“Is UR safe?” read a chalked message on a walkway on the University of Rochester’s campus on Sunday night, September 10. “Not for women. Not for us.” Pastel text gave the time and details of a protest scheduled for that Wednesday. By eight the next morning, the chalk was washed away, leaving wet, blank pavement. Like nothing had ever happened.
But the protesters rechalked right away, undeterred from their plan: to occupy the classroom of brain and cognitive sciences professor T. Florian Jaeger.
The occupation was to be in protest of Jaeger’s continued employment after a 111-page complaint, filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleged that the professor had harassed students, entered into inappropriate relationships with them, and created a hostile work environment. “We will just be taking up space,” Jenna Register, who works as a lab manager in Jaeger’s department and co-organized the protest, told WIRED before the planned event. “That makes it physically hard for him to teach if he shows up, because he has made it physically hard for women to work in the field.”
The complaint, which the complainants released online on September 7 and Mother Jones covered the next day, also alleges that the university retaliated against seven of the eight EEOC complainants. The classroom occupation was to be followed by a march to the office of university president Joel Seligman, in protest of the school’s handling of its investigations into Jaeger, its policies on sexual harassment, and Seligman’s response to the publication of the EEOC complaint. Register and protest co-organizer Lindsay Wrobel planned to read aloud the novella-length complaint until Seligman agreed to meet with them.
That’s not how things went down, though. On September 12 Jaeger emailed his students, canceling the next day’s class. “Some of you will feel unable to attend a class taught by me,” he wrote. “I can imagine how this must feel, and do not want you to be in that position.” Jaeger gave up his teaching responsibilities for the semester, and the university found an instructor to fill his place.
Seligman held an hours-long town hall meeting the same evening, during which he promised that an independent investigator would examine some of the complaint’s claims and that an outsider would evaluate campus policies and procedures. The university would follow the EEOC process, he said, and he would institute a Commission on Women and Gender in Academia. Despite cursing, shouting, and interjections, Seligman said he would not fire anyone without further investigation. “Some of the allegations [in the complaint] are totally false,” Seligman said. “Some of the allegations, I believe, are probably true. The question is, do they rise to a level where they are actionable under our standard?”
But that question—what is on the books versus what is right, and according to whom?—is at the core of this case. Do the school’s rules protect the university over its students? Does the opacity of university-led investigations hinder their effectiveness? The complainants’ answer to both questions is “yes,” and they filed and released the EEOC complaint to argue as much.
The majority of those complainants are professors, bringing forward harassment allegations on students’ behalf. “All of us need to learn how to handle these things better,” says Elissa Newport, former department chair and one of the complainants. “I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a young woman alone, and to be the only voice.”
But while their academic stature and experience lend the complaint heft, its preemptive publication also introduces new ways for the system to go sideways and complicates the balance between privacy and accountability. Interviews conducted by WIRED found the complaint contains secondhand stories of women who weren’t consulted about their own experiences—experiences that, when made public, could cause professional and personal damage to exactly the kinds of people the complaint claims to want to protect.
The story starts in March 2007, when Celeste Kidd, then a student at the University of Southern California, went to visit the University of Rochester. Kidd wanted to get her PhD in brain and cognitive sciences, and it was the university’s graduate student recruitment weekend. During her trip, she met Jaeger, a computational linguist who was about to start as a professor in the department. After the weekend was over, Jaeger messaged Kidd on Facebook about the weekend’s parties. The school had a somewhat storied social history, he told her, once famous for its no-clothes gatherings.
Later that month, Kidd and Jaeger ended up at the same conference on human sentence processing in San Diego. In Facebook messages during that meeting (cited in the EEOC complaint), he suggested that Kidd read aloud to him a manuscript she was writing. He wrote that he could “lie lazily on the couch (you have to pace around occasionally in front of the fire place … ).” Kidd, according to the EEOC filing, “was uncomfortable with this blatantly romantic description of their future working relationship.”
At a conference-adjacent party, Jaeger introduced Kidd to another prospective Rochester student. Later that evening, Kidd says she walked in on Jaeger and the student—kissing, his hand up her shirt. Kidd says she walked quietly away. “I felt embarrassed and humiliated and deeply disturbed, because I had previously been considering very seriously wanting to go to Rochester,” she recently told WIRED. She says she conveyed as much to Jaeger the next morning, via Facebook. “I don’t know how comfy I’d feel at Rochester at this point,” Kidd wrote in messages viewed by WIRED. She continued, “I’m totally weirded out.”
