Something rotten in Rochester

The cognitive and brain science department at the University of Rochester had a good reputation, but one rotten apple, a computational linguist named T. Florian Jaeger seems to be spoiling the whole barrel.

Seven current and former professors, including Kidd and Aslin, as well as another former graduate student, have submitted identical EEOC complaints claiming that Jaeger, the University of Rochester, and several administrators violated laws that ban discrimination in the workplace and in federally funded education, and stating their intent to sue if the EEOC does not take up their case. The charges, laid out in a detailed 111-page document, allege that over a span of 10 years Jaeger contributed to a “hostile environment” for some graduate students, postdocs, and professors in the department, causing at least 11 women to actively avoid him and lose out on educational opportunities.

Charges were made and investigated, and the university ended up dismissing them and supporting Jaeger. I want to say that a procedure was followed and we should abide by the decision of the reviewers, except something is funny here. The results of the investigation weren’t exactly an acquittal.

The investigation into Jaeger’s behavior took about three months. In her final report, UR investigator Catherine Nearpass concluded that Jaeger had had a sexual relationship with at least one graduate student in the department, as well as a prospective Ph.D. student; that parts of his behavior were inappropriate; and that he “liked to push boundaries with students,” the EEOC complaint alleges. Still, the university ultimately found that Jaeger had not violated the university’s policy against discrimination and harassment, and that there was not enough evidence to conclude he sexually harassed Kidd or any other student in his lab. An appeal was unsuccessful.

Whoa. They confirmed that he was having inappropriate relationships with students, but did not find the complaints of 11 women credible? Something is seriously wrong with that investigation.

Also disturbing: these accusations were made before Jaeger was tenured, and he was tenured anyway. You’ve got a junior faculty member who can’t even keep it in his pants for the few years needed to earn tenure, and this wasn’t throwing red flags everywhere? Heck, this is a bonfire on the beach, flares and rockets being fired upwards, and it was just overlooked in the review?

It seems that the chair of the department, Greg DeAngelis, took Jaeger’s side, and is now retaliating against the faculty he accused of “smearing” Jaeger. The star of the department, Richard Aslin, has resigned in protest, and other faculty are trying to find jobs elsewhere.

Now here’s a statement from someone who knew Jaeger.

I went to graduate school with Florian Jaeger. He was a couple years ahead of me. I am not shocked that he’s been called out for sexualized behavior. I am shocked that he’s been called out for non-consensual behavior. It is totally okay to be a sexual being. It is utterly deplorable to be a sexual bully. His actions are not only morally reprehensible, but they are damaging to our entire academic community, and harmful to academic progress. Because I might have once called him a friend, it’s all the more disappointing and frankly frustrating that he has behaved in this way. (And yes, I am intentionally using active language here because we know that the default in discussions of sexual harassment is to use passive voice to protect the aggressor.)

Florian and I had lunch not too long ago, where he gave me some genuinely good advice about, ironically now, how to foster collegiality as a graduate supervisor. I’m not writing this blog post to demonize him, although he should clearly be held accountable for his actions. The point is not to shake our heads at one person, and then totally give up on that person, and just chalk it up to an isolated incident, and move on with our lives as if it has nothing to do with us. The point is that we are all complicit. This is a systemic problem, and has been for a long time. I believe the only way we’re going to change it is if we academics take responsibility for ourselves, and have hard discussions with one another, and try as much as possible to listen humbly and fully and not get defensive. Especially those of us with relatively more power. Especially men.

This is a system that doesn’t consider an abuse of power to be a reason to not give more power to the abuser, so this is exactly correct.


  1. Allison says

    This somehow reminds me of the infamous Hugo Schwyzer.

    It also reminds me of the many on-line disagreements I had years ago (before I gave up arguing with these people) with people (mostly guys, maybe even exclusively guys) who didn’t see the (to me) obvious power imbalances as a reason that professors shouldn’t have sex with students. To them, the possibility that the relationship was less than consensual did not override the professor’s need to act upon his urges.

    Phallocracy in action.

  2. jrkrideau says

    Aslin and a colleague, Jessica Cantlon, complained to the university
    Seven current and former professors, including Kidd and Aslin, as well as another former graduate student, have submitted identical EEOC complaints

    Good lord, when was the last time anyone saw something like this?

    The University of Rochester seems to be digging itself a hole and pulling the dirt in after it.

  3. says

    Usually the excuse is that Big Name brings in Big Grant money, so we’re going to strain to overlook his assholery.

    In this case, the Big Name is Aslin, who is leaving; they’re losing other funded faculty, as well as killing their future prospects for good faculty hires. I guess the perk of being able to frolic among the young female students is just not something they can bear to lose.

  4. dalmeida says

    Just a small correction:

    > Also disturbing: these accusations were made before Jaeger was tenured, and he was tenured anyway.

    Jeager was already tenured at the time the accusations were formally made. What happened is that he was actually *promoted to full professor* while the investigation was ongoing.

    The whole case is deeply disturbing.

  5. whywhywhy says

    When the next time someone asks why women drop out of the sciences at greater rates than men, just point to this. Abuse of power can crush people.

  6. EK says

    As someone familiar with the department: Dick Aslin was well on his way towards retirement and to my knowledge no longer taking students, so he was no longer the Big Name bringing in Big Grant Money — which is, indeed, Florian. Florian would also have continued to bring in grant money for decades, potentially. So the motivations here are exactly what they usually are.

  7. FiveString says

    UR alumnus here (though my experience with the department in question was limited to an excellent freshman year preceptorial). I’m beyond disappointed by how terribly they’re handling this. The official statement from the University president is particularly craven and the reaction to it among alumni on FB is nearly unanimous in calling for his resignation.