The University of Rochester settled a long-running legal case over alleged sexual harassment within its brain and cognitive sciences program for $9.4 million, parties announced Friday. In a joint statement, Rochester thanked the nine former students and professors who sued it in 2017, alleging misconduct by T. Florian Jaeger, professor of brain and cognitive sciences. The plaintiffs also alleged retaliation by other faculty members and administrators for blowing the whistle on their colleague and instructor.
Plaintiff Richard Aslin, a former dean of arts and sciences at Rochester who is now a clinical professor of psychology at Yale University, said, “We hope this settlement encourages people affected by discrimination and retaliation to seek justice and never give up.” Presumably referring to the 2018 resignation of former president Joel Seligman over how he handled the Jaeger case, Aslin said he hoped Rochester’s changes to its “leadership and policies will send a signal to other institutions that there is a more productive way to handle complaints about harassment.”
The unusual joint release, which was part of the unusually hefty settlement agreement, also notes that Lawrence Vilardo, the federal judge presiding over the case, responded to Rochester’s earlier motion to dismiss by upholding the legal validity of most of the plaintiffs’ claims. The plaintiffs are committing a portion of the settlement to “individuals whose careers were negatively affected by the hostile environment described in the lawsuit.”
Rochester said in its own separate statement that it is “pleased to have achieved a successful mediated resolution to this matter. The willingness of our insurance carrier to pay the entire settlement amount was a factor in our decision. No party to the settlement admitted liability or fault.” It said it has taken a number of steps to address the issues the case brought to light, including establishing an Office of Equity and Inclusion and strengthening and clarifying relevant policies, procedures and training.
“The last few years have been challenging for everyone at the university, and we now face significant additional challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rochester said. “We can now put this particular issue behind us, focus on our present concerns, and look ahead to the future.”
Steven Modica, Jaeger’s attorney, underscored that Jaeger was not named as a defendant in the lawsuit and had no involvement in the settlement. Nevertheless, Jaeger “is very disappointed that the claims brought in the lawsuit will not be tested by the full measure of due process that is afforded by our civil litigation system.”
Modica quoted the 2018 third-party inquiry into the case, which was funded by the university and led by former U.S. attorney Mary Jo White of Debevoise and Plimpton: “In sum, we find that the evidence does not support a conclusion that any complainant or other UR student or employee has been subjected to unlawful sexual harassment as a result of Jaeger’s conduct.”
Jaeger, Modica added via email, “believes sincerely that, had these claims been tested, the court would have reached the same conclusion that White and her team reached after their extensive and independent investigation.”