Two days later, Jaeger replied on Facebook: “I asked the rochester authorities today about certain student-faculty relations and I am in no danger.” But whichever authorities he was referring to apparently didn’t include Newport or the university’s director of graduate studies, Richard Aslin. The two tell WIRED they knew nothing of these relations, or of other allegations that would later come to light. It wasn’t until years later, Aslin says, that he began hearing stories—Kidd’s and others’—about alleged inappropriate actions from Jaeger.
Kidd eventually accepted Rochester’s offer to start graduate school in the fall of 2007, to work in Aslin’s lab toward a dissertation about decisionmaking mechanisms. Around that time Jaeger made, according to the EEOC filing, an offer of his own: Kidd could stay in a spare room at his apartment during the summer before her studies started.
The arrangement continued into the school year. While Kidd was living at Jaeger’s apartment, the complaint alleges, Jaeger urged her to drive him to “what turned out to be sexual liaisons” during conferences; frequented student-only parties; and insisted that she share housing with him during conferences. He allegedly asked about her sex life, speculated about her ex-partner’s penis size, and asked how many sexual partners she had had, according to the complaint. “Blowjobs count.” But “American girls never count blowjobs” are quotes from the EEOC complaint, drawn from testimony Kidd gave to lawyers at the firm McAllister Olivarius, who prepared the complaint. According to Kidd’s testimony for the complaint, Jaeger appeared on one of her dates and “told the date that Kidd needed to have sex because she was so tightly wound.” Jaeger chose not to provide comment to WIRED, after multiple requests.
The EEOC complaint also incorporates testimony given to McAllister Olivarius by other students and postdocs who allege Jaeger behaved inappropriately. A former graduate student, pseudonymized as Georgia Gordon, claimed that at a 2008 holiday party Jaeger “announced that another faculty member had told Jaeger that he found Gordon sexually attractive.” Jessica Cantlon, an associate professor in the department and one of the EEOC complainants, testified for the complaint about a faculty dinner party when Jaeger asked another professor, “So, what part of Georgia really does it for you?” Another former grad student claimed she had an open relationship with Jaeger, and the complaint contains a story about a sexual relationship with a former undergraduate who had worked in his lab during college. The faculty handbook has changed since the time of these events, but according to a cached copy, captured in 2012 but last updated in 2008, the university then “strongly discourage[d]” sexual or romantic relationships between employees and students over whom they exercise authority, including the “evaluative” kind. Jaeger later wrote, according to the complaint and an interview with Newport, the former undergraduate’s recommendation letters. And Jaeger wasn’t the grad student’s supervisor, but, according to a summary of her testimony in the EEOC complaint, she “believed Jaeger had a manipulative personality and had used his role as a professor to manipulate her.” The EEOC complaint claims she repeatedly tried to end the relationship with Jaeger. “However, each time he continued to pursue her. He showed up at her house late at night,” the complaint says. He sent emails and texts, it continues, as well as “unwanted photographs of his penis.”
One of the people who testified for the EEOC complaint about Jaeger’s alleged creation of a “taxing, strange, and unequal environment” recently told WIRED, “I actively avoided him because he made me uncomfortable. I felt like he intentionally made women feel uncomfortable with sexual innuendo, with flirtation, to a degree that was just really persistent.”
None of the students mentioned, including Kidd, brought a formal complaint forward at the time.
According to the EEOC complaint, the first known person to report Jaeger’s alleged behavior to university officials was Keturah Bixby. In 2013, Bixby, then a grad student in the department, became concerned that Jaeger’s reputation among young scientists was hurting Rochester’s recruitment. So she decided to talk to Greg DeAngelis, who had taken over as chair of the brain and cognitive sciences department the year before.
Bixby, according to the EEOC complaint’s account of her testimony to McAllister Olivarius, says she gave DeAngelis the names of affected students in November 2013. “There were consistent patterns of behavior in the stories,” DeAngelis wrote Bixby in March 2014. “I spent some time reviewing the university policies, and I concluded that none of the stories that I was told were in violation of the university’s policy on harassment, etc.” DeAngelis is now listed as a defendant in the EEOC complaint. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Aslin, now a senior faculty member and the director of the Rochester Center for Brain Imaging, says he still had not been aware of students’ alleged experiences with Jaeger. But in 2016, the department held a meeting that included discussion of student-professor relationships. Follow-up conversations between faculty members revealed stories from students about Jaeger’s alleged behavior, according to the complaint and interviews with Aslin and Cantlon.
