An inexplicable failure to defend the most vulnerable
September 16, 2017 7:27 PM   Subscribe

On August 30th seven current and former faculty members of the University of Rochester's Brain and Cognitive Sciences department, as well as one graduate student, filed an 111-page complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the university for "failing to act appropriately against a faculty member who has engaged in sexual harassment and has created a hostile environment for graduate students, and for retaliating against those of us who filed and pursued a complaint through university procedures."

From the complaint:
For over one year since we first discovered the behavior of the faculty member in question, we have acted in good faith to follow the existing University procedures for filing a complaint, exhausted all appeals, interacted with every level of the administration, and hoped that in the end the University would do what the law requires it to do: ensure the safety of our students and the respectful treatment of our female colleagues. [...] after an incomplete investigation, internal examination, and attempts to force us to “move forward,” the University chose to filter, distort, and cover up the facts, to deny the veracity of the complaints of 7 faculty members and 11 students, to disparage those of us who brought forward the complaint, and then to further retaliate against us when we refused to back down – all with the purpose of protecting a serial harasser...
Nature summarizes:
Among other things, the complaints allege sexual encounters with graduate students, parties with students involving illegal drugs and sex, and remarks Jaeger made about the sexual attractiveness of students in front of other faculty members. Jaeger is also accused of pressuring a female student into sharing a house with him and professionally isolating students who would not sleep with him.
Many of the complaint's co-authors, including former dean and vice-provost Richard Aslin, have resigned their positions at the university in protest. Students have also been protesting the administration online and on campus, with one student entering her fourth day of a hunger strike.

Further coverage:
posted by galaxy rise (28 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
There are two sides to every story.

*rolls eyes*

It wasn't two weeks into my wife's graduate program before she knew which professors were to be avoided. Which boggled me at the time, because it was a clinical psychology PhD program -- weren't these guys (it's always guys when there's sex involved) supposed to know proper human behavior?

Long story short: no, they don't.

Watching academia from the outside is really something. It's full of brilliant, driven, successful people who do some stupid shit that would hardly be believed if you saw it on Jerry Springer.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 8:01 PM on September 16, 2017 [21 favorites]

More info at CHE
posted by lalochezia at 8:04 PM on September 16, 2017

weren't these guys (it's always guys when there's sex involved) supposed to know proper human behavior?

They know. They just also know there's no consequences for when they don't follow it.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:22 PM on September 16, 2017 [19 favorites]

Wow, it wasn't clear from the framing that he is a linguist and the surname seemed common enough that it didn't register, but when I clicked through... I know this guy. Holy shit. I had no idea.
posted by lollusc at 8:24 PM on September 16, 2017 [1 favorite]

That's how these predators work - they know how to code shift, so that anyone they consider a superior or a peer never sees what they are, because they've mastered putting on a facade.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:26 PM on September 16, 2017 [29 favorites]

This is a big, big problem and not just at the University of Rochester. Academia in general has shown little will to do anything about it. Hopefully University of Rochester suffers enough from this that other institutions are shocked into getting serious about rooting out this kind of misbehavior. Hopefully the complainants are so successful that other groups at other institutions follow suit and this becomes a wave that sweeps away the scum.

People need to start getting fired, and in some cases prosecuted. That includes tenured professors of great scholarly accomplishment, and high-ranking administrators as well if they're complicit. Prestige and tenure must no longer be seen as shields, nobody should be untouchable. Heads need to roll. It's the only right thing to do.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 8:29 PM on September 16, 2017 [25 favorites]

I literally spent my afternoon last week sitting down and making sure that we got the names and contact info for all the female first and second years so we can warn them about my department's Known Harasser, who also has gotten his claws into at least one undergraduate in the three weeks he has been off suspension.

I also passed on another warning about a gentleman mentioned offhandedly in a seminar talk by the (male) speaker the other day, who hailed from a university I had interviewed at. There was, at that institution, a concerted graduate-student-led campaign to make absolutely sure that every incoming prospective student knew he had once abandoned a female student in a foreign country on fieldwork and that he never took another student--at least from their department. Not much they could do about others.

I have been watching graduate students trying to warn each other as openly as they can about known threats and harassers and abusive advisors literally since I attended my first interview, and I have watched how universities and certain administration staff handle these threats.


