(Image via University of Rochester)

What Schools Can Learn from the University of Rochester’s Sexual Harassment Scandal

Going forward, schools need to better execute sexual harassment investigations as well as investigate as independently and thoroughly as possible.

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Going forward, schools need to better execute sexual harassment investigations as well as investigate as independently and thoroughly as possible.

If you haven’t heard, the private University of Rochester is undergoing a sexual harassment scandal, with accusations against a professor for sexual harassment and against the university for retaliating against the complainants when coming forward with accusations.

Seven of the brain and cognitive sciences faculty or former faculty, as well as a graduate student, of the University of Rochester have accused Dr. Florian Jaeger, a brain and cognitive sciences professor, of sexual harassment or creating a hostile work environment.

These eight people have filed a 111-page complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission claiming that Jaeger is a narcissistic and manipulative sexual predator, abusing his position of power to intimidate or control his graduate students and post-docs.

The complaint claims that Jaeger engaged in numerous sexual relationships with students, used obnoxious and objectifying sexual language, sexted inappropriate pictures to a female student and made it clear that students who wanted to excel needed to please him socially and sometimes sexually.

The complaint also alleges that Jaeger intentionally humiliated female students and knowingly made women feel physically unsafe, causing eleven female students and post-docs to avoid Jaeger, which made them lose educational opportunities and valuable training.

Unfortunately, that’s not all that’s in the complaint. The complaint alleges that the University of Rochester tried to disparage the complainants by publicly portraying their accusations as “rumors” and “misinformation,” while also praising Jaeger’s contributions to the brain and cognitive sciences department and the university as a whole.

Lastly, the EEOC complaint claims that the two investigations the university conducted into Jaeger’s behavior were biased and inadequate, with the Title IX office downplaying Jaeger’s misconduct.

The Backlash

The backlash from these complaints has been fierce. Jaeger has been placed on leave and the University of Rochester has hired an outside lawyer to lead a renewed investigation of the complaints: Mary Jo White, the chairwomen of the Securities and Exchange Commission and the only woman to have served as the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The university previously investigated these complaints twice — once with an internal investigator and once with an external investigator—and found no violations of the university’s policy. But concerns into the independence and the thoroughness of those investigations is what led to the hiring of Mary Jo White and the renewed investigation.

Students have been outraged by the complaints, with hundreds of students attending a three-hour town hall held by the university president Joe Seligman. According to university student Lindsay Wrobel, the town hall “was loud – people were very angry.” Wrobel also endured a six-day hunger strike, from September 13 to September 20, ending only when the university put Jaeger on a leave of absence.

What Schools Can Learn from Rochester

Clearly, there was a lot that the University of Rochester probably should have done better, but with every school that screws up internal investigations into sexual misconduct, harassment or assault there is a chance for other schools to make sure that they don’t make those same mistakes.

1. Conduct unbiased, independent investigations.

The University of Rochester has an Office of Counsel, which, according to their website, “oversees all aspects of the University’s legal services” and “manages all litigation and other legal proceedings on behalf of the University and its employees.” Because the Office of Counsel handles all aspects of the university’s legal services, it has to investigate Jaeger while also representing the University of Rochester.

This is a huge conflict of interest, because how can the Office of Counsel independently investigate a university professor of sexual harassment when they also have to protect the University of Rochester from legal matters?

Universities need to have independent departments to investigate claims brought against their professors and shouldn’t allow the same department that works to protect them legally to investigate claims against their professors. Otherwise, you can’t really be sure the investigation is being conducted independently.

2. Adhere with the policies in their handbooks.

The University of Rochester has a clear anti-retaliation policy that states: “The University prohibits retaliation against any person who complains of or opposes perceived unlawful discrimination or harassment. Retaliation is illegal and will not be tolerated.”

Schools should not retaliate against those who have complaints about a student or a professor. It’s never a good look when a school is trying to disparage or discredit someone bringing a complaint forward. Honestly, nothing good comes out of retaliating against someone as a university. It makes the school look even worse and helps bolster the complaint brought forward.

Besides looking terrible, it is also illegal to retaliate against someone who complains to the school. That’s another pretty compelling reason to not retaliate against a complainant.

3. Don’t actively try to discredit complainants or accusers while praising the accused.

Another thing the University of Rochester did which schools should not do at all is trying to discredit the complainants while praising the accused. The University of Rochester did exactly that when it accused those who complained of spreading rumors and misinformation while trying to praise Jaeger’s contributions to the brain and cognitive sciences department.

Jaeger also received a promotion while being investigated for sexual harassment. That is certainly not okay, in any case.

Schools need to learn that when they’re being investigated or conducting investigations, the best thing to do is to not comment. Don’t comment on those who complained and don’t comment on those who have been accused. Stay neutral during investigations because a school takes a side by smearing any complainant or praising the accused and it makes the school look really bad.

The University of Rochester has done a lot of wrong during this whole debacle. And while it might be on the right track now after hiring an independent, outside counsel to conduct its investigation, it can’t erase the damage they did to their reputation.

The best way for a school to come out of sexual harassment investigations relatively unscathed is to be cooperative and independent. Don’t retaliate, don’t discredit and certainly don’t have conflicts of interest with the investigations being conducted.

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Lizzy Spangler

University of North Texas
Digital and Print Journalism

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