Joel Seligman is doing the right thing.
By resigning as president of the University of Rochester, he is taking ultimate responsibility for a toxic culture fomented by many people and circumstances. Lots of factors, but not all, were beyond his control. By closing the door to 240 Wallis Hall behind him, however, Seligman is starting a process that could lead to monumental change – not just at UR, but throughout academia and beyond.
This is a moment in time. The University of Rochester should lead the way.
On Friday morning, the Editorial Board met with former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, who led an extensive, independent investigation into allegations of sexual harassment at UR, as well as a faculty member and a graduate student who served among her team members. We left the meeting feeling confident in their findings and the recommendations that resulted from the probe.
Florian Jaeger has rightly been cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but his history of professional, moral, and ethical judgment goes beyond poor choices and immaturity. There are plenty of young, 30-somethings who recognize that, when Jaeger was their age, his behavior was reprehensible. Presumably he grew wiser with time — though disciplinary action, mandated training, and a more restrictive UR policy on intimate relationships certainly played a role as he evolved into a much better teacher.
Jaeger’s improved behavior and recent apologies, however, do not change the fact that young women paid a price for what he did. We will never know how many women, or how high that price was. It is impossible to quantify, and we applaud those who came forward.
But, we do know that these women are not alone.
The University of Rochester is not an island of sexual misconduct; it undoubtedly happens on every college campus. Nor is UR less vigilant than others in trying to define, detect and address it. The independent investigation benchmarked the university’s sexual harassment policies, procedures, and practices against those of 18 other educational institutions.
“The University of Rochester was above the norm or at the norm for other schools,” White noted.
Obviously, the norm is not enough.
As our entire nation grapples with sexual harassment – in Hollywood, government, and the workplace – academia should share in the notoriety. Academia should also take the lead in increasing our understanding of sexual harassment, how to define and detect it, and – most important — how to stop it.
“Let the University of Rochester be the thought leader, the moral leader…” White suggested to our board, as she touched on the report’s numerous recommendations that many in the UR community appear eager to explore and potentially adopt. She is hopeful the university can come up with additional measures on its own, and so are we.
But, for now, there remains a toxic culture on campus. The anger, distrust, and pain were not crushed under the weight of White’s 200-page report. In fact, some of the facts it discloses could cause additional damage.
It is extremely unfortunate that Seligman’s presidency is ending in this way. While his accomplishments at the university are many, this Editorial Board has also pointed out the incredible contributions Seligman has made to our entire community. And, there are countless people, on campus and off, who consider him to be a kind and decent friend.
But the university needs a fresh start, and that cannot happen with Seligman in charge.
The healing starts here and now, and all eyes are on UR as we begin to show men and women a better way.
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