The UR's #MeToo Moment 

magnum.jpg

The highly anticipated report on sexual misconduct charges at the University of Rochester's Brain and Cognitive Science department has been released, concluding, on the whole, that university administrators acted appropriately in their handling of the accusations. While the report criticizes Professor Florian Jaeger's behavior and suggests that the university could have handled things a bit better, it says Jaeger didn't violate university policies in effect at the time.

For the university and everyone involved in the case, however, the story is far from over.

• A lawsuit is proceeding against the university, President Joel Seligman, and Provost Robert Clark, filed by nine current and former BCS faculty members and students. In their suit in federal district court, the nine charge that they were subjected to a hostile work environment and suffered retaliation and defamation. And at a press conference Thursday afternoon, after the investigative report was released, several of the complainants said they will introduce evidence in court that conflicts with the report's findings.

• From the outset, the complainants in the lawsuit have challenged the legitimacy of the report, saying that it couldn't be thorough because the lawsuit made it impossible for investigators to interview the people with the most important first-hand knowledge: the complainants. And they charge that the investigation – which was commissioned by the UR trustees and was conducted by the New York City-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLC – wasn't independent and impartial but instead was designed to protect the university.

On Saturday, the complainants sent a letter to the Faculty Senate and media saying that some of the people interviewed for the report say that "their testimony, beliefs, and evidence were misrepresented" and that some testimony before the investigators was suppressed."

• UR students – many of whom had staged protests against Seligman and other administrators last fall, were still on winter break when the report was released last week. But they're back now, and a demonstration is planned for 3 p.m. Friday on the steps of Wilson Commons.

• The university has to find a new president to replace Seligman, who announced his resignation a few hours after the report was released.

• Prominent faculty members have left the BCS, weakening the department, and the conflict has seriously damaged its reputation and that of the university, both of which have to compete with other institutions for faculty and students.

The UR case has become a prominent part of the #MeToo movement, and it has received widespread national media coverage. Two of the complainants, Celeste Kidd and Jessica Cantlon, were among the women featured in Time Magazine's 2017 Person of the Year profiles.

With the UR case and many of the other sexual-misconduct cases that have been in the news, there've been suggestions from some observers that "times have changed," that people are being criticized for behavior that was once considered acceptable – or, if not acceptable, at least not a major transgression.

It isn't that times have changed, however, or that standards of acceptability have changed. The behavior was never acceptable. What has changed is that large numbers of people who have endured sexual misconduct have begun to speak out, and to name names.

One issue in the UR case, then, is whether Jaeger's behavior was so egregious that it should be considered harassment and that it created a hostile work environment. The complainants say that over a period of several years, Jaeger made inappropriate sexual comments to and about women, had sexual relations with students, socialized with students and created the sense that their participation was required, and pressured women students to go to his home alone. His actions, the complainants say, created a hostile work environment.

The Debevoise report, however, draws a distinction between Jaeger's behavior from 2007 to 2013 and since 2014. The division is significant, because in 2014, Greg DeAngelis, then the director of the BCS, counseled Jaeger about his behavior. The university also strengthened its policy regarding sexual misconduct.

Since then, the report says, Jaeger's behavior has improved markedly and investigators could find no evidence of harassment.

The report says that the behavior prior to 2014 was "inappropriate, unprofessional, and offensive" – and that for some people it was "harmful." But, it says, it didn't violate the university's policy at the time. And it "does not meet the standard for sexual harassment, as currently defined by law."

Prior to filing their lawsuit, the nine faculty and students in the case had filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Here's what the EEOC's website says about sexual harassment:

"It is unlawful to harass a person (an applicant or employee) because of that person's sex. Harassment can include 'sexual harassment' or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature."

"Harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, however, and can include offensive remarks about a person's sex. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general."

"Although the law doesn't prohibit simple teasing, offhand comments, or isolated incidents that are not very serious, harassment is illegal when it is so frequent or severe that it creates a hostile or offensive work environment or when it results in an adverse employment decision (such as the victim being fired or demoted)."

"The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or someone who is not an employee of the employer, such as a client or customer."

