University of Rochester’s president announced his resignation Thursday under pressure from activists who faulted him for not firing a professor accused of sexual misconduct, even though three separate investigations found no cause to do so.
A former Obama administration official enlisted to probe the charges for a third time concluded that “the complaints’ narrative—framed through the language of sexual predation and retaliatory animus towards women—is largely without factual basis” and that there was “no evidence… of a hostile work or academic environment for any female graduate students.”
Instead, the final report from former Securities and Exchange Commision chair Mary Jo White’s law firm says a federal complaint against professor Florian Jaeger contained misrepresentations, and faulted his accusers for behavior including “engaging in ‘vigilantism'” and “breaching confidentiality.”
“Some have urged us to simply accept as fact the allegations in the EEOC Complaint and the federal complaint. We cannot do that,” White’s report says.
University President Joel Seligman’s decision to resign, giving up a $1.3 million salary, was made minutes before receiving the findings of the third investigation. Though the findings validated his actions, he wrote “it is clear to me that the best interests of the University are best served with new leadership, and a fresh perspective to focus on healing our campus.”
Four hundred professors urged their students not to apply to the university because of the allegations against Jaeger. The university did not fire him, however, because “through two separate investigations — one by an internal investigator and one conducted by an external investigator—no violation of the law or University policy was found.”
Academics working under him then filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), laying out a series of claims against the professor, but White’s report took issue with its contentions, writing of one of its claims: “The opposite is actually true.”
“Instead, we determined that most of the purportedly ‘adverse’ actions were taken in response to non-protected activities, such as breaching confidentiality during the investigation, attempting to recruit faculty members to the anti-Jaeger ‘side,’ threatening Jaeger, engaging in ‘vigilantism,’ and disrupting department meetings,” it said. “UR’s failure to acquiesce to the complainants’ views about how that matter should have been handled does not amount to retaliation.”
“While there is no doubt that Jaeger, at one time, had a reputation as promiscuous — another aspect of his character that did not change from his years as a graduate student — Jaeger’s characterization as a ‘sexual predator’ in the complaints is baseless,” it said.
“We interviewed 23 people affiliated with Jaeger’s lab during the 2014-2017 period, including 13 women, all of whom refuted the claim that Jaeger’s lab was “cult-like.”
Despite the two previous investigations, after a Mother Jones story, students were worked into a frenzy.
The complainants created a narrative that was “very engaging,” “like a novel,” “but it called into question how much was fiction,” one faculty member said in the report. Activists seized on tales of drug use and hot tubs, but the probe found that what the EEOC complaint darkly cast as “took an overdose,” for example, was actually a student who did not feel well and later ate “a few pieces of brownie containing marijuana provided by another student.”
Celeste Kidd, an ex-girlfriend of Jaeger, had complained that the prior investigators did not look at her Facebook messages, but the White probe found that she had “manipulated” them and that “ironically,” the full messages harmed her case.
“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,” Seligman wrote in a September 2016 statement. “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.”
That only angered students more, and the university quietly edited the statement to remove the Rolling Stone reference. It agreed to hire the outside white-shoe law firm to examine the case and said its report would be released publicly at the same time that the university’s leaders saw it.
Before the findings were even released, however, students were attacking the independent commission. There have been “attacks on the Special Committee and on our independence and competence since being retained to conduct the Independent Investigation,” the report read.
The complainants refused to cooperate with the investigation, saying it could compromise their federal litigation. After the report’s release, Kidd said “Mary Jo White took the age-old approach of trying to shame me into silence and obscurity.”
Forty thousand people signed a petition, and student Lindsay Wrobel went on a hunger strike and wrote emails to Seligman, holding him personally responsible.
“You are causing people direct and immediate harm — and you deserve to have to face that harm on someone’s physical body so that you cannot avoid it in the ivory tower,” she wrote, adding to the school paper: “I don’t think anybody has the right to criticize how oppressed groups protest their oppression.”
Louise Slaughter, the area’s Democratic congresswoman, said in a statement: “It was an outrage that this professor was allowed to take advantage of the uneven power that exists between faculty and students… No one should be driven out of research, academics, or their lifelong dreams because of intimidation or abuse.”
Yet the report found “There is no evidence of which we are aware suggesting that there is currently, or has been since at least 2014, a hostile work or academic environment for any female graduate students” in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, where Jaeger taught until he went on administrative leave.
To protesters, Seligman’s resignation was confirmation that they were right nonetheless. Richard Aslin, one of the Jaeger complainants, said “I would have to say that President Seligman’s resignation is some vindication that what we were doing is right.”
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