How an Academic Grudge Turned Into a #MeToo Panic

March 14, 2022   |   Tags: ,
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During normal years, Meliora Weekend at the University of Rochester (U.R.) is one of the biggest events of the fall. A four-day combination of Homecoming and Family Weekend, parents visit, alumni return to campus, and there's good old-fashioned student debauchery. In 2021, events were smaller and subject to COVID-19 protocols, but in addition to a stand-up set by comic Margaret Cho and an address by actress Geena Davis, there was another notable event: a student-led protest on campus against a formerly rising-star professor. His name is Florian Jaeger.

At the time, the campus paper reported that around 40 students showed up, and the organizers' goal was to "bring awareness to new students" who had never heard of Jaeger or what happened. To Jaeger, there's some dark irony to this statement, because while these students may think they know what happened, he insists that they don't. What they know, he says, are rumors that spread across campus like a toxic algae bloom: that he's an abuser, a predator, a rapist. Rumors that made him persona non grata in his field; that led to threats, hate mail, formal censures; that got him banned from local businesses and disinvited from international talks. Rumors that nearly destroyed his department and made his accusers icons of #MeToo. But these rumors, according to multiple investigations, dozens of witnesses, and Jaeger himself, are largely false. What was sold to a national audience as an archetypal case of sexual harassment was, instead, a poisonous mix of professional competition, personality conflicts, bad blood, and an inner-departmental fight over hiring gone horribly wrong.

While the accusers' side of the story has been told many times, passed along both through rumor mills and media reports, Jaeger has largely remained silent. Part of this is because, during the investigations that would follow, he was directed by the university not to speak about what happened. But it's also because much of this occurred in a moment when the voices of the accused were largely unwelcome. At the height of #MeToo, few people wanted to hear from the men who had allegedly done wrong. And so the story that's been repeated over and over went largely unchecked—a twisted game of academic telephone that, in the end, would trigger four investigations, cost the university millions of dollars, and lead to multiple resignations, including that of the president of the university. And it would destroy the career, reputation, and nearly the life of the once-promising scholar Florian Jaeger.

***

A German national, Jaeger came to the University of Rochester as a young and self-assured professor in 2007. Before then, he had been a star student, with a Ph.D. from Stanford University in linguistics and cognitive science. When he accepted a tenure-track position at Rochester's Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS), he was just 30, only a few years older than most of his graduate students.

Rochester, a boom-and-bust town closer to Cleveland than Manhattan, isn't much to look at compared to the cities Jaeger was used to. But the university itself, over 150 acres abutting a riverside park, is dotted with ivied Greek Revival buildings that look much older than they are. There's beauty to it. Jaeger's first memories, however, aren't of the architecture but the temperature.

"I arrived just before a blizzard," he says. "I woke up the next day and all the trees in the city were covered in a thin layer of ice. It looked quite magical."

It gets so cold in Rochester that the university has a tunnel system that allows one to travel through campus underground, avoiding the wind and the slush. The people in his new department were warmer, inviting him out for meals and drinks as soon as he arrived. While Jaeger wasn't particularly thrilled about living in Rochester, he was excited about the work he'd be doing there.

In the first years of his career at U.R., he published dozens of papers, won grants and awards, and was invited to international conferences and talks. But though he was brilliant in some respects, Jaeger was also seen by some of his colleagues and students as blunt, arrogant, and prone to inappropriate jokes about sex. He socialized as much with graduate students as his professors. Above all, he was different: The child of German labor activists, Jaeger rejected the sort of hierarchy that is common in academia, seeing himself as equal to both his superiors and his students.

One former student described Jaeger in an interview as "super smart but not great at reading the room. He didn't like filtering himself." And so he didn't. At a holiday party in 2008, for instance, he told a group of colleagues and students that a male professor found a female student attractive—while she was present. She later told investigators that she found this "super mortifying." (This quote, along with much of the information provided in this article, comes from the most extensive investigation into Jaeger, which can be read in full here. This piece also relies on additional investigations as well as interviews with Jaeger's colleagues and contemporaries, some of whom requested anonymity for fear of professional consequences.) 