In March 2016, the EEOC complaint says, Aslin wrote to the university’s office of counsel. “I have become aware of some very serious allegations about sexual harassment by a faculty member,” Aslin wrote, according to the complaint. “I feel obligated to tell you what I know and to initiate a formal investigation.” According to the EEOC complaint, the university gave Aslin’s information to Catherine Nearpass, its associate counsel for employment and labor relations. (Nearpass did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.) Cantlon later filed her own complaint, which the university combined with Aslin’s.
In May 2016, six weeks before the investigation officially concluded, the University of Rochester made Jaeger a full professor. And in June, dean Robert Clark examined the results of Nearpass’ investigation and came to the conclusion that that Jaeger hadn’t broken school policy. Clark did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.
Aslin and Cantlon appealed that decision in July 2016, but the university upheld its original findings. So last month, unsatisfied with that response, Aslin, Kidd, Cantlon, Newport, three other professors, and Bixby filed their 111-page complaint with the EEOC. They cited the alleged experiences of 11 students and postdocs (including Kidd) who claim they “actively avoided working with Jaeger because of his constant sexual innuendos, pressure to sleep with students, power plays and other unprofessional behavior.” They also formally claimed there had been retaliation against some of those who had spoken about Jaeger’s reported behavior.
The University of Rochester and its relevant employees, the complainants claim, have violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, Title IX, and New York State law by subjecting a subset of them to hostile work or educational environments, retaliating against seven of them, and constructively discharging two of them. The claims also include defamation, and negligence for continuing to employ Jaeger after the allegations surfaced.
“The core allegations in this complaint were thoroughly investigated and were not found to be substantiated,” University of Rochester spokesperson Sara Miller wrote to WIRED. “Dozens of individuals were interviewed in two separate investigations—one by an internal investigator and one conducted by an external investigator. Neither investigation found any violation of the law or of University policy. The University is firmly committed to fostering a supportive and safe learning and working environment and to full compliance with all anti-discrimination laws. We will vigorously defend against the allegations in this complaint.”
The EEOC complainants say that the Nearpass investigation was incomplete, claiming that Nearpass didn’t check, for instance, Kidd’s archive of Facebook messages from Jaeger or consider Kidd’s entire testimony. In Nearpass’ assessment, the complaint says, anonymous witnesses had questioned her credibility, and the time lag between Kidd’s official complaint and the events in question lent her account less credibility. But Kidd didn’t come forward as a student, she says, because retaliation could have ruined her burgeoning career. “I think that decision, now knowing what has happened, was exactly right,” she says.
The complainants also say Nearpass didn’t interview relevant witnesses. “Each omission matters,” the EEOC complaint says. “Jaeger’s misconduct can only be ‘pervasive’ if there is a pattern. The more evidence Nearpass omitted, the greater the likelihood that no pattern would be found.”
Ann Olivarius, a lawyer from the firm that prepared the EEOC complaint, says the term “pervasive” can be key to claiming something is sexual harassment. “Under Title IX, sexual harassment only warrants a complaint if it is sufficiently severe, persistent, or pervasive that it adversely affects a student’s education or creates a hostile or abusive educational environment,” she says.
And under the university’s own Policy 106, the alleged violation of which was the basis of the school’s investigation, something similar is true. According to that policy, conduct must be “either of an extraordinarily severe or egregious nature” or “repeated with sufficient frequency and/or continuity” to qualify as harassment.
“There are these very general allegations about him using a lot of sexual language and making people uncomfortable through that language,” a former brain and cognitive sciences graduate student told WIRED. “That’s certainly something that he did. He would make sometimes crude remarks or jokes that were sexual in nature. And then the question is, do people feel uncomfortable or not? It’s very clear that it made certain people uncomfortable.”
“At the time, each isolated incident always felt like it could be excused somehow,” one of Jaeger’s former students says, reflecting on his experiences and those alleged in the complaint. “But seeing all of these stories together shows that this was a mistake.”
