‘Some Kind of Authority’

U of Rochester Faculty Senate considers a motion to censure T. Florian Jaeger, even though the university cleared him of sexual harassment.

January 24, 2018
 
T. Florian Jaeger

In an extremely rare move that expresses ongoing internal disapproval of how the University of Rochester handled a major sexual harassment case, the institution’s Faculty Senate is considering censuring the professor at the center of it all.

During a senate meeting Tuesday, the body’s executive committee also introduced a motion condemning employees in the university counsel's office who searched the emails of professors who sought to bring the case to light -- and then shared those emails with the professors’ department chair without permission.

T. Florian Jaeger, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences at Rochester, was accused by numerous graduate students and their faculty supporters of creating a hostile learning environment by making sexual comments and put-downs, and of having inappropriate sexual relationships with students. In some cases, the behavior resulted in graduate students avoiding Jaeger, with implications for their studies.

Two university investigations and an external review cleared Jaeger of violating university policies that were in place at the time of the alleged misconduct, from 2007 to 2013. But the investigations also confirmed some of the allegations against Jaeger, leaving many faculty members feeling that justice had not been served. The recent independent investigation, for example, found that Jaeger had sexual relationships with four students, including two over whom he had academic authority.

How could a professor’s behavior be morally wrong to the extent that it affected students’ access to education, but not merit disciplinary action, Jaeger’s faculty critics asked after the release of that report. Critics also have pointed out that the university spent $4.5 million on the investigation, run by the same firm that the Weinstein Company hired in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment and assault scandal. (In response to such criticism, Mary Jo White, the former U.S. attorney and partner who led the Rochester investigation, has asserted her reputation for independence.)

The fallout from the case has already prompted Rochester’s president to resign, and members of Jaeger’s embattled department continue to pursue a legal case against the university. Breaking with their department chair and other colleagues, a group of current and former professors and students allege that Rochester didn't do enough to address Jaeger's behavior and then retaliated against them for speaking out. They’ve filed a complaint with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and are suing Rochester.

Tuesday’s senate votes -- which were tabled after the body ran out of time -- would have been largely symbolic: Rochester’s Board of Trustees would have to act for Jaeger to face punishment, and university counsel is not overseen by the faculty. 

But the motions are another sign among many that things are still not right at Rochester. The university has been blacklisted by hundreds of scholars who have publicly pledged not to advise students to work or study there, for instance.

“The report of the independent investigation has documented numerous instances of inappropriate and unprofessional sexual or sexualized behavior by Professor Florian Jaeger between 2007 and 2013,” reads the Rochester senate's censure motion. Such behaviors “were harmful to the educational environment of his department and of our university,” it says, and “We condemn Professor Jaeger's behavior in the strongest terms.”

The motion goes on to say that Jaeger’s actions meet the Faculty Handbook standards for “moral conduct unbefitting the position” and “failure to discharge [one’s] fundamental obligations as a teacher."

‘Asymmetry in Power’

That Jaeger’s actions “may have taken place with the consent of students in some cases does not excuse the behavior,” reads a senate memo on the motion. “Voluntary consent in sexual or sexualized behavior by a student with a faculty member is inherently suspect because of the asymmetry in power.” Moreover, it says, Jaeger’s actions “were not confined to a single incident that could be attributed to one lapse in judgment, but occurred repeatedly over a period of years.”

Jessica Cantlon, an associate professor in Jaeger’s department and a complainant in the legal case, said the fact that the Executive Committee proposed censure is highly significant, regardless of how the senate eventually votes. The motion underscores concerns she and her co-complainants continue to have, she added, such as that the independent review was based on a narrow legal analysis that considered each allegation individually, rather than on the cumulative effect that Jaeger’s actions had on women’s access to education in the department.

“It doesn’t address hostile environment harassment, which is something that Title IX protects women from,” Cantlon said, referring to the federal law that prohibits sex-based discrimination in education. “This report has had the effect of confusing people -- students -- as to what the definition of sexual harassment is and what rights they have.”

The independent report also said that the university erred in judgment in sharing the emails of faculty members who reported Jaeger’s behavior with their department chair, without their knowledge. Those actions make up much of the retaliation portion of the faculty members’ legal case against the university, and apparently concern the Executive Committee: the second motion proposed and tabled for further discussion Tuesday protested decisions by those in the university counsel's office to search and share their emails.

“The Independent Investigation concludes that this action was inconsistent with the emphasis on confidentiality” in relevant university policy, reads the senate memo. “The transmission of these emails from a faculty member to her or his supervisor(s) should only be done in situations of extraordinary necessity, as it violates reasonable faculty expectations of privacy and may undermine a faculty member's relationship with a supervisor who holds considerable power over her or him. Such action could be considered as a gateway to a serious threat to tenure of a tenured faculty member.”

More Voices

Mary Jane Curry, associate professor of language education and senate co-chair, declined to comment on the motions, saying that Faculty Senate matters were private.

Steven V. Modica, Jaeger’s lawyer, said via email Tuesday that his client has “undergone three separate investigations. Each one determined he did not violate any law or university policy.”

Now, he said, “some members of the Faculty Senate wish to revoke [Jaeger's] tenure because he engaged in consensual relationships 10 years ago with several female students close to him in age. I would hope a group of educators from a world-renowned institution like the University of Rochester would be concerned about due process, facts and context instead of complaints filled with misinformation and distortions.”

Chigusa Kurumada, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and Jaeger’s domestic partner, said in a statement Tuesday that she hoped the senate would consider all women's voices, including hers. She said her professional life has been damaged by the case, too.

“I have been disinvited from one speaking engagement,” Kurumada wrote. “As you know, more than 450 colleagues in the scientific community -- most of them from our field -- petitioned not to send students and researchers to this university. The graduate applicant pool to our research group has shrunk by 80 percent.”

If the senate takes punitive action against Jaeger now, she said, “based on a partial record and incomplete information, it will only further marginalize the faculty and students who have already been damaged.”

By partial information, Kurumada was presumably referring to the fact that the complainants in the legal case did not participate in the internal investigation, under the advice of their lawyer. But Cantlon said that even without the complainants’ participation, the outside firm still confirmed much of what they were concerned about in the first place.

Cantlon said that she and her fellow complainants only filed an EEOC complaint and otherwise took legal action after failing to secure a solution internally.

“We’ve been asking for years for somebody with some kind of authority -- the university -- to take a firm stand on the ethics involved here,” she said. “We’ve been looking for someone to say, ‘This is wrong, we stand with students and we’ll protect them from it.’”

Rochester said in a statement that its senate “is taking seriously its responsibility to address matters related to faculty, and its role as a forum for discussion and debate.”

The discussion is one of many “taking place among members of the university community as we continue to focus on responding to the recommendations of the independent investigation with transparency and accountability, and taking action to improve our campus climate and rebuild trust.”

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