger’s was “common and may not be avoidable.” Jaeger eventually convinced her to rent an apartment from him when she was accepted to graduate school, which she did. Then, according to Kidd, he “asked her to set up dates for him; entered her room without knocking; went through her belongings; showed up where she was socializing; and chastised her for eating, warning her against ‘spoiling her physique.’” She moved out after a year, but was afraid to report her experiences to the university. The EEOC complaint says that other women had were victims of Jaeger’s misconduct as well.

The EEOC filing alleges that University “senior officials decided to trawl through professors’ emails,” including Cantlon’s, that were “stored on the UR server, seeking information to undermine them,” and “secretly scan the email accounts of academics seeking ‘dirt’ to use against them in an internal dispute” in retaliation to the sexual harassment concerns. According to the complaint, these emails between professors about Jaeger and the University’s handling of the case were then given to the chair of the brain and cognitive science department Greg DeAngelis, who oversees Jaeger, who then brought them up at a faculty meeting as alleged “definite proof” of a scheme to “smear” Jaeger. In an email to the school’s Brain and Cognitive Science Primary Faculty litserv passed along to Gizmodo by an anonymous source, DeAngelis apologized for the way he handled those emails to those who thought his comments at the meeting harmed their reputations. Cantlon told Gizmodo that the meeting was a damaging public shaming.

While the case has attracted tons of attention, it didn’t surprise one reporter, Michael Balter, who has investigated several sexual harassment and misconduct cases at the American Museum of Natural History and Texas Tech. He discovered what he saw as patterns of superficial investigations protecting tenured professors and universities eager to sweep the cases of harassment in the sciences under the rug, commonalities dating back to Azeen Ghorayshi’s landmark story on astronomy professor Geoff Marcy at the University of California Berkeley. From his limited observations, “This is such a typical situation,” he told Gizmodo. “People finally find the courage to risk bringing forward allegations of sexual harassment. The university goes through a big show investigating it, exonerates the harassers, and has to be shown up for shoddy investigations.”

In the wake of the case, the atmosphere on the campus has remained tense. Well-respected brain and cognitive scientist Richard Aslin, a former University of Rochester professor, resigned last year in protest of the university’s handling of the case. One Department Chair who wished to remain anonymous mentioned that administrators have been unable to give concrete answers to student concerns in town halls as to how the university would reform its sexual conduct policy. These have inevitably led to public floggings of whichever administrators showed up. Undergraduate student Lindsay Wrobel took a several-day hunger strike that she ended once Jaeger was put on leave. None of the faculty members I spoke to for this story would use their Rochester email addresses, and some have said that they feared that they, too, would have their emails monitored by the university.

And professors, including Kidd, simply don’t know what to tell students.

“Since this began, people have come to me with problems similar to the ones I faced when I was first a graduate student,” Kidd told Gizmodo. “I don’t have a good thing to tell them right now about what they should do aside from document it.”

Students and faculty have banded together in order to fight the university with the hopes of changing how sexual harassment cases are handled on the campus. Thousands have signed a petition calling for the removal of Florian Jaeger and a reevaluation of the school’s sexual harassment policy. And hundreds of professors signed an open letter to students that they would “continue to push the University leadership to assess and improve these protections” against harassment. Professors in unrelated departments have canceled classes to allow their students to participate in protests. And, on September 11th, the lawyer representing those filing the EEOC complaint, Ann Olivarius, received the right to sue the University from the EEOC.

“That means, we have 90 days from when we got it to get into federal court,” Olivarius told Gizmodo. “We’ve never had a right to sue letter arrive this short a time after filing the complaint.”

And all the fighting seems to be having an effect. In an email forwarded to Gizmodo by an anonymous source, Jaeger tells his students that he will not be teaching his class this semester. He mentions that he will likely respond in more depth to allegations (which he does not outright deny), and writes that, “The investigation last year also 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.”

The University of Rochester’s communications team released a statement from their board of trustees in response to requests for comment, mentioning that Jaeger has been put on leave of absence.

Most recently, the University has called a Special Committee to further investigate Jaeger’s case and retained Mary Jo White, former Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, to lead the investigation. The EEOC complainants have already issued a response, contending that White has a previous personal relationship with Joel Seligman, President of the University of Rochester and SEC historian, and that the selection of the committee “includes insiders only and is not fairly described as ‘independent.’”

Kidd told Gizmodo she is still concerned that decisions moving forward regarding the University’s sexual assault policy will not include appropriate student and faculty input. There’s certainly a long road ahead, both in this case and in university sexual misconduct cases in general.

“Just because a university goes through the motions of investigating a sexual harassment case does not mean that they’ve gotten to the bottom of the matter,” said Balter.

Update: This post has been updated with information regarding the University of Rochester retaining Mary Jo White to lead the investigation.