U. of Rochester Professor Accused of Harassment Apologizes for ‘Emotional Turmoil’

September 12, 2017

Chronicle photo by Julia Schmalz
The president of the U. of Rochester, Joel Seligman, has been criticized for a statement that seemed to liken sexual-harassment complaints against a professor to the 2014 gang-rape hoax reported by "Rolling Stone."

This article has been updated (9/13/2017, 7:30 a.m.) with a report of an emotional town-hall meeting Tuesday night between the university's president and students.

A professor at the University of Rochester who has been accused of sexually harassing female graduate students apologized on Tuesday night for the "emotional turmoil" his undergraduate students must be feeling as they read about the complaints. The professor, T. Florian Jaeger, said he would no longer be teaching a class where protests had been planned for Wednesday.

Mr. Jaeger, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, made the remarks in an email to his students on the eve of protests that were to involve hundreds of students and faculty members both in his classroom and at the office of the university's president, Joel Seligman.

A leader of the planned action said Tuesday that the professor had asked to be removed from the undergraduate class but had not been fired or suspended. A campus spokeswoman, Sara Miller, confirmed that Mr. Jaeger had not been suspended but did not immediately provide more details. 

Tensions have been escalating since last week over accusations that Mr. Seligman was “dismissive and belittling” in his handling of sexual-harassment complaints against Mr. Jaeger.

During an emotional three-hour-long town-hall meeting on Tuesday night, the president said the university would open a new investigation into allegations that university employees had retaliated against professors who complained about Mr. Jaeger and would take steps to strengthen its response to sexual harassment. It does not plan, however, to reopen a case against Mr. Jaeger.

"I've never had conversations like this. They're unbelievably painful and I'm unbelievably frustrated," Mr. Seligman said after hours of angry questions and demands from a packed room of students. "I want to do everything I can to turn things around."

At least 11 women — all graduate or postdoctoral students — have avoided working with Mr. Jaeger and lost out on educational opportunities because of his "constant sexual innuendos, pressure to sleep with students, power plays and other unprofessional behavior," according to a complaint filed on August 30 with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Mr. Jaeger did not respond to requests for comment on Tuesday. The university has released statements saying the complaints were thoroughly investigated and could not be substantiated, and it has compared the allegations to a discredited rape accusation involving the University of Virginia that was published in Rolling Stone.

In the email to his students, Mr. Jaeger wrote that he is 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 went on to say that "Some of you will feel unable to attend a class taught by me. I can imagine how this must feel, and do not want you to be in that position." The university found another professor to take over the class, he wrote.

Allegations of sexual discrimination and misconduct are "shocking," he said, and must be "pursued rigorously." And he said that the 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 email, Mr. Jaeger addressed online comments that had been made about his case: "While many of them are personally painful for me to read (as most of these comments do not grant me 'presumption of innocence', to put it mildly), I am glad that there is now generally so much support for people who speak up against discrimination." 

The 113-page EEOC complaint was filed by eight current and former University of Rochester faculty members and graduate students against the university, Mr. Seligman, and other top university officials.

They outlined a pattern of alleged abuses. Mr. Jaeger, they said, "made it clear that students who wanted to excel needed to please him socially, and sometimes sexually."

The university allowed a hostile atmosphere to continue by failing to take sexual-harassment complaints against Mr. Jaeger seriously, they allege, and retaliated against them for blowing the whistle on the problems.

The controversy has damaged the department’s reputation and hurt recruitment, critics contend.

The controversy attracted national attention after an article appeared on Friday in Mother Jones that focused on Mr. Jaeger’s relationship with Celeste Kidd, who is now an assistant professor in his department.

She was recruited to the university’s doctoral program in 2007 as a 24-year-old by Richard N. Aslin, a nationally respected expert on infant learning, which was her field of study. Ms. Kidd was assigned to spend part of her time working with Mr. Jaeger, a recent hire who was described to her as a rising star in the department.

According to the EEOC complaint, Mr. Jaeger pressured her to rent a small room within his apartment where, she says, he questioned her about her sexual history, entered her room without knocking, and went through her belongings. She eventually moved out and left his lab, but she didn’t complain to the university because she felt she needed to stay on his good side.

"I wanted a tenure-track position," Ms. Kidd told Mother Jones. "I wanted to run my own lab. I desperately wanted to show them how capable I was as a scientist. I didn’t want to risk everything I put on the line, up to that point, by being any more aggressive with my complaining."

As questions about the university’s response began swirling, the university released a statement on Saturday saying the EEOC complaint is "largely based on hearsay" and "ignores factual evidence."

"We understand that those not familiar with the investigation conducted would find the language in the complaint deeply disturbing," the statement reads. "However, the core allegations in this complaint were thoroughly investigated and could not be substantiated."

The statement went on to say that the university was confident in the integrity of the two investigations that were conducted — one external and one internal.

"We followed our processes for fair investigations and due process for all involved, interviewing dozens of witnesses whose names were given to us as alleged victims."

Neither of the investigations nor the numerous appeals that followed found violations of the law or university policy, the statement said.

On Sunday, the president, Mr. Seligman, issued a statement that appeared to compare the allegations to the discredited rape accusation at the University of Virginia in 2014.

"I would urge you not to reach any conclusions about what may have occurred based on the allegations in the complaint itself or in media reports," he wrote. "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."

He apologized for that remark Tuesday night. The complainants immediately fired back, saying the university was "doubling down on fundamental errors of understanding." Far from conducting a fair and thorough investigation, the university failed to interview important witnesses or to consider the impact Mr. Jaeger’s alleged actions had on 11 women "who altered their studies, sometimes giving up years of work" to avoid him, they wrote.

They also said the president had ignored their complaints that they were being retaliated against for speaking out. University lawyers have "secretly combed" their work emails for information that could embarrass them, they said. In addition, their department chair has branded them liars at faculty meetings, some have been forced to leave the university, and others have been "systematically ostracized," they said.

Critics of the president also circulated an online petition calling for Mr. Jaeger to be fired. By Tuesday evening, it had more than 6,000 signatures.

It called the president’s statement "repugnant," adding that "by invoking a hoax with little resemblance to this case, President Seligman has insulted rape and abuse survivors everywhere, as well as the entire UR community."

The Rolling Stone case, they pointed out, was based on an anonymous accuser and there was no corroboration. The Rochester situation involves numerous named accusers, they argued.

The university’s Students’ Association issued a statement on Monday expressing disappointment in the president’s response to the complaints. While he has been thoughtful in the past in dealing with such matters, he was "both dismissive and belittling" in his response to the complaints against Mr. Jaeger, the group’s officers wrote.

"It is offensive and inaccurate to compare the situation at hand to the case at the University of Virginia, which occurred several years ago and involved one anonymous complaint," they wrote.

They said they had met with several university administrators, including the president, over the last few days and would continue to do so until the matter was taken seriously.

Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at katherine.mangan@chronicle.com.