Nine researchers filed a federal lawsuit on 8 December against the University of Rochester in New York, its president Joel Seligman and its provost Robert Clark over their handling of alleged sexual harassment by a professor there.

Eight of the nine are current or former faculty members in Rochester’s department of brain and cognitive sciences; the ninth is a former graduate student there. They allege that Florian Jaeger, a cognitive scientist in the department who studies human-language processing, sexually harassed students and created a hostile work environment. The eight faculty members also say that they were subjected to unlawful retaliation by university officials when they complained about Jaeger's behaviour.

In their lawsuit, the researchers also allege that Seligman and Clark have had personal relationships with women who directly reported to them or to their direct reports, and that this may have influenced their reaction to complaints against Jaeger. “The fact that Seligman and Clark were sleeping with their subordinates may have dulled their sensitivity to the perils Jaeger’s behavior posed to students and UR’s reputation,” the lawsuit says.

Jaeger's lawyer, Steven Modica, declined to comment on the specifics of the case. University spokesperson Sara Miller said that the university “is deeply committed to a safe and respectful campus for everyone, free of harassment or discrimination of any kind”. She noted that a special committee is investigating the allegations—the third investigation that the university has commissioned on the matter since 2016. Miller said that the university is withholding further comment until the latest group releases its report, which is expected by 12 January.

The complainants filed their lawsuit today in US district court because their window of opportunity is about to close. In late August and early September, after the first two investigations had exonerated Jaeger, eight of them lodged complaints with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). (A ninth later joined the case.) The EEOC granted each of them the right to sue within 90 days, beginning on 11 September.

“Our only choice is to continue to move forward in order to put pressure on the university,” says Jessica Cantlon, a cognitive neuroscientist at Rochester who is one of the complainants.

Another complainant, developmental psychologist Richard Aslin, quit his tenured position at Rochester after 33 years over the university’s handling of the Jaeger situation. The others have either left the department or plan to leave.

Complaints emerge

The case against Jaeger began to come together in early 2016, when he allegedly said in several faculty meetings that it was acceptable for faculty members to date students. Aslin and Elissa Newport, a former chair of the department who is now at Georgetown University in Washington DC, led a group that gathered complaints about Jaeger. These include allegations that he had sex with students and sent unwanted photos of his genitalia to a female student. "At least 16 women altered their academic course to avoid Jaeger," the complainants say in their lawsuit. Some of the women left the department, the research field, or academia altogether, the filing alleges.

Two university investigations in 2016 concluded that Jaeger had not violated the University of Rochester’s policy on romantic relationships between faculty members and students, and that he had not engaged in retaliatory behaviour against one of the complainants, developmental psychologist Celeste Kidd. In their complaints to the EEOC, the claimants alleged retaliatory behaviour by university officials against some members of their group—such as going through their e-mails and discriminating against them in hiring decisions. The group members went public with their allegations a few days later, which led students and others to protest against the university.

Later in September, Rochester’s board of trustees appointed a committee headed by Mary Jo White, former chair of the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to examine the original investigations and allegations against Jaeger that have arisen since. (Cantlon and others say that the latest investigation has an inherent conflict of interest, because White is being paid by the university and Seligman is a historian of the SEC. The board of trustees has said that the inquiry will be impartial, and that White and Seligman had no prior relationship.)

White’s group has since gathered information from more than 115 people, some of whom have no connection to the Jaeger case. But the investigators have not interviewed the nine people who filed complaints against Jaeger. “It’s not a safe process for us to participate in,” says Cantlon. “We would rather go to real court, to present both sides equally and fairly to a neutral party.” In the lawsuit, she and the others say they "have stated from the outset their sincere desire to cooperate with the Special Committee, but under conditions that do not negate their ability to pursue the legal claims set out herein that were the reason the Special Committee had to be created in the first place."

White has said that without cooperation from the complainants, she will rely on the interviews her group has conducted with other people, plus interviews and documents from the two previous university investigations. She has said that no one outside her committee will be able to preview or influence her group’s final report. “The Special Committee’s and Ms White’s only interest is to get to the truth,” the committee said in an October statement.

Halting harassment

Much depends on what White finds. In the United States, “the legal standard for minimizing or avoiding liability is quite easy for employers to meet,” says Joanna Grossman, a law professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, who studies sex discrimination. “If they had appropriate policies on harassment and both established and utilized an internal grievance procedure, most courts would say the university did enough to avoid liability regardless of whether actionable harassment occurred.”

In general, universities might have more of an incentive to treat sexual harassment strictly if they face public outcry, she says. “Protesters are not as powerful as advertisers, but universities rely on their reputations to attract students and faculty.” Already, more than 400 faculty members at universities in several countries have signed an open letter saying they do not advise students to study or work at Rochester because of its handling of the situation.

The Rochester case stands out for the sheer number of faculty members advocating on behalf of students in the department, says Claire Dickey, a graduate student in astronomy at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, who serves as a student adviser to Yale officials on sex-discrimination matters. “It’s a wonderful thing that these faculty members did, and really heartening to see,” she says. “It’s unfortunately still not the norm in these cases.”

Some universities across the United States are working to take lessons from the Rochester case and other recent high-profile reports of sexual misconduct. At Pennsylvania State University in University Park, some of the psychology department faculty members have met with students to discuss how to safely report issues such as harassment and bullying. At the University of California, San Diego, officials are discussing campus-wide changes to their reporting procedures for sexual harassment. And at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, president Rafael Raif has instituted a top-down review of reporting policies, focusing particularly on faculty and staff misconduct.

Jaeger is on administrative leave. The new lawsuit is expected to take months to move towards any possible trial. The plaintiffs are asking for money to cover their damages, costs and lawyers' fees, and any other relief the court might award.

This article is reproduced with permission and was first published on December 11, 2017.