The fundamental issue may have been that Jaeger refused, in some ways, to assimilate, to act his station in life. Part of this was probably his personality and part of it probably cultural. He dated or slept with several students in his early years as a professor at U.R., although none worked in his lab or were under his tutelage. This was, at the time, permitted under departmental policy, but this once-common practice is now taboo, perhaps guaranteed to cause problems for both the professor and for his or her students. Jaeger says he sees that now, but in his early 30s, to him, it seemed normal. 

All of this—his personality, his jokes, his flirting and boundary-pushing and sleeping around—made some people in his department uncomfortable enough to avoid him.

One of those was Keturah Bixby. In November 2013, Bixby, then a graduate student, wrote a letter to department head Greg DeAngelis. She then printed it out, brought it to his office, and sat there while he read it. (Bixby did not respond to a request for comment.)

"There's a professor here who's been doing unprofessional things that make me uncomfortable," the letter, which was provided to Reason, began. "It's never anything huge, but it's built up over the years I've been here and I don't feel safe around him. Although I'm generally really happy at Rochester, these situations have made me miserable at times. It's Florian."

Bixby went on to describe two incidents in which Jaeger made her uncomfortable.

In the first, she wrote that he walked into her shared office and, without asking, picked up a pen and Post-it notes off her office mate's desk and stood behind her writing a note. She said it was "creepy and unprofessional."

In the second incident, Bixby said that at a recruiting party that year, Jaeger asked if he could take a picture of her. She refused, and he later took a picture of her anyway.

"I was pretty angry," she wrote in her letter, "and the picture (if it still exists anywhere) is of me flipping him off. It makes me feel angry, sick, and my skin crawl to think of him having a picture of me anywhere."

Bixby added that she avoided both social and professional events for fear of seeing Jaeger, and asked that DeAngelis look into Jaeger's behavior and require "training on boundaries and respecting them." She also wrote that she never wanted to interact with Jaeger again.

"I never want him at a talk I give," she wrote. "Is that possible? If he ever tries to push for interaction, is it ok to tell him I prefer not to because of how uncomfortable his unprofessional behavior has made me?"

DeAngelis was not the first faculty member Bixby approached. As her letter notes, the prior spring, she'd gone to her adviser, Richard Aslin. Aslin, a founding member of the department, was a big deal—he'd previously served as the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and he was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, an honor reserved for the most accomplished scientists in the United States. He was also very well-liked in the department and highly respected in the field, considered a mentor, even a paternal figure, by many of his students and colleagues, according to interviews with faculty and students. But when Bixby came to Aslin complaining of Jaeger's behavior, he neither approached Jaeger himself nor escalated the matter further. (Aslin declined to be interviewed for this story.)

DeAngelis, however, took Bixby's complaints more seriously. After speaking with two other graduate students whom Bixby said also had problems with Jaeger, he approached Jaeger with his concerns.

Due to confidentiality agreements, DeAngelis was unable to tell Jaeger who, exactly, complained or what the specific complaint was, and Jaeger was surprised and upset, both about the complaint and the fact that the complainant didn't just approach him directly. But he also changed his behavior. He became more aware of how he was perceived by others. That conversation appears to have been a turning point.

There were no further complaints about Jaeger until a few years later, when old allegations and new would come to the surface, in part thanks to the very man who had ignored Bixby in the first place: Richard Aslin.

***

For the next few years, things went smoothly for Jaeger. He was in a long-term relationship with another professor in the department and had long since stopped dating students. He was granted tenure, promoted, and named director of the Center for Language Sciences. But then, in early 2016, everything changed.

In late winter that year, the department was in the process of replacing a beloved faculty member named David Knill who had died suddenly in his 50s. Knill's focus was on vision and perception, and to some in the department, it was important that his successor carry on his legacy. They found their successor in Michele Rucci, an Italian neuroscientist.