How would a university official determine whether behavior was "severe" enough that it created a hostile or offensive work environment?

The EEOC's website suggests a "reasonable person" standard: Would a reasonable person conclude that someone's conduct was sexual in nature or offensive? Would a reasonable person feel that an employee's comments created a hostile work environment?

However, the EEOC's guidance adds this:

"The reasonable person standard should consider the victim's perspective and not stereotyped notions of acceptable behavior. For example, the Commission believes that a workplace in which sexual slurs, displays of 'girlie' pictures, and other offensive conduct abound can constitute a hostile work environment even if many people deem it to be harmless or insignificant."

The Debevoise report confirms during Jaeger's early years as a BCS professor, multiple women chose to avoid him both socially and academically because of his reputation or his behavior. And the report agrees that "some students had to endure behavior and inappropriate remarks that they should never have had to."

But the report says that in interviews with students and faculty members about their association with Jaeger since 2014, they did not find evidence of inappropriate behavior and were not told that students were avoiding him.

The UR case is not rare. Concern about sexual misconduct by university faculty members is widespread. A January article in the Chronicle of Higher Education cited assault and harassment charges at Columbia, the University of Arizona, University of Texas, Central Washington University, University of California Davis, UC Berkeley, Columbia College Chicago, Stanford, Oregon State, UC Santa Cruz, University of Virginia, Indiana University, Northeastern, Dartmouth, Michigan State, University of Wisconsin, Boston University....

An August 2016 Atlantic article cited a 2015 survey by the Association of American Universities conducted at "267 elite private and public research universities" which found that "roughly one in 10 female graduate students states that she has been sexually harassed by a faculty member."

"Academia," said the Atlantic article, "is particularly fertile territory for those who want to leverage their power to gain sexual favors or inflict sexual violence on vulnerable individuals."

And, says the Atlantic article: "Students seeking doctorates, those hoping to advance from adjunct or instructor to tenure track, and those who are on the cusp of a tenure decision are particularly vulnerable...."

Where does the university go from here?

The path ahead won't be easy. In six weeks, Seligman will leave office, and the university will be led by an interim president, Richard Feldman, who served for 10 years as dean of the UR's College of Arts, Sciences, and Engineering before resigning in June. (Feldman has already helped lead the university through controversy; two years ago, he co-chaired the university's Presidential Commission on Race and Diversity following protests about racism at the university.)

As the case against Seligman and Clark proceeds in federal court, the university will presumably be working on updating its policies and procedures, with the Debevoise report's recommendations in mind. Drawing up those policies and providing training won't happen overnight; meantime, the university will need to rebuild trust among students and faculty.

The university's Faculty Senate has already criticized the administration for not acting more quickly. In a December letter to faculty, students, and staff, published in the Campus Times, the Faculty Senate's executive committee said "victims of harassment and sexual misconduct at the university still feel vulnerable, and the university has not revised its policies."

The Faculty Senate had previously urged the administration to take specific steps. Among them: increasing protections for people who allege harassment or sexual misconduct, providing protections from retaliation and intimidation, and identifying patterns of repeated harassment and misconduct.

The university failed to implement changes that are basic practices at other universities, the December Senate letter said, and the administration should now have "broad-based oversight from faculty, staff, and students" as it handles harassment and sexual misconduct complaints.

A lot will depend on what lessons the university administrators and trustees learn from all this. Will they consider the report to be the end of the matter? An exoneration of the way the university handled this crisis?

Will they consider the continuing outcry from parts of the university community to be simply a distraction? Or will they take it seriously, listen to critics, and have those critics' concerns in mind as they look for a new president?

In its "conclusion" section, the Debevoise report urges the university to "look beyond the specifics and details of this matter and turn toward the future."

"In our view," says the report, "the University and all involved here now have a unique opportunity to make such amends as can be made, heal and work hard to become the thought and moral leader for the academic community in preventing and dealing fairly with allegations of sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination in the academic workplace."

It's lofty language, but the university has a key role in the community – not only as an academic institution and medical center but also as the region's largest employer, a powerful leader whose actions and statements can affect things far beyond academia.

"Set the bar and set it high," the report's conclusion said.

