Sexual Harassment Charges Roil Elite University Department

In May 2016, while the investigation was still ongoing, Dr. Jaeger was promoted to full professor. The new federal complaint, to which Dr. Aslin and Dr. Cantlon are also parties, gathered the testimony of 11 women, including a current professor in the department and former undergraduates who had worked with Dr. Jaeger. The accounts range from being approached sexually by Dr. Jaeger at bars to being made to feel so uncomfortable in his lab that they abandoned projects in order to avoid working with him. They depict a man who used his stature to coerce women into crossing professional boundaries, and deceived them into believing that he had the approval of senior faculty in doing so. “I asked the rochester authorities today about certain student-faculty relations and I am in no danger,” he wrote in April 2007 to Dr. Celeste Kidd, one of the complainants, according to a screenshot of a Facebook conversation Dr. Kidd provided to The Times. Dr. Kidd, whom Dr. Jaeger advised at the start of her graduate studies, rented a room in his house for a year, because, she said, he suggested that he would speak poorly of her to colleagues if she did not. “He made it very clear that to do well in his lab, which everyone was telling me was a good idea, it was not possible to have only a professional relationship with him. That was not his mentor style,” Dr. Kidd said. A year of distress followed, Dr. Kidd said, with Dr. Jaeger describing to her the genitalia of one of his sexual partners, or warning her against “spoiling her physique” when he saw her eating. Once, the complaint says, Dr. Jaeger stuck his hand in beans that Dr. Kidd was cooking and said, “Your beans feel really weird, Celeste.” Dr. Jaeger did not return multiple requests for comment. But in his email to students on Tuesday, he said he had received letters of support from former students and colleagues who expressed “how positively they experienced the atmosphere in the lab.” “I have read comments online, and while many of them are personally painful for me to read (as most of these comments do not grant me ‘presumption of innocence,’ to put it mildly), I am glad that there is now generally so much support for people who speak up against discrimination,” he wrote. Eventually, Dr. Kidd moved out and removed herself from Dr. Jaeger’s supervision. She also abandoned her focus on linguistics, Dr. Jaeger’s specialty; she now studies attention and learning more generally. Other women shared similar stories in the complaint. And all along, they said, they believed that Dr. Aslin and Dr. Elissa Newport, senior faculty in the department at the time, knew of Dr. Jaeger’s behavior. Dr. Aslin acknowledged in an interview that he knew that Dr. Kidd and Dr. Jaeger were living in the same house in 2007. But he said he did not suspect any coercion or inappropriate behavior at the time. Then, in 2016, the department began to debate tightening policies governing faculty-student relationships, a move Dr. Jaeger opposed, according to Dr. Cantlon. Several months before, Dr. Kidd, who had recently been promoted to assistant professor, had begun confiding in Dr. Cantlon about her experiences with Dr. Jaeger. Those two events prompted Dr. Cantlon to take her concerns to Dr. Aslin. After Dr. Aslin and Dr. Cantlon complained to the university about Dr. Jaeger, Dr. Aslin said, administrators and colleagues made clear that they no longer welcomed him or Dr. Cantlon, or the other professors who were known to support their complaint. In a July 2016 memo obtained by The Times, two deans urged departmental faculty to refrain from “gossip that appears to have undermined the confidentiality of the process and fractured the department.” Dr. Aslin said he understood the memo to be a barb at him. In November 2016, Dr. Aslin — who had worked at the university for 32 years, and had served as dean of the college of arts and sciences as well as vice provost — announced his resignation. “I didn’t want to be an employee of a corrupt institution,” Dr. Aslin said. The faculty was split by the allegations. Three of the professors on the August complaint, including Dr. Aslin, are no longer at Rochester; the four who remain are seeking new positions, Dr. Cantlon said, even though two, including herself, had received tenure within the last 12 months. “For the past year, I’ve felt ostracized and bullied,” she said. Dr. Jaeger seems to have acknowledged some responsibility in the controversy. In a December email obtained by The Times, he expressed to his colleagues deep regret for his “part in the struggle that our department has been going through.” “There are mistakes that I made many years ago that, with the benefit of hindsight, I would not repeat,” he wrote. The university denies any retaliation. In correspondence with the complainants and in memos to the department, administrators repeatedly highlighted policies prohibiting retaliation against those who brought discrimination claims. “It serves no one’s interests – not students, employees, the wider University community, nor the institution itself – to leave unchecked or in any way cover up unlawful behavior,” Ms. Nearpass, the associate counsel, wrote in an email to The Times. At Tuesday’s meeting, Mr. Seligman, the university president, promised to appoint an independent investigator to review the new claims brought in the federal complaint, which includes the allegations of retaliation in addition to harassment. But he refused students’ calls to remove Dr. Jaeger instantly. “This is not rule by mob, guys,” he said. In an email to The Times, Mr. Seligman wrote that he is committed to a university where people feel “supported and safe.” Regardless of the outcome of any new investigation, the fallout from the previous one has been dramatic. Alumni have threatened to withhold donations. More than 7,000 people have signed a petition to fire Dr. Jaeger. On Wednesday afternoon before the university library, about 300 students and alumni joined a rally that began as a protest of Dr. Jaeger but quickly expanded into a denunciation of what students called the university’s indifference toward sexual violence on the campus of about 10,000 students. Student speakers, many fighting back tears, shared their own stories of assault and singled out Mr. Seligman’s comparison of the allegations against Dr. Jaeger to a now-retracted story in Rolling Stone magazine about a gang rape at the University of Virginia. Mr. Seligman later apologized for the comparison. For the professors making the complaint, the outpouring of support has been bittersweet, they said. “We loved it here. We never intended to leave,” said Dr. Cantlon, who has been applying to jobs but has not yet accepted one. “We had really interesting and lively research programs. We had a lot going for us.” “There was every reason to stay here and stay together,” she said. “And they took that from us.” Continue reading the main story
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