There was, however, debate. One leading voice against Rucci was a professor named Jessica Cantlon, who preferred a candidate closer to her own specialty. At one meeting to discuss the appointment, according to interviews with faculty members who were present, Cantlon objected to Rucci's hiring on the grounds that he had married his former graduate student: Martina Poletti, a fellow Italian scientist who was herself up for a position in the department as a spousal hire, a common practice at many academic institutions, including U.R.

Jaeger, along with others in the meeting, argued back that it was both illegal and unethical to discuss Rucci's relationship. It got heated. Jaeger threatened to leave the meeting and, according to interviews with witnesses, another faculty member actually walked out.

Jaeger says that he and Cantlon had, at one time, been friends, along with their partners, both of whom were also in the department. They socialized regularly—having dinners and drinks, going to birthday parties, baby showers, and, once, a Flaming Lips concert. But even before the debate over Rucci, he says, their friendship had started to sour.

Jaeger cites one event in particular that made him wary of Cantlon. He says Cantlon came to his office uninvited and started disparaging a male colleague she was working with.

"Having heard the other side of the story, I suggested to Jessica that the story was more complex than she made it out to be," Jaeger says. "She immediately accused me of siding with the other faculty member because he happened to be male. These types of unsolicited conversations happened a few times, the repeated theme being that Jessica put other people down." After a few similar incidents, Jaeger says he and Cantlon largely stopped hanging out.

It wasn't just Jaeger who objected to speculation about Rucci's relationship. One senior faculty member asked Cantlon if she had any evidence of Rucci's alleged wrongdoing or predatory behavior, and Cantlon conceded that she didn't. When the senior faculty member pointed out that they couldn't just act on unfounded allegations, according to witness interviews, Cantlon suggested they scuttle the offer by refusing to offer a job to his wife. The senior faculty member opposed this idea, but later heard that Cantlon told Poletti, who was visibly pregnant at the time, that the university had a weak maternity leave policy. (Poletti confirmed this to Reason.) After learning about this, the senior faculty member suspected Cantlon's goal was to scuttle the negotiations with Rucci. 

The department ultimately voted to offer the job to Rucci, but Cantlon continued to argue against him—and she brought Jaeger into her campaign, telling Aslin after a dinner party that Jaeger, too, had sexual relationships with students. Aslin was apparently appalled by this revelation, and later emailed Cantlon that he was "disgusted and angry" and would "not let this rest until [Jaeger] is out of the [department]."

Until this time, BCS had been remarkably cohesive, especially for academia, where competition, drama, and interdepartmental conflict is often the norm. Even when there was conflict at BCS, it was quickly resolved, and faculty often joked about how easy, how copacetic, the department was compared to others. It's something they bragged about to job candidates. People spent holidays together; they took care of each other's kids. But many of those friendship would not survive what happened next.

***

Cantlon, now with Aslin in her corner, started poking around for stories about Jaeger, contacting graduate students and telling them that there had been a complaint made against him by "current students." This was false. None of his current students complained, but no matter; eventually the rumor spread all around the department, from students and postdocs to faculty and staff and back again.

On March 10, 2016, Aslin filed the first complaint against Jaeger with the university's Office of Counsel. Cantlon filed her own complaint soon after, and the university began an internal investigation. Jaeger says he was never allowed to see the complaints due to confidentiality policies meant to protect victims.

Meanwhile, Cantlon and Aslin continued to try to recruit new accusers despite instructions from the Office of Counsel to keep the investigation confidential. In an email sent on March 20, 2016, Aslin told Cantlon that while he had been instructed not to talk about the investigation, he was going to speak about it anyway, adding, "We need troops on our side."

The two found a ready soldier in Celeste Kidd, Cantlon's source from the beginning.

Kidd, a BCS graduate who had taken a job in the department after completing her Ph.D., claimed, among other things, that Jaeger sexually harassed her while she was being recruited to join the department as a graduate student in 2007 and continued to harass her after she enrolled. Later investigations would cast doubt on those claims (and Kidd would, in turn, object to those investigations). But like Jaeger himself, Kidd is described by those who knew her as someone who often pushed against boundaries and social mores.

"My first impression of her was as sort of a Lena Dunham type," says Molly Tadin, the spouse of a BCS faculty member who socialized with Jaeger and Kidd. "She was open and talkative to a degree that could quickly lead to oversharing."