I cannot even with this shit.

Roll some goddamn fucking heads already. Quit bleeding the careers of PhD students dry and ruining those careers before they ever get a chance to take off. Because that is what is happening.
posted by sciatrix at 8:36 PM on September 16, 2017 [86 favorites]

Prestige and tenure must no longer be seen as shields

Here's the thing - if you believe that tenure is an important principle (and hey, I do believe it is), then you should be fighting for this. Because, as I keep saying over and fucking over in these threads, if you allow a principle to become cover for abuse, then you should not be surprised when people no longer see it as legitimate. If the choice comes down to tenure or women being able to be safe from predators, they will demand that tenure be torn down, and rightfully so. You want to protect tenure? Then make it clear that it doesn't protect predators.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:37 PM on September 16, 2017 [72 favorites]

That's how these predators work - they know how to code shift, so that anyone they consider a superior or a peer never sees what they are, because they've mastered putting on a facade.

Yes, to be clear, "I had no idea" was meant to be an expression of shock, not doubt.
posted by lollusc at 8:40 PM on September 16, 2017 [5 favorites]

Roll some goddamn fucking heads already. Quit bleeding the careers of PhD students dry and ruining those careers before they ever get a chance to take off. Because that is what is happening.

At this point, I think that academia needs to be given a choice - either they start dealing with this problem, or it will be dealt with for them. And if that means destroying principles that academia holds dear, well...that was their choice.
posted by NoxAeternum at 8:41 PM on September 16, 2017 [2 favorites]

It's not even just the rising star big shots, to be clear. The universities will protect any tenure track faculty member against a graduate student, in my experience--it is, after all, easiest to make us go away.

None of this is my abuse story, so of course I'm limited as hell about how open I can be, because I'm not the person stuck with the consequences of speaking. I'm certainly not the graduate student who has had to bawl out and inform two separate university administrators about a PI with a long and documented track record of harassing students, or the student whose PI apparently deliberately sabotaged her qualifications without warning such that she was failed out of the program on her first qualifying attempt, which is not supposed to happen but does. I am not the student whose career was derailed by four years, or the student who dropped out of her program because another, more senior PhD student who lived above her terrified her to the point that she had to call the cops on him.

My academic pedigree is filled with excellent mentors and advisors, and it sits that way because I was explicitly trained and mentored by fellow graduate students from the start on what to look out for. Not everyone is that lucky, and not everyone has someone informally looking out for them to keep them safe from someone who thinks nothing of pinching a young students' career off at the bud for ego or gratification or simple heady power.

It shouldn't have to be a matter of being lucky.
posted by sciatrix at 8:48 PM on September 16, 2017 [47 favorites]

Ugh! The main reason I left my Ph.D. program was because of my advisor's sexual harassment. I was stuck at a remote field site where I had to barricade my door. I abandoned a NSF fellowship to get away from him. I'm fortunate to have a great job now - in a non-academic field. I don't have much to offer to this conversation except to support others who ended up choosing plan "B" instead of being harassed.
posted by shrabster at 8:54 PM on September 16, 2017 [24 favorites]

That undergrad on a hunger strike is amazing. She probably won't directly get the results that she wants, but her bravery should not be forgotten. It's not just the willingness to strike and take the discomfort, but to tell the rest of the world, at her young age: if you mistreat women around me, I will stop at nothing till you stop - that's what's impressive to me.
posted by Countess Elena at 8:54 PM on September 16, 2017 [26 favorites]

I have been so angry about this. I'm in cognitive science as an academic. I'm not even in linguistics nor at UR, and even I know this guy's reputation as a grade-A sexist, power-abusing ass.

Shit like this is why I laugh hollowly when people outside of academia complain about PC culture gone too far in the workplace, who then talk about universities and how they are way too PC. I fucking wish, buddy.
posted by nicodine at 9:41 PM on September 16, 2017 [28 favorites]

Ugh, yes, this also strikes me very close to home. I applied to this department at around the same time Celeste Kidd did, so it strikes particularly close that I could have been a target of this horrible man. I went somewhere else for grad school, though.