Harassment in academia, once kept secret inside university offices and protected by confidentiality rules, is being made public more often, as complainants speak to the press and file claims to external courts. Last year, each month featured at least one big new piece of reporting. In most instances, directly affected students bring forward their own harassment allegations. But even more often, no one brings sexual misconduct to light.
“What is extraordinary about this case is that it’s very rare,” Olivarius says. “We have two senior professors who are extremely gifted, with distinguished records. And they are saying, ‘This is so important.’ “
“I didn’t feel that I was under any risk by bringing forward the complaint because I was a senior faculty member,” Aslin recently told WIRED, about taking the initial complaint to the university. And although the decision to file the EEOC complaint does carry risks for the seven professors, they have established careers, and thus have less to fear than students bringing allegations to a university or the EEOC. This group includes two National Academy of Sciences members, one of Science News’s “Top 10 Scientists to Watch,” one of Forbes’s “30 under 30 in Science and Innovation,” and the co-editor-in-chief of Cognitive Neuropsychology, among other professional honors.
Regardless, the investigation and its aftermath have, according to Aslin, dichotomized the brain and cognitive scientists at the University of Rochester: There are those who are willing to move on. And then there are those who most definitely are not. “I think, to be quite blunt, it’s destroyed the department,” Aslin says.
WIRED spoke to four faculty members who were not part of the complaint. No faculty WIRED spoke to about specific harassment allegations corroborated or refuted the alleged events, though two said they had personally witnessed behavior they thought was inappropriate. But harassment can come in diffuse form—atomized comments here and there that add up to a hostile atmosphere. More important than whether a professor has explicitly broken the rules, the complainants believe, is whether discrete instances of discomfort are part of a pattern.
Some faculty not involved in the complaint agreed that while Jaeger may not have violated a specific, codified policy, perhaps that’s because the university’s policies and procedures need revision.
After the first investigation concluded and the by-the-book bid yielded nothing satisfying, one faculty member says, “the accusers went on a campaign to convince everybody—not just inside but also outside the department—to convince us of their point of view.” According to the EEOC complaint, the complainants “only discussed the investigation with other [brain and cognitive sciences] colleagues when it was clear that UR would take no action to rein in Jaeger nor to protect witnesses, including Kidd.” Other faculty say some professors continued to try to work with the administration to ensure students have a legal, fair educational environment. Still others felt like all discussion should have concluded when the investigation seemed to clear Jaeger.
That rift continued to grow after the complainants filed with the EEOC—and especially when, on September 7, the full complaint appeared online and attracted national media attention. Complaints filed with the EEOC are usually available by FOIA or Section 83 request only after an investigation concludes. They’re also available directly to the complainants or “respondents” (defendants), the latter only once a lawsuit is pending, says EEOC spokeswoman and director of communications staff Kimberly Smith-Brown. When the documents are in the hands of either party in a complaint, what those parties do with the information is up to them. “They can share the documents with anyone they choose,” Smith-Brown says.
In this case, the complainants released a copy online September 7. “As the complainants, there is value in publicizing complaints like this in order to put pressure on the defendant,” says lawyer Mark Zaid, a Rochester alum who specializes in, among other things, cases involving the Freedom of Information Act. But the pressure doesn’t just push in one direction, he says, when a set of allegations goes public.
“It’s not like you can give the media a copy of the complaint and say, ‘Only focus on the allegations that I’ve filed because those are the true ones. Don’t bother to ask me any hard questions,’” Zaid says. “It doesn’t work like that.”
One hard question about the Rochester complaint: How do those who want to illuminate shadowy university processes by speaking publicly about them do so without causing collateral damage?
It’s complicated. In this case, some people feel like they were collateral damage.
Not all of the pseudonymized women referenced in the complaint knew of its preparation. The complainants’ lawyers took testimony from nine of the 11 women who allegedly avoided Jaeger “at the cost of their education,” while the other two students’ alleged stories come secondhand from a scientist who claims the students confided in her. But stories about four other pseudonymous women’s relationships with Jaeger—which appear as a kind of scene-setting and are not part of those 11 testimonials—are attributed, in the complaint’s citations, to secondhand sources. Their stories would ordinarily have stayed on EEOC servers, at least until an investigation’s conclusion or a lawsuit. But because the complainants released the document, anyone with a browser can now read about them.