One investigation concluded that one of Kidd's complaints—that Jaeger talked about his own sex life and asked about hers—may have been true, but investigators questioned whether this was actually offensive to her at the time based on her own habit of talking openly and graphically about her sex life. They also noted that Kidd told colleagues that she kept a list of rising stars in the field she wanted to sleep with. And, in fact, she did end up marrying one of them: Steven Piantadosi, a BCS professor who would side with Cantlon, Aslin, and Kidd in subsequent complaints. (Kidd did not respond to a request for comment.)

In some ways, this frankness may have made Jaeger and Kidd a good match. For a while they were close, and they even lived together briefly. Tadin told me that Jaeger seemed to see Kidd as a sort of little sister and that she seemed to greatly admire him. When asked if it seemed romantic, she said no. 

The two first met when Kidd, who had a bachelor's degree in journalism, was interviewing for the Ph.D. program at BCS, soon after Jaeger had joined the department. In dozens of emails and Facebook messages that were uncovered during investigations (and which were reviewed by Reason), they talked frequently about Kidd's decision whether or not to join the school as she weighed several options.

But it wasn't all academic. Their communication before Kidd moved to Rochester was playful, flirty, casual; they discussed parties and family and what they were reading. At one point, Kidd said she was reading Allen Ginsberg, and that his work reminded her of one of Jaeger's own poems, which were posted on his website; Jaeger responded by saying he'd never read Ginsberg but mentions The Human Stain, a Philip Roth novel about a professor forced out of his university over unfounded allegations of racism.

Kidd wrote to Jaeger frequently and enthusiastically over this period. She later said Jaeger's messages were unwelcome, but he says she never expressed that to him.

In a message from April 2007, however, Kidd did express some anger at Jaeger after she'd gone to meet him at a party during a conference in San Diego.

Their versions of events differ.

Kidd claimed in a later legal filing that she saw Jaeger "groping" a prospective Ph.D. student, which made her deeply uncomfortable. After leaving the party, she sent him a message on Facebook, and while she didn't mention groping, she did say, "I'm not at all uptight, but I do like to know how things are upfront. You could have said goodbye at least."

Jaeger says that he never groped anyone, but that he was there "arm in arm" with his then-girlfriend, who was soon to be joining BCS, though she would be working not in Jaeger's lab or under his supervision. (In order to protect her privacy, I will call her Tara, a pseudonym.)

Jaeger says he didn't notice Kidd leave, but he describes what happened afterward this way: "I woke up the next day to a flurry of messages from Celeste. She seemed outraged about Tara, about how I had invited her to come but then had been so rude. I didn't know what she was referring to. Celeste and I had talked at the party and all seemed fine. My friend, the host, later told me that Celeste seemed distressed when she saw me and Tara, and that she left in a hurry." (The host of the party verified that Kidd was there, although she has no memory of interacting with her. She also said in an interview, "At no point did I see [Jaeger] doing anything that I'd think of as groping.")

Jaeger says he texted Kidd back and offered to talk. She drove from Los Angeles, where she lived at the time, to San Diego, where he was for the conference, and the two went for a walk. Jaeger says Kidd told him she was upset about Tara.

"She kept saying she was worried for me," Jaeger says, "and so I told her that it's OK, that Tara is my age, that we had talked about the challenges of dating in the department, that she was not joining my lab, that I had nothing to do with her admission to Rochester, that I had checked the faculty handbook, etcetera. But Celeste wouldn't let it go. She said I shouldn't trust Tara, that Tara would take advantage of me, that she was only with me because I was a professor. She also said that, as a journalist, she knew exactly how such a story could get twisted to ruin my career."

***

After Aslin and Cantlon filed their complaints with the Office of Counsel, the first investigation took place between March and May 2016. In all, over 30 people were interviewed, many of whom Aslin had identified as potential witnesses.