In addition to the harasser, who I hope gets fired then banned from science (hah!), I'm also extremely disappointed with head of the department and his lackadaisical response to complaints. When you allow a predator like that to stay in the department for ten years, you are complicit in the crime.
posted by tickingclock at 1:45 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

several women in the department, including Kidd, had endured “toxic experiences” with Jaeger. Yet, according to the complaint, DeAngelis found that Jaeger had not broken the university’s rules about “harassment.”

I actually think this is a really telling piece. Because these rules against harassment were written often twenty years ago, and even when written recently, are written generally by men who were around twenty years ago, and it's hard to express how fucking toxic the environment was, is, and continues to be. I readily believe someone could be toxic without breaking the 'Are You A Sexual Harasser' rubric, because these guys fucking DELIGHT in running right up to the other side of the red line and dancing a tarantella on it.

So they'll do things like talk about their sexual experiences and then be like "I was just talking about my RELATIONSHIPS, I didn't realize you were so SENSITIVE", and of course talking about RELATIONSHIPS isn't against the law, because there's no law you can make for gross looks while someone talks in a skeevy tone.

Sexual harassment tends to be like "I asked you for sex, you said no, I asked you for sex again" because the bright lines are the only ones the men that write the rules can be confident they haven't or will not violate.
posted by corb at 3:00 AM on September 17, 2017 [27 favorites]

I am jaded enough to not be surprised when Famous Powerful Dude turns out to be an abuser, but I'm stunned at the University's response:

They also said the president had ignored their complaints that they were being retaliated against for speaking out. University lawyers have "secretly combed" their work emails for information that could embarrass them, they said. In addition, their department chair has branded them liars at faculty meetings, some have been forced to leave the university, and others have been "systematically ostracized," they said.

We're gonna not only protect the guy, but we're going to double- and triple- down on being jerks.
posted by Gorgik at 5:37 AM on September 17, 2017 [4 favorites]

My son is an undergrad at U of R (not majoring in this department but thinking about a linguistics cluster) and this just sickens me. About the only leverage I feel I have as a parent is refusing to participate in their capital campaign, and even then, it feels like weaksauce.
posted by cooker girl at 5:45 AM on September 17, 2017

Tenure isn't the issue here. Tenure can already be revoked in cases of misbehavior such as these; the issue is not that universities can't fire tenured professors, it's that they don't.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 5:59 AM on September 17, 2017 [21 favorites]

Eric Baković had a good post about this at Language Log, with lots of links. I linked to the Open Letter to the Linguistic Society of America at LH, and I'm glad to see the story hit the blue. I saw this shit going on at my undergraduate college in the late '60s-early '70s and at my grad school (linguistics department) later in the '70s, and I'm appalled that it's still not only going on but being ignored and covered up by universities. This needs to stop, and the women who are putting themselves on the line to make that happen are heroes.
posted by languagehat at 6:52 AM on September 17, 2017 [14 favorites]

I've been wondering if this would hit mefi. Like many others upthread, I have met several people directly involved, including Jaeger, though I don't know him well at all. There have been rumors about this for years, and especially for the last year as the formal process stumbled along, but the EEOC complaint is much, much worse than anything I'd head. U of R's response is staggeringly bad as well. There's been a ton of discussion and soul-searching on linguist social media over the last couple weeks. I think this story is far from finished, and new developments have still been coming every few days.

My son is an undergrad at U of R (not majoring in this department but thinking about a linguistics cluster) and this just sickens me.

It may or may not help to hear from a random mefier about this but I can vouch for the linguistics department itself, I know many of the people there (including a former postdoc of mine who just started) and I believe that that department does not remotely have the same climate issues that BCS does right now. To be clear, while Jaeger has background as a linguist, he is not in the linguistics department. In fact, he does not appear to even have a secondary appointment in linguistics (which is a bit surprising given his research areas, I wonder if he did until recently?).

