The University of Rochester is paying 9 former students and professors $9.4 million to settle claims of sexual harassment in the school’s brain and cognitive sciences department. The settlement resolves a lawsuit filed in 2017. That year students and faculty claimed misconduct by Professor Florian Jaeger. When others in the department attempted to blow the whistle on Jaeger, they say they suffered retaliation by the school.
After the suit was filed, the University commissioned a law firm to conduct an “independent investigation”. Predictably that report largely exonerated both Jaeger and the university administration’s handling of the complaints.
After the report was released, a former faculty member said the report was faulty. “It is not acceptable to say that people have behaved offensively and inappropriately to our students, but nobody did anything wrong. It is not an acceptable conclusion to arrive at. Shame on you.”
Despite the report exonerating the school, the nine plaintiffs refused to accept the findings. Ultimately the university paid $9.4 million.
Students and Faculty Complain of Sexual Harassment, Retaliation
Keturah Bixby was a graduate student at the University of Rochester. The other plaintiffs were all employees of the school. All filed almost identical complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. When the case didn’t resolve at the administrative level, the group filed suit in federal court.
All claimed a lengthy campaign of retaliation they endured after alerting the University’s administration to a “sustained pattern of sexual harassment of students” by University professor Dr. Florian Jaeger. The group says that “Jaeger had slept with graduate students, pressed others for sex, took them to hot tub retreats where drugs were used, asked graduate students to procure sexual partners for him and made frequent overtly sexual remarks in professional settings.” They say his actions made the environment for women in the university brain and cognitive sciences department threatening and hostile.
Things were so bad that at least 16 women altered their academic course to avoid Jaeger. Some even left the program or the university altogether.
Two professors in the department went to the administration to complain. Although not directly affected, they felt Jaeger’s behavior was “was dangerous for students and bad for departmental cohesion, a deep stain on the reputations of [the university], and just plain wrong.”
The university conducted an internal investigation and cleared Jaeger. Not only was he exonerated, he was also promoted to full professor ahead of schedule. Bizarrely, Jaeger proclaimed his right to engage in sexual relationships with grad students.
Instead of Jaeger facing discipline or ouster, it was the students and employees that found themselves on the receiving end of a sustained retaliation campaign. Their emails were searched without permission and called schemers and liars.
Things were so bad that the group was forced to leave the university. “Plaintiffs were excluded from departmental meetings, denied the chance to interview or vote on new personnel, excluded from department committees, given burdensome and unusual workloads, excluded from faculty dinners, generally shunned by colleagues and made to feel so unwelcome that all the Plaintiffs who were working for [the university] when the EEOC complaint was filed have had to leave for jobs at other universities.”
The group was shocked by the University’s tight protection of Jaeger and the intense retaliation campaign against them. They could not figure out why the university was “so determined to support a serial sexual predator who had caused misery to students and colleagues.”
The group believes the university’s higher ups might have been reluctant to take action because the university’s president had been sleeping with an associate dean in the school. The school’s provost was involved with an employee a subordinate as well.
Feeling that was important to stand up for students (and themselves), the group went to the EEOC. Only after they filed 9 complaints did the university’s board make an emergency decision to hire an outside law firm to investigate. That report, released in 2018, was widely dismissed by the plaintiffs.
Although the law firm claimed to have interviewed 115 witnesses, it never interviewed any of the nine people who filed EEOC complaints.
The report found that that Jaeger’s conduct was highly inappropriate and unprofessional including consensual relationships with four students, one of whom was an undergraduate. Despite his highly inappropriate behavior, Jaeger was exonerated.
The plaintiffs were furious and refused to drop their lawsuit. The furor caused by the report caused the university’s president to resign and a group of hundreds of professors wrote an open letter indicating they would not be recommending the University of Rochester as a place to study or work.
If there was any good coming from the report, the board did implement a new policy prohibiting intimate student – faculty relationships where the students are undergraduates and prohibits relationships with graduate students if the faculty member is supervising that student.
University of Rochester Settles
In 2020, the University of Rochester settled with the group. The university agreed to pay $9.4 million and has admitted no wrongdoing although it did issue a statement thanking the group for filing the action.
What is interesting is that none of the students who were allegedly harassed were part of the suit. We see all too often that students don’t know what to do and don’t want to make waves. Considering the university attacked the faculty and student who spoke up about the hostile environment caused by Jaeger, we think many students are afraid to step forward.
Although it took several years, the group never gave up. In the end they were paid and the university made meaningful changes to how sexual harassment complaints are handled.
Another interesting aspect of this case is that although none of the group claimed that Jaeger had sexually harassed them, his actions created a hostile work and learning environment.
There are several takeaways from this complaint. Even though Keturah Bixby, the loan student in this case, has long left the university, she never dropped her case.
Second, you don’t have to be grabbed or solicited for sex to become a victim of sexual harassment. Constant exposure to sexual misconduct involving others creates a hostile environment for everyone.
If you been sexually harassed at work or school or suffer because of a hostile environment, visit our sexual harassment FAQ page. Ready to see if you have a case? Contact us online, by email [hidden email] or by phone 877.858.8018. All inquiries are kept strictly confidential. Cases are handled on a contingent fee basis meaning you never owe us anything for legal fees and costs unless we collect money on your behalf.