The university's investigator, Catherine Nearpass, issued her report in June of that year. It was largely in Jaeger's favor: No current students said that Jaeger, or any other faculty member, had ever made any sexual or sexually charged comments to them or otherwise acted inappropriately. His students said the atmosphere in his lab was safe and comfortable, and the only criticism any current students leveled against him was that his approach could sometimes be too direct. (In order to protect accusers and witnesses, this report was not made public, but key findings were provided to the department and reviewed by Reason.)

The investigation did confirm that Jaeger had, between 2007 and 2010, made unwise and unprofessional decisions, including dating several students. But the report also noted that this wasn't against departmental policy until 2014, years after those relationships ended, and that none of the students were under his tutelage. What's more, one of the women he'd dated didn't enroll in the university until after they'd broken up, and another didn't date Jaeger until after she'd graduated. In light of this, Nearpass found, these relationships still would have been permitted according to current university policy.

The final determination that Jaeger had not violated university policy was disputed by Aslin and Cantlon, who appealed the decision and continued to work to get him removed from his job. And they continued to talk about it, causing major tension in the department. One distressed faculty member emailed DeAngelis in July 2016, writing that there was an "organized effort under way to spread [the complainants'] interpretation of the final report." Another member of the faculty told me the conflict consumed nearly everyone, and that there was serious talk about splitting the department up and forming a new one.

"It was terrible," the professor said. "Everybody was talking about what was going on. Some people were angry at Florian and then a lot of people felt like they were being manipulated by Jessica and Dick. It was very much an us versus them situation."

***

In July 2016, shortly after the Nearpass investigation concluded, Kidd filed a complaint of her own with the Office of Counsel, alleging that Jaeger had retaliated against her for participating in the first investigation and was "spreading rumors about [her] honesty and reliability to other department members." 

This prompted a second investigation led by an outside investigator named Cynthia Curtin, which concluded in September 2016. During her investigation, Curtin interviewed Jaeger, Kidd, Cantlon, Aslin, and eight other witnesses. She also reviewed both the accusers' and the accused's university emails and ultimately concluded  that while Jaeger did defend himself when asked directly about the allegations, the evidence did not support Kidd's claim that Jaeger has retaliated against or spread rumors about her. 

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to most of the department, Jaeger did face official consequences. In August 2016, DeAngelis issued a letter to Jaeger noting that while the Nearpass investigation found he hadn't violated any university policies, his behavior in his early years had been troubling. DeAngelis noted that his behavior had improved since then, and he instructed Jaeger to complete training on respectful workplace behavior, which he did. 

DeAngelis also announced the formation of a committee on sexual harassment and workplace behavior. He wanted to move the department forward, to close this unpleasant chapter, and to get back to where it had been. It didn't work. Several employees threatened to leave, including Aslin, who told a dean that unless Jaeger either resigned or made a "good faith attempt to reconcile, first by apologizing to the affected students and then by admitting to the faculty that he behaved badly," he and many others would quit.

Aslin also sent a letter to Jaeger himself, writing that unless he admitted that he had sexually harassed Kidd, he and the other complainants would, despite the risk of a defamation suit, "go public." And he noted that legal action could result in Jaeger's deportation.

"I don't see anyone willing to pony up funds for your defense," he wrote, adding that Jaeger could "be assured that future 'warnings' will be raised whenever [he tries] to engage with other unsuspecting faculty."

"P.S.," he wrote. "Please do not interpret this letter as a threat."

Jaeger did interpret the letter as a threat, especially because, as a noncitizen, he feared deportation was a real possibility. 

In late November 2016, partly in response to Aslin's letter, the university made its first statement about the investigation in a memo to BCS faculty from Provost Robert Clark.

Clark did not name the complainants in his memo, but he did acknowledge that there had been an investigation into Jaeger, that the investigation had concluded, and the matter was now closed. In an effort to combat what he called the "the wealth of rumors and in some instances misinformation" within the department, Clark said key findings from the investigation would be made available to the department.

And then he wrote this: "Finally, as the chief academic officer for the institution, I affirm that Dr. Jaeger is a valued member of our faculty. He has achieved tremendous academic success since his arrival in 2007, including being promoted with tenure in 2013 and his promotion to full professor in 2016. We look forward to continuing to support Dr. Jaeger, as we do all of our faculty, and to Dr. Jaeger's continued success as teacher, researcher and scholar here at the University of Rochester."

