Tensions Grow at Rochester on Harassment Allegations

Professor who has been accused won’t be teaching this semester. President apologizes for comparing charges to fake ones published by Rolling Stone.

September 13, 2017
 

Tensions are growing at the University of Rochester over allegations of harassment by a prominent professor.

After the allegations surfaced in an article in Mother Jones that appeared Friday, the university strongly defended its handling of the case and said that there was no evidence to back up the allegations.

But on Tuesday night, the president of the university apologized for comparing the allegations to the fraudulent charges about a fraternity that were published in Rolling Stone, and the president said the professor would not be teaching class this semester, The Democrat and Chronicle reported.

The article in Mother Jones immediately attracted considerable attention. It details allegations made by graduate students and professors at the University of Rochester against T. Florian Jaeger, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences.

The headline of the Mother Jones piece, which summarizes the piece well, is "She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell." The article and a 111-page complaint filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission detail complaints about inappropriate sexual comments, a blurring of professor/graduate student boundaries and a series of interactions that left young women uncomfortable and anxious not to work in Jaeger's laboratory. While the story is told through the experience of one woman, it notes complaints from others. The article states that 11 women have opted to avoid interaction with Jaeger, who is a well-known researcher. Jaeger did not comment to Mother Jones or respond to Inside Higher Ed.

The article said the university cleared Jaeger of any wrongdoing.

The University of Rochester released a statement on Saturday disputing the article, while not citing the article, the publication or the professor by name.

"We understand that those not familiar with the investigation conducted would find the language in the complaint deeply disturbing. However, the core allegations in this complaint were thoroughly investigated and could not be substantiated. We are highly confident in the integrity of these investigations -- 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," the statement said

Then the university's president, Joel Seligman, sent an email to everyone on campus Sunday in which he defended the university and criticized the article. And in a comment that drew particular criticism on campus, he said, "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. 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."

It was that comparison that Seligman apologized for Tuesday night at a town hall meeting attended by hundreds of students and faculty members.

"I want to apologize for a reference I made in my response a few days ago which may have exacerbated hurt feelings," Seligman said, according to the Democrat and Chronicle. "And that was a reference to the story in Rolling Stone about the University of Virginia."

An online petition calling for Jaeger's firing added a paragraph specifically taking Seligman to task for the comparison to the allegations in Rolling Stone.

"The Rolling Stone cases featured an anonymous accuser and had no corroboration," the petition says. "This case involves a systematic pattern of behavior supported by dozens of witnesses. The key witnesses and survivors are not anonymous and have put their reputations on the line. 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. This statement is repugnant."

While Seligman apologized for that statement, and said that the university would create a commission to study how it responds to sexual harassment allegations, he did not suggest that the university will fire Jaeger. And while students celebrated the news that he wouldn't be teaching this semester (see photo above), there are no indications that the university has changed its analysis of the allegations against him.

Students and others had been planning a protest in a class he was to have taught today.

One student in the class posted to a Facebook page an email the student said Jaeger sent students. Mother Jones said that two students in the class had forwarded the email to its journalists. Jaeger did not respond to a request to confirm he wrote the email.

In the email, Jaeger is quoted as saying he understands the anger people may be feeling reading about the case. But he says that there is more to the story. "I have read comments online, and 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 Facebook post says.

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