University assailed over handling of sexual harassment case

Questions over the University of Rochester's handling of sexual misconduct accusations against a professor have sparked protests, calls for the resignation of top administrators, vows by alumni to stop donations and even a hunger strike by one student that was in its fifth day Monday.

An attorney for seven current and former faculty members and a graduate student says they are preparing for a federal court fight against the private university, claiming administrators mishandled allegations against Professor T. Florian Jaeger, who was cleared of wrongdoing, and then retaliated against them for reporting the behavior. They want a change in policies and apologies for how they were treated.

"If we get a sense that University of Rochester wants to play around and they don't want to settle ... we will go into court and be ready to fight right away," attorney Ann Olivarius said Monday.

The federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a "right-to-sue" notice for one of the eight complainants, and decisions for the others are pending. Their identical complaint papers paint Jaeger as a "serial harasser" in the university's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, whose lack of boundaries potentially altered the career paths of at least 11 female students.

"He charmed, manipulated and sometimes threatened them, becoming gatekeeper to important social and professional opportunities," the complaint says. "He flaunted numerous sexual relationships in front of graduate students, used constant and overt sexual language and behaved flirtatiously and overly familiarly with women students, including when he knew he was making the women feel unsafe."

Faculty member Celeste Kidd said she was a graduate student recruit when Jaeger began a lengthy pattern of inappropriate electronic and in-person exchanges.

"This is about university processes that are supposed to protect students who don't have the power to protect themselves failing," Kidd said Monday.

Jaeger said he could not comment because of the legal action. He notified students last week that he would stop teaching for the rest of the semester.

In 2016, two faculty members reported Jaeger's behavior to administrators. During an investigation that ultimately exonerated Jaeger, he was promoted to full professor.

University President Joel Seligman said the investigation, which included interviews with more than 30 people, determined there was no evidence to support a finding that university policy had been violated.

"The general tone is to be very cynical about complainants," said Elissa Newport, a former department chairwoman who left Rochester in 2012 for Georgetown University. "I've heard them do this about student complainants. It's shocking to me that they're willing to do it about seven faculty complaints. I can't even imagine how an individual student could manage through any of this."

The faculty members said the university has retaliated by creating "a hostile environment for them so toxic that they are no longer welcome in their own department. They are treated as troublemakers and liars."

Seligman opened a three-hour town hall meeting Sept. 12 with a promise to hire an independent investigator to look into the faculty members' claims of retaliation. He said the university would review its policies surrounding the reporting of sexual misconduct.

"We understand that these allegations have raised very real concerns and caused pain both on campus and in our wider community. First and foremost, the University of Rochester does not tolerate sexual misconduct," the university said. "The university takes any allegations of such behavior very seriously, and is committed to ensuring that students, faculty and staff feel supported and safe."

Seligman said he had been in touch with the student on the hunger strike and was monitoring the situation.

"She has every right to express herself as she chooses," he said, "but I urged her to put her well-being first."