This memo was intended to improve the rapidly deteriorating situation within the department, but it had the opposite effect. One faculty member told investigators the memo was "tone-deaf"; another said it was like "tossing gasoline onto glowing embers."

***

As the mood in the department degenerated, news of the investigation did not stay within Rochester. That December, Jaeger was disinvited from a conference at Georgetown University. Even more concerning to him, he says, all of his students' papers were rejected as well. He would, as the story spread, eventually get disinvited from at least 10 conferences, lose a prestigious fellowship and other funding, and get removed from several editorial boards.

Jaeger says he heard from professors outside of Rochester that Aslin was saying Jaeger had slept with 18 graduate and undergraduate students and that he got off on a technicality. Jaeger reported this via email to DeAngelis and other senior members of the department, calling it a "prolonged smear campaign."

After receiving Jaeger's email, the senior faculty members moved him off the email thread and responded directly to each other. One confirmed that he, too, had heard from colleagues at other universities that Aslin was spreading details about the case. He wrote in the email thread: the "same person cannot be the accuser, the judge and the punisher." Another compared Aslin's behavior to "vigilantism."

And then, on December 2, 2016, at the end of a faculty meeting, Aslin made good on his threats and resigned in protest three years before his planned retirement date. He had been with the university for over 30 years.

***

By the time Aslin quit, Jaeger had twice been cleared of allegations that he violated university policy. But rather than admit defeat, his accusers continued their campaign, resurrecting old charges and adding new ones.

Their avenue this time was a 111-page complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). They called Jaeger a "narcissistic and manipulative sexual predator" and said he "abused his position of power to manipulate graduate students and post-­docs until they felt almost wholly under his control or in fear of him." Jaeger made it clear, they claimed, "that students who wanted to excel needed to please him, socially and sometimes sexually."

There was more. The group claimed that at one of his lab retreats—which, they said, "involved drinking, drugs, music and soaking in a hot tub together"—a student "overdosed" on drugs. (It was a weed brownie given to Jaeger's longtime partner, who was not a student.) They also claimed that at least 11 female students and postdocs lost out on educational opportunities due to fear of encountering Jaeger. They accused the university administration of ignoring Jaeger's behavior and Nearpass of mishandling the first investigation, and they said that they, rather than the actual student victims of Jaeger's alleged harassment, had to bring these issues to light because students may have been brushed off by university officials. They also praised their own refusal to capitulate.

Soon after filing their complaints, members of the group spoke to the media, and the story spread beyond academia and into the national press. In September 2017, Mother Jones broke the story in an article entitled "She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell." That "rising star" was Kidd, and the "lecherous professor" was Jaeger.

Once the story became public, the university erupted into weeks of protests, with students and faculty calling for both Jaeger's firing and the resignation of Joel Seligman, the university president. A petition to have Jaeger removed from his position received nearly 40,000 signatures, and 450 faculty at other universities signed an open letter to the U.R. Board of Trustees calling Jaeger a predator and stating that they would discourage their own students from attending or working for the University of Rochester.

One U.R. student, whom Jaeger had never met, began a hunger strike, which was covered in the New York Post with the headline "Student Goes on Hunger Strike To Get Pervy Professor Fired." She told the media she would stop eating until she was hospitalized.

In response to the protests and media attention, the university's Board of Trustees placed Jaeger on leave.

And then, the very next month, in October 2017, the actress Alyssa Milano tweeted a phrase that would launch a movement and become a rallying cry across the world to protest sexual harassment, abuse, and assault: #MeToo.

For Jaeger, the timing couldn't have been worse. For his accusers, it couldn't have been better. At the end of the year, Cantlon and Kidd were featured as two of Time's People of the Year along with "silence breakers" Ashley Judd, Megyn Kelly, and others who suffered abuse at the hands of men like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes.

