Joel Seligman, president of the University of Rochester in New York, resigned on 11 January. On the same day, an independent investigation largely vindicated the university’s handling of sexual-harassment allegations against a star professor, cognitive scientist Florian Jaeger.
The probe — led by Mary Jo White, a former US Attorney for southern New York — supports two earlier university inquiries that both found that Jaeger had not violated any university policies.
Nine men and women — all current or former faculty members or graduate students in Rochester’s department of brain and cognitive sciences — have filed a federal lawsuit alleging that Jaeger’s behaviour created a hostile environment for women. Some of the claimants also say that the university retaliated against them for reporting him.
“We believe the university was correct in concluding that his conduct did not violate University of Rochester policy,” White said at a press conference following the report’s release. “We also find the university did not retaliate.”
The researchers who are suing the university challenged White’s findings. “It is not acceptable to say people have behaved offensively and inappropriately toward our students and yet no one has done anything wrong,” said Elissa Newport, a cognitive psychologist formerly at the University of Rochester who is now at Georgetown University in Washington DC. She is a plaintiff in the case against the University of Rochester.
The institution’s handling of the case has prompted widespread criticism, including an 8 January letter from the faculty senate’s executive committee saying that Seligman had taken “little action” to reassure victims and protect people who filed complaints against possible retaliation. Nature has asked Seligman for comment on these allegations.
“It is clear to me that the best interests of the University are best served with new leadership,” Seligman wrote in a campus-wide e-mail. He said he had resigned before receiving White’s report.
The findings “confirm for the third time that I did not sexually harass any students, I did not retaliate against anyone, and I did not violate the policies of the University", Jaeger said on 12 January in a statement released by his lawyer. "I deeply regret that my former behavior made some students uncomfortable and may have discouraged them from working with me.”
What the report found
In September, after the allegations against Jaeger became public, the university’s board of trustees set up a commission headed by White to investigate the claims, and the university’s response to them.
White and her colleagues did not speak with any of the nine plaintiffs, who said that they could not cooperate with someone hired by the university while they have a lawsuit under way against it. Her team did interview Jaeger, as well as 14 graduate students and 7 postdoctoral fellows who worked in his lab at points between 2007 and the present.
The report says that Jaeger engaged in inappropriate conduct stretching back to 2007, soon after he joined the department. The allegations against him include engaging in consensual relationships with students and making comments with inappropriate sexual content in academic settings. “Some former female graduate students have had to endure behaviours and inappropriate remarks they should not have had to endure,” White said.
But she said that most of this occurred before 2014, when the University of Rochester changed its policies regarding intimate relationships between students and faculty. At the time that Jaeger allegedly had relationships with graduate students in the department, and at least one undergraduate, such relationships were not against university policy, White said.
“This investigation has brought no justice for me or any of the other women who made complaints,” said Keturah Bixby, who first reported Jaeger’s behaviour in 2013, when she was a graduate student in the department. She is a plaintiff in the case against the university.
White’s report says the university and its officials committed a series of “missteps” in trying to deal with the complaints against Jaeger. These include promoting Jaeger to full professor while investigations into his behaviour were ongoing, and sharing some of the plaintiffs’ e-mails with the chair of the brain and cognitive sciences department. “We are sympathetic to the challenge [the university] faced in navigating a difficult personnel matter that spawned highly contentious internecine disagreements and, ultimately, a campus, alumni and public relations crisis,” the report says.
White’s report criticizes the group that filed complaints about Jaeger. It says that several of the witnesses whom her team interviewed say their accounts “have been embellished and ‘distorted’ into something they were not in order to sensationalize Jaeger’s objectionable conduct and to support the assertion of a pervasively hostile environment for women students”.
The plaintiffs’ attorney, Ann Olivarius of the law firm McAllister Olivarius in Maidenhead, UK, says that White did not have all the information needed to assess the situation properly. Moreover, the plaintiffs allege that White violated the confidentiality of several witnesses in the Jaeger case, by revealing their names in supplementary materials that were briefly available after White's report was published on 11 January. The files have since been updated, and the public-relations company representing White’s firm declined to comment on the matter.
White recommends a number of steps for the university to take going forward. These include developing written tools to provide to any person who files a sexual harassment claim against a faculty member; amending the campus policy on intimate relationships to lay out examples of inappropriate relationships and possible disciplinary actions for violations; and considering establishing an office independent of the university to handle claims of sexual harassment or sexual misconduct against faculty members.
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