WIRED spoke to two of these four women. They say they were not given the opportunity to tell their own stories, and they found out about the complaint like everyone else: by reading about it on the internet. Lawyer Jef McAllister confirmed that McAllister Olivarius did not interview these four pseudonymous women whose alleged sexual relationships with Jaeger are described in the document.
When asked why they chose not to speak to the four women, the firm had multiple answers. For one woman, the firm feared that sharing her story would have left her open to retaliation. Two more were never students at the University of Rochester, and “were also sort of tangential to the crux of the complaint as they were not UR students.” The story of the fourth, McAllister says, came from several witnesses, and the firm corroborated it using her emails and her testimony to Nearpass.
The two women WIRED spoke with were troubled that the accounts of their experiences that appear in the complaint came largely from others’ testimonies, and appeared there without their consent or prior knowledge—especially since, as one of the woman pointed out, the complaint made private parts of their lives public, including potentially identifying details. “The relationship was a couple months, but it’s mentioned over and over again in that report,” she says. “How am I supposed to deal with this very small—in a way insignificant—blip in my own romantic life, and have it be now in the public’s domain?” While the facts of her life that appear in the complaint are correct, she says, the lens through which they’re viewed isn’t her own. “The people who came forward—I don’t want to dismiss anything they hypothetically felt and experienced,” she says. “But it does concern me that they got their say while others didn’t.”
Kidd says that the complainants took privacy seriously, and were balancing that with their legal claims. She notes that events involving some people who appear in the complaint but were not interviewed contributed to a hostile work environment for other people. “None of us took it lightly when considering what to include and what to not,” she says. Steven Piantadosi, Kidd’s husband and a complainant in the EEOC filing, emphasizes that the complaint was prepared by their attorneys, who “went to extreme efforts to ensure that people’s anonymity was ensured as best as possible while still respecting the legal issues.”
But both women who weren’t interviewed believe the EEOC complaint’s pseudonyms leave vulnerable the women they’re intended to protect. A current student in the Rochester brain and cognitive sciences department, who is not part of the complaint, agrees that the pseudonyms are thin cover. The complaint contains, in some cases, details about the jobs the women held in specific years and their previous institutional affiliations. “For a small field like this, many of us who weren’t contacted are identifiable, and that almost feels violating at this point,” the previously quoted pseudonymous woman says. “I didn’t feel like a victim of Florian, but I almost feel like a victim of this report.”
At the town hall meeting on September 12, during the protest the next day, and into the following weeks, the tone of some of the Rochester community has been one of outrage and demand for action. Wrobel, one of the protest organizers, started a hunger strike September 14—a journey she documented via Snapchat—and vowed to continue until Jaeger was removed or she went to the hospital.
Some students at the University of Rochester—some of whom were only in elementary or middle school when the first of Jaeger’s alleged actions took place—are upset about the lack of transparency in universities’ investigations.
“We were kept entirely in the dark about the sexual harassment allegations of 11 women against Florian Jaeger,” brain and cognitive sciences grad student Shirlene Wade said at the protest, her voice quavering.
But transparency—placing information in the public eye, whether it’s the eye of fellow department members or of the national media—can also have its costs. Because, ultimately, the allegations against Jaeger remain, from a legal and actionable standpoint, just that: allegations. People can (and do and will) disagree about whether that should be the case, whether the rules and processes are adequate, whether the university officials judged the ones they knew about correctly, whether they should have sought out more, and who deserves what due process at this late hour if the rules, processes, and judgments have been inadequate.
Things, though, are progressing: The EEOC has issued a right-to-sue letter to one of the complainants. And last Tuesday, the university’s board of trustees announced it had formed a special committee to oversee an independent investigation into the EEOC complaint and review the university’s sexual abuse and harassment procedures. The committee’s findings will be released publicly; the complainants and commenters on the protest Facebook page say they doubt that the investigation is truly independent. Jaeger will be on administrative leave until the investigation concludes.
Wrobel ended her hunger strike on September 19, documenting its conclusion in a Snapchat story that opened with a shot of a half moon cookie.
In the midst of all this turmoil, someone created T-shirts: “If you love something you hold it accountable,” the shirts say. “#meliora.”
Meliora, the school’s motto, means “ever better.”