***

While Kidd and Cantlon were being celebrated and the university was awash in protests, U.R. initiated an investigation in response to the EEOC complaint. This one was led by an outside investigator, Mary Jo White, the legendary former U.S. attorney and a chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission under Barack Obama.

White's investigation took nearly four months. The investigators interviewed over 140 witnesses and reviewed over 6,000 documents. The total cost to the university was $4.5 million. None of the complainants agreed to be interviewed pending a separate lawsuit, but White's team relied on their extensive interviews from prior investigations as well as emails and other documents provided by the university. 

The 207-page White report, on which much of the above narrative relies, was released on January 11, 2018, and in the end it concluded what prior investigations had: Jaeger had acted unprofessionally and inappropriately in his early years at the school, but he had never violated any university policies.

"We found that some of the complaints' allegations were true, and Jaeger's behavior and statements, at times, were viewed by many (both male and female) as insensitive, unprofessional, cruel and occasionally containing sexual innuendo, and this perception, combined with Jaeger's reputation as a womanizer, genuinely caused some female students to avoid him socially and academically," the report concluded.

"At the same time," it continued, "the complaints' narrative—framed through the language of sexual predation and retaliatory animus towards women—is largely without factual basis."

White added that many of the claims were "embellished," "distorted," or "unduly sensationalized" in an effort to "demonize" Jaeger, and she quoted one faculty member who said the EEOC complaint read "like a novel." She also pointed out that the complainants misrepresented some of the very people they claimed were victims and that they included some of the so-called "victims" in the EEOC complaint without their consent. In one instance, the complainants said that a former student whom Jaeger dated cried in a professor's office, implying that her distress was over the relationship. When investigators interviewed the woman, she told them that she was crying because her sister had been in a car accident. 

White also included a memo sent to the EEOC by the university's legal counsel, which noted that at one point Aslin obtained a postdoc's academic record under false pretenses, then emailed the student to ask about her sexual relationship with Jaeger. Aslin, an esteemed senior faculty member corresponding with a woman at the beginning of her career, had told the woman that the future of the department depended on exposing bad behavior like Jaeger's. "Our goal is not to make life difficult for the students who were enmeshed in Florian's power-relationship over them," he wrote.

The woman, according to the university, told Aslin that her relationship with Jaeger had been consensual, that she would still be comfortable interacting with him, and that some of the things people were saying about him were "just plain lies." Despite this, Aslin continued to misrepresent her as an undergraduate student who worked in Jaeger's lab and one who felt "powerless to end the relationship because of fear of retribution"—all of which was false.

Though Jaeger had, once again, been cleared of any allegations that he violated university policy, the White report did not calm tensions within the university. Just hours after it was released, President Seligman resigned from his post. "It is clear to me that the best interests of the University are best served with new leadership, and a fresh perspective to focus on healing our campus and moving us forward in a spirit of cooperation and unity," he wrote in a memo. (Seligman did not respond to an interview request.)

Curiously, while the White investigation concluded that there was no evidence that Jaeger was a predator, that he hadn't violated university policy, and that there had been no retaliation against the complainants, the complainants at once questioned the validity of the investigation and claimed that they had been validated. 

"The report describes Florian Jaeger as the predator that I know him to be," Kidd said at a press conference. She and the others vowed to continue their fight in federal court. The next month, the Faculty Senate voted to formally censure Jaeger.

***

By this time, two years after the fight over Michele Rucci's hiring sparked Cantlon's complaints, Jaeger had been investigated three times. And then, in July 2018, came a new complaint, this one from a postdoc at a different university. The postdoc, whose name was never publicly disclosed, claimed that she saw Jaeger grope a women's breast and buttocks while walking back from a post-conference gathering and that, at the time, she submitted a complaint to conference organizers. 

This prompted another investigation, which was conducted by the firm Littler Mendelson, which specializes in employee litigation. The investigation concluded both that the postdoc's allegation was false and that she never submitted a complaint to conference organizers. The alleged victim of this incident, who asked not to be named to avoid professional repercussions, told me that the claim was "nonsense" and that the groping "never happened." 

This was the fourth investigation to conclude that claims against Jaeger were unsupported by facts, but the findings were never made public.

