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University of Rochester president resigns as outside attorney issues report on sexual harassment case

A report issued today addresses the sexual harassment allegations roiling the University of Rochester in New York.

Michael Doolittle/Alamy Stock Photo

Shortly before it became public today that the president of the University of Rochester (U of R) in New York will resign next month, an outside investigator hired by the school to examine its handling of sexual harassment allegations against linguistic researcher T. Florian Jaeger announced her conclusion that Jaeger did not violate university policies or sexually harass students and that accounts by his accusers are “exaggerated and misleading in many respects.”

“We … do not believe that any potential claimant or plaintiff would be able to sustain a legal claim for sexual harassment in violation of [federal law],” read the report by investigators, led by Mary Jo White, a partner at the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton in New York City who is a former U.S. attorney and former chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission. “Despite being labeled as a ‘sexual predator’ by his accusers, there have never been allegations of sexual assault, unwanted groping, any use of force, or exhibitionism outside of consensual relationships, and we have found no evidence of such behavior ever occurring,” the report continues.

In a statement, Jaeger apologized to his students and colleagues for the “distress and disruption” that his behavior and the resulting investigations caused, adding: “This report does not exonerate me, but neither does it give merit to many of the worst accusations made against me. … It would have been vastly easier for the University to find against me, quelling the controversy this issue has caused, than it has been for it to repeatedly test the validity of these allegations. I appreciate their commitment to seeking out the truth.”

Yet many of the complainants and their lawyer, Ann Olivarius, a senior partner at the law firm McAllister Olivarius in Maidenhead, U.K., challenged the new report vigorously at a late-afternoon press conference in Rochester. They noted, among other things, that the report repeatedly describes Jaeger’s actions as “inappropriate” and “offensive” and that it conceded that because of this, some women “actively avoided pursuing academic opportunities with Jaeger.”

“Given the significant length of the [207-page] report, the board and university administrators will take additional time to carefully consider its findings and recommendations before determining what specific actions the University will take,” the university said in a statement. Earlier in the day, before he learned the contents of the new report, according to U of R, President Joel Seligman announced to the school’s Board of Trustees that he will resign effective 28 February, after steering the institution for more than 12 years.

The trustees issued their own statement today, writing: “We Trustees express our heartfelt apology to anyone who was hurt by the actions of any university employee, or who felt intimidated, excluded, or harassed.”

White was hired by a special committee constituted in September 2017 by the university’s Board of Trustees to investigate the original complaints made to the university in 2013 and 2016 and with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) in August 2017 against Jaeger, how the university investigated them, and whether complainants experienced retribution from university officials.

In December 2017, eight current or former professors and a former graduate student in the university’s widely respected Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS), where Jaeger is a tenured professor, sued the university, Seligman, and Provost Robert Clark alleging retaliation, defamation, and (in two cases) breach of contract after they criticized the university’s investigations of Jaeger in 2013 and 2016.

“Zero tolerance should go hand in hand with two other things: due process and proportionality,” White said at a press conference this afternoon, after the report was made public.

White and her team’s report also found no evidence that the university retaliated against the complainants. “Many of the statements and actions taken by the university were in our view not taken to retaliate … but rather as [a] good faith effort to lessen the divisiveness within BCS,” White said. “We think that the university acted in good faith … and that the steps it took to navigate an unusually difficult situation were reasonable.”

White stressed that her report evaluated sexual harassment through a legal lens. The fact that she did not find it occurred in Jaeger’s case “is a legal conclusion, not a moral or social judgment,” she said.

White’s team interviewed more than 140 witnesses; reviewed more than 6000 documents, including emails; and analyzed the university’s policies, procedures, and processes dealing with intimate relationships and sexual harassment against 18 peer institutions. Interviewees included 64 past and present students and postdocs at the university. But the complainants declined to cooperate with her investigation, challenging her impartiality given that the university hired her. (Her firm is being paid $4.5 million for its 3.5 months of work producing the report.) White, however, said the lawsuit and complaints filed with the university and EEOC, along with her interviews of other witnesses, provided enough information to render her judgment.

“The thrust of their report is that many bad things happened at [U of R] … but no legal liability attaches to the university,” Olivarius responded. “In fact, there is substantial case law the report ignores that strongly supports the idea that the university is absolutely liable for the hostile environment created by Jaeger’s actions.”

The report “admits he sent pictures of his penis to a student and a former student … that he blurred professional boundaries with sexual banter. … The report describes Florian Jaeger as the predator I know him to be,” said Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor in the BCS department and one of the complainants.

The accusers also challenged White’s conclusions that they were not retaliated against by the university. “They attacked our privacy. They attacked our reputations. They attacked [us] to the point that our colleagues [were no longer willing to work with us],” said Jessica Cantlon, an associate professor who is in the process of leaving the department for a post at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “They came after us and they’re coming after us now by paying $4.5 million to a legal defense firm.”

White’s team also found that a 2017 policy adopted by U of R is stricter than at many other institutions, as it prohibits any intimate relationships between faculty members and undergraduates; among the peer institutions, Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, was one of the few with a stricter policy, White said, prohibiting faculty from having intimate relationships with graduate students in the same program, department or division.

*Update, 12 January, 9:30 a.m.:  A statement from Jaeger was added to the story

*Correction/Update, 11 January, 6:40 p.m.: This story has been updated with responses from the complainants. An earlier version of this article stated that U of R’s policy on intimate relationships between faculty and students is as strict as Stanford’s. In fact, Stanford’s is stricter.​

News credit : Sciencemag

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