However, I do think the administration's response is so bad that it would make me worry about the overall climate at the university. The backlash is strong enough that I hope they do something.
posted by advil at 7:17 AM on September 17, 2017 [2 favorites]

I have a number of female friends who are or have been postgraduate or postdoctoral researchers, both in the UK and elsewhere. From what they have told me, the culture of sexual harassment by male academics (and indeed the toleration by them of harassment by male students) is pervasive and endemic. One said that she now discreetly advises women thinking of studying at her former (Russell Group) institution that in her view her former department simply can't be regarded as safe for female students.
posted by Major Clanger at 7:24 AM on September 17, 2017 [5 favorites]

Tenure isn't the issue here. Tenure can already be revoked in cases of misbehavior such as these; the issue is not that universities can't fire tenured professors, it's that they don't.

Part of the problem, though, is the way tenure is perceived, which makes schools less willing to can tenured professors, period. Of course, also feeding into this is the mentality that sexual harassment isn't actually a big issue...
posted by NoxAeternum at 11:26 AM on September 17, 2017 [1 favorite]

Generally speaking, if you have tenure, you are bringing revenue to the university. That is probably what speaks loudest to administrators.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 1:00 PM on September 17, 2017

From what they have told me, the culture of sexual harassment by male academics (and indeed the toleration by them of harassment by male students) is pervasive and endemic.

I remember reading an article about Naomi Wolf's allegations against Harold Bloom some years ago when I was a PhD student, and one of the defensive lines it contained was (I'm paraphrasing) "that cliché of the lecherous professor is really out of date now, it doesn't happen any more so it's not a problem." And thinking "??????" because just off the top of my head I could have named:
- one academic who had so much of what we used to call "a reputation" that conference planning explicitly assigned someone to keep an eye on him at social events;
- two academics who had left their departments under a cloud because of sleeping with several of their students, including particularly vulnerable students;
- several academics who collated and passed around a "Top Ten Undergraduate Girls" list at the start of every semester.
posted by Catseye at 1:43 AM on September 18, 2017 [5 favorites]

UR grad here (from a different department--I don't know any of these people). The CYA from the admin is horrifying but not surprising.
posted by orrnyereg at 10:42 AM on September 18, 2017

Received this email today:

The Board of Trustees of the University of Rochester has appointed a Special Committee to oversee an independent, comprehensive investigation into all matters involving the EEOC Complaint. The Committee will be chaired by Richard Handler and its members will initially consist of trustees Nomi Bergman, John Davidson, Lance Drummond and Lizette Pérez-Deisboeck. The Committee will also review the University’s processes and procedures related to addressing claims of sexual abuse and harassment. The Committee’s work will proceed to conclusion, irrespective of any decision by the EEOC or any other parties to pursue claims.

Chairman Danny Wegman stated, “This is a matter of utmost importance to the entire University community, and the Special Committee will conduct its investigation with complete independence, with access to all relevant information, and receive total cooperation from the University.” President Joel Seligman added that: “I welcome this independent investigation by the Board and assure the complete cooperation of the University and its staff. Students, faculty, staff, alumni and the public deserve a full and transparent accounting on this matter.”

The Special Committee has today retained Mary Jo White, Senior Chair of Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, to lead the investigation. Ms. White, who has served as both Chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York, has decades of investigative experience. Ms. White and her team have conducted numerous independent investigations involving sexual abuse and harassment at educational and other institutions. They will report the findings of the investigation to the Special Committee. The goal of the Special Committee is to complete the investigation by December 31, 2017, and once the investigation is completed, the findings will promptly be reported to the Board and made public to the University community. The Board of Trustees believes integrity is the cornerstone of every great university and only a rigorous, methodical, focused, and transparent process will be acceptable.

The University, with agreement from Professor Florian Jaeger, has put Professor Jaeger on administrative leave pending the outcome of the Special Committee’s investigation.

posted by cooker girl at 1:14 PM on September 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've seen folks flagging a potential conflict of interest for Mary Jo White, who is a colleague of UR President Joel Seligman. Seligman is a specialist in securities law, and White is a lawyer who previously lead the Securities and Exchange Commission. When White was nominated for the SEC Seligman was quoted as saying that she had a "consistent record of success as an effective leader, making quick decisions and learning on the job."

While looking for more info on Seligman and White's relationship I also discovered that Elizabeth Warren tried to get White demoted from SEC chair for having an "anti-disclosure agenda". Not sure that's relevant to the issue at hand, but it's not exactly endearing.
posted by galaxy rise at 7:21 PM on September 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

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