***

The complainants had one more avenue to pursue their case against Jaeger: a federal lawsuit.

This suit was filed not against Jaeger himself but against the university, as well as President Seligman and Provost Clark. The complainants, now plaintiffs, again claimed that Jaeger was a "serial sexual predator who had caused misery to students and colleagues" and that the U.R. administration had retaliated against and defamed members of the group when they spoke out.

The university filed a motion to dismiss. In August 2019, that motion was denied, and after two years of court proceedings and negotiations, the university settled in March 2020. Neither party would admit wrongdoing, and the plaintiffs would receive $9.4 million through the university's insurer. As part of the settlement, the university agreed to take the White report off of its website. Jaeger himself was never interviewed as part of the suit.

Despite multiple investigations finding they both misrepresented what happened and violated confidentiality, Jaeger's accusers had ultimately won. Kidd, now at U.C. Berkeley, and Cantlon, now at Carnegie Mellon University, are seen by many as heroes. Aslin won a National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Award in 2020. In a press release, the NAS noted that he has "shown leadership in the field by standing up to support his students, especially women, when they face injustice."

I reached out to Jaeger's principal accusers; none agreed to be interviewed for this piece. Cantlon did, however, send me the complainants' rebuttal to the White report, adding "The graduate program isn't a personal harem for faculty men like Florian." She also reiterated her claims that Jaeger made unwanted advances, that he coerced students into sex, and that he was a bully and a harasser—and she accused White, the investigator, of bias herself.

Jaeger repudiated his former friend and colleague's allegations, but the two do agree on this: He also thinks the White report was biased, though biased against himself.

"It was focused on assessing everything I did from the worst possible angle," he says. "I understand that this is the whole point of investigations like this, but they invaded my privacy way beyond matters that touch on the question of whether I created a hostile work environment or whether I harassed anyone. They asked me for intimate information about my relationships even after the women I had dated had confirmed that the relationships were consensual. It also contains a few factual mistakes that have cost me dearly."

"But," he added, "it is still a lot closer to the truth than the narrative spread by the complainants and their lawyer."

***

Today, things at BCS are getting back to normal—or as normal as they can be. One person told me that it's like a "tumor has been excised" now that the accusers are gone. But for Jaeger, and for those closest to him, the saga won't end. 

After a year and a half on leave, Jaeger returned to campus in spring of 2019, and now he's basically stuck. He can't leave Rochester, the place where his name was dragged through the mud. Who else will hire him? His publishing and grants, once among the most impressive in the field, have slowed to a crawl. He's been involved in a restorative justice process on campus and has apologized both to the women he'd dated and others he'd made uncomfortable, but the rumors about him continue to spread, mutating even beyond the official allegations. "Sexual predator" has become "rapist," he says. "Harassment" has become "abuse."

Most painful to Jaeger, he says, is that anyone affiliated with him has become suspect. His ex-girlfriends and his longtime partner had deeply personal aspects of their lives wrung over for inspection. Jaeger's students, both former and current, have been questioned about the "predator" in their midst. Some of his female students worry that people will assume that they slept with him. One faculty member told me that after the story became public, his son was bullied at school; classmates said his dad defended a sexual predator.

That's the label, the rumor, that refuses to die. Twice this fall, someone wrote on the wall outside Jaeger's office: "Sexual predators are not welcome here" and "You have no place on this campus." Letters have been sent to his house, threats have been left on his voicemail, and there have been flyers posted around campus reading, "FIRE JAEGER," and "$10 Million Won't Make Us Forget."

And then there was the protest last Meliora Weekend, when 40 students showed up.

I talked to one of the student organizers of the protest, a junior who told the campus paper he wanted to make sure the community didn't forget. When I asked if he'd read the White report—or any of the reports—he said he had not. What he had read were the articles about it in the media, and what he'd heard were the rumors that trail Jaeger around like an unwanted guest. 

"If I hear something from multiple people," he told me, "I have no reason to doubt it."

 

The post How an Academic Grudge Turned Into a #MeToo Panic appeared first on Reason.com.


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