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Sexual Harassment Charges Roil Elite University Department

Dr. Jessica Cantlon, left, and Dr. Celeste Kidd, professors in University of Rochester’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences, are among a group of faculty members who have said the college retaliated against them for accusing Dr. T. Florian Jaeger of sexual harassment.

With its frosted glass windows, gleaming hardwood floors and modern teal chairs, the office of the University of Rochester’s Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences seems designed to project prestige. The sleek appearance fits the department’s reputation as one of this private university’s crown jewels, with a graduate program ranked as high as fourth in the nation by the National Research Council.
But for the past year, the department has become the site of a fierce — and until recently, secretive — battle over allegations of repeated sexual harassment. The allegations have led to a federal discrimination complaint, the resignation of one of the department’s founding members, and, in the coming months, the planned departure of four more faculty members.
“This is a bitterly divided department,” Joel Seligman, the university’s president, said at a Tuesday evening town hall meeting attended by hundreds of students, less than 30 minutes after Dr. T. Florian Jaeger, a professor in the department who had been accused of sexual harassment and cleared by the university, announced in an email to students that he would not teach the remainder of his course this semester because of the outcry.
The allegations were detailed in a 111-page complaint filed Aug. 30 with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and first reported by Mother Jones magazine. In the complaint, seven of the department’s current or former faculty members and a graduate student accused Dr. Jaeger of years of harassment and intimidation, and said they experienced retaliation and defamation by university administrators when they tried to bring his behavior to light.
Last year, two professors in the department, Dr. Richard Aslin and Dr. Jessica Cantlon, filed a sexual harassment complaint against Dr. Jaeger with the university, which was investigated by Catherine Nearpass, the university’s associate counsel for employment and labor relations issues. Administrators found that Dr. Jaeger had not violated university policy on discrimination and harassment. The professors appealed, and the university upheld the decision. After that, the professors said, they faced sustained retaliation from university leadership.
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, a University of Rochester professor, was accused of sexual harassment and cleared by the university.
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.


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