The bar has already been set. The next months will give the university community, and the Rochester community, an indication of whether the institution's leaders recognize the height of that bar, and how badly they want to reach it.

UR faculty member and complainant Celeste Kidd - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • UR faculty member and complainant Celeste Kidd

Complainants denounce the report

Current and former faculty members and students who have filed a lawsuit over sexual misconduct at the University of Rochester are repudiating the report on the university's handling of their complaints.

At a press conference at the Strathallan Hotel late Thursday afternoon, the complainants sharply criticized the report on the behavior of Professor Florian Jaeger and the university's actions in response. They challenged the accuracy of some of the investigation's findings and said they will introduce evidence in court, including audio recordings, that conflicts with those findings.

"The report appears comprehensive, but in fact it is not," said Ann Olivarius, the attorney representing the complainants in their suit against the university, UR President Joel Seligman, and UR Provost Robert Clark. "Important factual incidents we relayed are absent or ignored," said Olivarius.

The investigators "interviewed many witnesses but missed others," Olivarius said. And, she said, the report has a "fundamental flaw" because it lacks testimony from key sources, the complainants, who couldn't participate because of the lawsuit.

The report, said Celeste Kidd, an assistant professor in the UR's Brain and Cognitive Science department, "confirms a lot of the things that I have been saying for more than a year – first, internally, and when that failed, publicly."

"It confirms he [Jaeger] used demeaning and derogatory comments to humiliate women, that he undermined his students," Kidd said. "He did these things to me and to other women in BCS I know. The report admits students suffered from his actions. I suffered. More than a dozen of my fellow women students suffered."

"The report admits that he blurred professional boundaries with sexual banter, crossing lines," Kidd said. "This made me uncomfortable, and 15 others. And it was unwanted." The report agrees "that people left his lab because of it," Kidd said.

The report tries to convince people that as terrible as some of Jaeger's actions were, neither he nor the administration did anything wrong, said Richard Aslin, a former UR Brain and Cognitive Sciences faculty member who left because of the university's handling of the case. "We couldn't disagree more," Aslin said.

The nine complainants also sent a letter to the UR Faculty Senate Executive Committee, criticizing the White report. The report attacks the women who brought the complaint, the nine wrote, and slanted the presentation of evidence.

Keturah Bixby, a Ph. D candidate in UR's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, is one of the complainants in a lawsuit against UR President Joel Seligman and provost Robert Clark. - PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • PHOTO BY JEREMY MOULE
  • Keturah Bixby, a Ph. D candidate in UR's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, is one of the complainants in a lawsuit against UR President Joel Seligman and provost Robert Clark.

"Several witnesses have told us that their testimony, beliefs, and evidence were misrepresented," the complainants wrote. "We also have heard previously from people whose testimony we now can see was suppressed – including most notably many individuals who came to Ms. White [investigation head Mary Jo White] to talk about the culture of retaliation at UR, both relevant to their own cases and relevant to ours."

And, the nine wrote, when report was first posted online, some material contained the names of people who had asked to remain anonymous. And, they wrote: "the naming convention used by White's firm explicitly linked their real names to the pseudonyms in our EEOC complaint, against explicit and repeated promises of confidentiality to witnesses. The witnesses whose identities were revealed are now terrified. This act by the firm UR employed will discourage victims from coming forward."

"The report moves UR, and women, backwards," the complainants wrote.

Attorney Mary Jo White (right), who led the investigation into sexual misconduct charges at the University of Rochester, at last week's press conference on the investigation's findings. - PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • PHOTO BY RYAN WILLIAMSON
  • Attorney Mary Jo White (right), who led the investigation into sexual misconduct charges at the University of Rochester, at last week's press conference on the investigation's findings.

What the Debevoise report found

The investigation into sexual misconduct at the University of Rochester concluded that the university properly handled accusations against UR Professor Florian Jaeger and that Jaeger did not violate university policy. But it also criticized Jaeger for what it said was "inappropriate, unprofessional, and offensive" behavior.

