“An Example of the System Gone Awry”

A University of Rochester professor’s alleged sexual harassment is highlighting the murkiness of campus policy on faculty-student relationships.

The University of Rochester’s Rush Rhees Library, pictured on June 19, 2009.

Douglas Flowe/wikipedia

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.”

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.”

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.)

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.

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.”