D&C watchdog reporter Lauren Peace has an exclusive conversation with Dr. Jessica Cantlon and Dr. Celeste Kidd who were among those named Time magazine’s ‘Person of the Year’ for tackling sexual harassment at the University of Rochester.
Virginia Butler/Lauren Peace
A federal lawsuit filed Friday involving allegations of sexual misconduct and retaliation at the University of Rochester takes direct aim at President Joel Seligman and Provost Robert Clark.
The lawsuit focuses on events within UR’s prestigious Brain and Cognitive Sciences department while noting cases elsewhere on campus. But Seligman and Clark are singled out for allegedly creating a permissive environment — through their professional and personal conduct — that tolerated such behavior, the lawsuit claims.
“Our issue is no longer with Jaeger, whose conduct no one at the University is still defending. It’s the institutional problems,” said Celeste Kidd, one of the plaintiffs. “The system failed to protect students who lacked the power to protect themselves. Then it came after the people who tried to defend those students and fix the system.”
Kidd was among multiple complainants who went to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in late August with concerns that UR had protected noted psycholinguistics professor T. Florian Jaeger and retaliated against his accusers.
Jaeger allegedly engaged in sexual relationships and illegal drug use with students, made inappropriate, humiliating or condescending comments to and about female students and faculty, pressured them to meet with him alone, and conditioned access with being part of his social circle.
He has denied the allegations and has been cleared by internal UR investigations, but agreed to administrative leave back in September.
Yet, according to the lawsuit, Jaeger “continues to work at BCS, move around campus and interact with students and faculty apparently as if nothing has happened.”
UR did not immediately respond to a message left regarding that claim. A spokeswoman issued a written statement earlier in the day that read, in part: “We will not comment on any matter that we have not had a chance to review, and we currently plan to withhold comment until the completion of the independent investigation commissioned by a special committee of the University of Rochester’s Board of Trustees.”
That review is being conducted by former U.S. Attorney and Security and Exchange Commission chairwoman Mary Jo White and her team from Debevoise & Plimpton. They expect to release their findings by Jan. 12.
The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court and numbering 192 pages, is being brought by nine current and former UR professors and students represented by McAllister Olivarius. It names UR along with Seligman and Clark, directly, and was filed Friday to meet a 90-day deadline set by the EEOC to move forward.
“We regret we are being forced to file this suit,” the plaintiffs said in a joint statement. “However, because UR has refused to resolve our complaint, or even speak to us about it, we now must proceed to court or lose our rights forever to seek the law’s protections. We have seen repeatedly that UR has deflected and concealed problems of sexual harassment rather than tackling them. We do not want other victims to keep suffering in silence.”
The lawsuit levels charges of breach of contract, hostile work environment, retaliation and defamation while seeking unspecified damages.
Like the EEOC complaint, it goes into exhaustive detail about the allegations against Jaeger and UR’s response while also making assertions about Seligman and Clark’s personal relationships as well as their spending habits on the job. Lawyers for the plaintiffs also take aim at the validity of the trustees’ outside investigation and raise questions about whether UR has continued to search through plaintiffs’ and possible other alleged assault and harassment victims email accounts.
“Our complaint goes beyond the bad actions of a single faculty member and includes the aggressive actions of university leaders who protect harassers and silence victims,” said Jessica Cantlon, one of the plaintiffs, charging that UR’s “hostile approach to sexual harassment complaints puts so many women at risk.”
Jessica Cantlon and Celeste Kidd are two of the UR faculty to file an EEOC complaint against the university.
“Sexual harassment and failure to protect students from retaliation keeps women from pursuing educational opportunities freely,” said Kidd.
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