The university's board of trustees commissioned the investigation, by the New York City-based law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLC, in response to complaints from some current and former UR graduate students and faculty members, who have also filed a lawsuit against UR President Joel Seligman and the university's provost, Robert Clark. The investigation was led by Debevoise & Plimpton's senior chair, Mary Jo White, a former US Attorney.

The investigators' report, released on January 11, was careful to draw the line between legal or policy requirements and acceptable behavior. "We emphasize that this is a legal conclusion (not a moral or social judgment)," the report says, "based on applying the governing legal standards to the facts as we understand them." And, it says: "By providing our legal conclusion, we do not imply that Jaeger's conduct was acceptable or presume to opine on questions of moral culpability."

The report says that investigators did not find that Jaeger created a hostile work environment, as some students and faculty members have charged. It concluded that some of Jaeger's actions were inappropriate and "harmful to some in the university community." But, it said, "the governing 'severe or pervasive' legal standard for hostile environment harassment is a demanding one, and we do not believe any claimant or plaintiff would be able to show that it was met as to her."

The report also says investigators found no evidence that university officials retaliated against people who had filed complaints against Jaeger, and it cites several actions — promotions of some of the faculty members involved, for instance — to refute that charge.

The report says that some of the complaints against Jaeger were "unduly sensationalized" and that other allegations were false. And, it says, Jaeger's inappropriate behavior took place before 2014, particularly in the early years after he became a professor, when he seemed to have trouble shedding the behavior he had exhibited as a graduate student. Since 2014, the report says, his "personal and professional behavior has shifted substantially."

In a press conference following the report's release, Mary Jo White repeatedly noted that the investigation's conclusions are based on legal standards and the university's policies at the time of the complaints.

The report is not an exoneration of Jaeger, she said in response to a reporter's question.

And she repeatedly said that Jaeger's conduct had been inappropriate and praised the men and women who complained about it. The report recommends changes the university should make, including developing a trained group of advisers to assist people in sexual misconduct cases, reviewing the current mandatory training of staff on sexual harassment, and publishing an annual report of complaints of sexual harassment and gender discrimination. White said the university should refine its policy and do it soon. Action, she said, will be important.

The full report and a video of the press conference, which was live-streamed, are available at www.rochester.edu/independent-investigation/.

click to enlarge Joel Seligman - FILE PHOTO
  • File Photo
  • Joel Seligman

Seligman’s local record

Joel Seligman, who resigned last week as president of the University of Rochester, has led the institution in a period of major expansion, not only in size but also in community influence.

He became the university's president in 2005, a time when the Rochester economy was struggling to reinvent itself. Since then, the UR has grown in size– becoming the region's largest employer – and intensified its focus on biomedical engineering and optics, the liberal arts, cancer and HIV/AIDS research, cardiovascular care, and neuromedicine. He oversaw the building of the Golisano Children's Hospital and the renovation and expansion of the Eastman School of Music. In 2016, the university completed a campaign raising $1.3 billion, the largest in its history.

But it's also been Seligman's ability to steer the university into a stronger business-development and community resource that distinguishes his leadership. The UR played a strategic role in the development of Brook's Landing and College Town. Seligman agreed to partner with the Rochester City School District to turn around a failing East High School, and he co-chaired the Finger Lakes Regional Economic Development Council in an effort to revitalize the Upstate economy.

He fought hard for downtown Rochester to be the seat of photonics research. In what at times became a tough rivalry with SUNY Albany's Polytechnic Institute, Seligman imagined a photonics center downtown and Rochester taking the lead in the $600 million pledged for project by the federal and state governments.

His tenure, however, has not been without controversy. Shortly after he began, Seligman condemned a Washington Post op-ed by Arun Gandhi, whose nonprofit MK Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence was located at the UR. A grandson of Mohandas Gandhi, Arun Gandhi was critical of the US and Israel in the article, and Seligman's criticism led to Gandhi's resignation from the institute, which he had founded.

More recently, Seligman had to confront racism on the UR campus, something some students said was not adequately addressed.


Pin It

Speaking of...

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

More by Mary Anna Towler

Readers also liked…

More by Mary Anna Towler

Browse Listings

Submit an event

Tweets @RocCityNews

© 2018 City Newspaper.

Website powered by Foundation.