National News

Exonerated, University of Rochester President Steps Down

Posted January 11, 2018 8:26 p.m. EST

The president of the University of Rochester stepped down Thursday, just hours before an outside investigation cleared him and his administration of charges that they had covered up sexual harassment by a prominent professor and punished those who spoke out against him.

The president, Joel Seligman, who had been fending off calls for his resignation since the harassment allegations became public in August, announced his decision in an email to the university. The move was made all the more extraordinary by the investigators’ report, which discredited many of the claims against the university and found no legal wrongdoing by Rochester’s leadership.

In fact, the 200-page report said that while the accused professor, Dr. T. Florian Jaeger, had at times acted inappropriately and offensively, and while administrators had missed opportunities to address complainants’ concerns, Jaeger’s behavior ultimately did not violate university policy at the time. Several of the claims against him, the report said, had been “embellished,” “distorted” or “unduly sensationalized” in an attempt to “demonize” him.

School administrators had examined the complainants’ accusations in good faith and in compliance with university policy and federal law, the investigators wrote, and had not retaliated against faculty members for speaking out.

“I made this decision before I knew what was in the report,” Seligman wrote in an email to The New York Times. “This was purely my decision. I was not asked by the board to leave, but after a month or so of reflection I came to believe that the best interest of the university required a fresh start under a new leader.”

Despite the report’s overall exoneration of Jaeger, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and of university administrators, its findings at times appeared contradictory. While investigators said they had found no evidence that Jaeger had created a hostile work environment by legal standards, they also acknowledged that several women had avoided working with him because he made them uncomfortable, and that the women had missed out on educational opportunities as a result.

In a news conference after the report was released, the complainants said they were disappointed in its conclusions but felt confident that it had corroborated their claims.

They promised to continue to press for accountability in federal court.

“The report admits students suffered for his actions. I suffered,” said Dr. Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor in the brain sciences department who said Jaeger harassed her. “The report describes Florian Jaeger as the predator that I know him to be.”

Dr. Richard Aslin, a founding member of the department who left Rochester in protest of the university’s handling of the investigation, said Seligman’s resignation was evidence that the complainants’ actions were justified.

“We take no satisfaction in the disruption that this case has triggered,” he said. “But that disruption was the result not just of one faculty member’s behavior, but rather a systemic bias that put students at risk.”

Kidd, Aslin, five other current and former professors, and one graduate student jointly filed a complaint against the university with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in August. The complaint, and a federal lawsuit filed in December, said that Jaeger had for years harassed and intimidated students and colleagues, and that administrators had punished professors who reported his behavior.

In September, after weeks of student protests and demands that administrators resign, the university’s board of trustees announced that it had placed Jaeger on leave. (A university spokeswoman said Thursday that his leave would continue.) It also hired Mary Jo White, a former chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, to reinvestigate the claims in the complaint.

But the professors who had filed the federal complaint questioned White’s independence. None of the original complainants agreed to be interviewed by her, citing concerns about bias and their ongoing suit against the university.

White defended the integrity of her investigation, adding that although she did not speak directly to the original complainants, she reviewed statements and correspondence they had previously provided to university officials.

“People feel, as they should, very strongly about these issues,” White said in an interview. “It’s just really important to distinguish between allegations and proof.”

The fallout from the complaint has engulfed the prestigious brain science department, which has been ranked as high as fourth in the nation for graduate studies. Four tenured professors who signed on to the complaint have left or plan to leave Rochester; cognitive science professors at other universities said the uproar had dimmed the department’s stature; and more than 450 professors at other universities signed an open letter promising not to encourage their students to enroll or work at the University of Rochester until the administration took action. In the months since the complaint was filed, widespread revelations of sexual abuse by powerful men have exploded.

The national reckoning has added urgency and national attention to what began as a local, departmental dispute. In December, two of the complainants were included in Time magazine’s list of “silence breakers” — women who spoke out against sexual harassment — honored as the publication’s person of the year.

White said that the report was not a repudiation of the present moment and that she did not believe her findings would have a chilling effect on other women, noting that the report had credited the accounts of several women who said Jaeger had made them uncomfortable.

She also noted that the university had tightened several of its policies since the incidents in question, introducing a rule last year that bars professors from having academic authority over students with whom they have had an intimate relationship. The report recommended that the university go further and ban all romantic relationships between students and faculty members in the same department.