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Jessica Cantlon

A lead complainant in the federal UR case starts a new life while waiting for justice

Jessica Cantlon, Ph.D., was named one of Time magazine’s People of the Year for 2017 as one of the lead complainants in a federal case against this city’s biggest employer, University of Rochester. Because of what she calls the school’s inaction over allegations of sexual misconduct last year, she will leave UR’s brain and cognitive sciences department at the end of the semester to accept a position at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Before she and her family left Rochester, she sat down with POST to share her story.

How did Celeste Kidd’s (Dr. Kidd is a professor in UR’s Brain and Cognitive Science department) sharing of her experiences affect you? It really brought a lot of things into focus for me about women’s rights, about students’ rights, and about how vulnerable they are and how they need protection to have the space to learn freely. I think that also brought into focus for me that we’re navigating around these people who will exploit students sexually, socially. …I felt compelled to tell my students to be cautious—my women students. If I’m going to go around advising women students to be cautious, that changes their psychology of their education, where they have to be vigilant and be careful to protect themselves from being abused. That’s an imbalance because you have a situation where the women students are going to walk around their school with this extra baggage of being cautious and vigilant that they might be abused, and male students don’t. It affected my view of my intellectual world. That’s where it starts to become a civil rights issue. Some people are free to access all the tools and information at the school, and other people aren’t.

How did you think the public would respond to your complaint? When we were building the formal complaint we were really anxious and didn’t know if we would find support in the public. We really didn’t know if there was broad-based support for women’s rights to education, to an environment free from sexual harassment. And we were nervous that people would attack us and that people would try to come after us personally. That people would attack the women’s reputations. Celeste was very brave in this situation because she put her name on everything, and that was critical for getting the message out. People needed to hear from someone who would go on record and tell their story. We were nervous for her. So often you see that when a woman comes forward to tell her story, she’s attacked. So in August, it became public. For a full year and a half before that, we met with resistance from the university, which seemed to have a blasé attitude about people’s rights, the degree to which we should tolerate people being abused. So we didn’t know whether that was representative of the public in general. The alumni were incredible. Immediately, they organized themselves and began writing letters to President Seligman that they were outraged by how women students were treated by a professor, by the university’s weak response and inaction. They took to social media, and there was a huge network of them. A group of alumni wrote a petition that was on change.org and ultimately had 40,000 signatures. It received a lot of attention, and people were aligned with us and how we understood students’ rights. That was really heartening. The faculty of the university and the faculty senate have been incredible. They also wrote an open letter that they were upset by the administration’s inaction on sexual harassment in this case and upset by the university’s failures to protect complainants from retaliation.

[On February 27, following this interview, the UR faculty senate voted and passed a motion to censure Florian Jaeger, meaning the faculty are collectively condemning his behavior, in the strongest terms, to UR leadership.]

What was your read on the University’s response to your complaint?
I think their whole response from the time we started the complaint to becoming public to the #metoo movement to the present has been defensive.

What was the buildup like, before going public? I was incredibly anxious about what would happen. But we also had a lot of work to do. Our complaint was over 100 pages long and involves sifting through a lot of information, a lot of email, student testimonies. The past year and a half has been the most stressful year of my life, so a lot of things have changed for me. Being able to focus in my work. Being able to relax. It’s been the main thing occupying my thoughts. And the stakes are really high because you feel that pressure. This is about people’s freedom, their education, and we need to win this for the students. So the pressure is high, and the stakes are high, and the stress of that is intense.

You were recently named by Science News as one of 10 scientists slated to “make the next big discoveries” and “transform their research fields over the coming decades.” What are your thoughts on those predictions, given that you’re not at the university anymore? I worry about the people who are being quiet about this and how they might treat me. In our field, a lot of decisions are made anonymously. When you send a publication out for review, there are usually three anonymous reviewers, and you don’t get to pick them. Because this case has been so public, almost everyone in the field knows about it, but I’m not clear on what everybody’s opinion is. When you write grants to the government, they’re reviewed by people anonymously to decide whether your research will receive funding and support. I think there’s a good chance it will affect my career. But will it be affected in a way that’s immeasurable? That I can’t detect.

How many years were you at UR? And at what point did you decide you should leave the university? Throughout this, we thought someone will intervene and remove these administrators and put in new people, and everything will be restored, and everyone will be safe. At some point, around the time they went through our emails, then started attacking us more aggressively, my husband (Brad Mahon, a faculty member in the same department and also on the complaint) and I decided to apply for some jobs. We got offers from Carnegie Mellon in the summer. But we spent eight years building a life here. We poured our hearts into really living here. We have a ton of friends; we’re well-connected in the community. We feel this is our home, and we’d hoped to hold onto it. We held on to a shred of hope that these issues would be resolved.

You are uprooting your family, two young daughters and your husband to start a new life elsewhere. Where do things stand with that, both emotionally and practically? Just practically, we’ll move in the summer, finish out the school year. I’m teaching this semester, and then we’ll start to move to Pittsburgh. I can talk about it for five minutes before I start crying. We didn’t have any family here when we moved, but we made one. We met friends that we love who’ve become like a family to us. We’ve put down really strong roots here with the intention that this was our forever home. This is where we’d build our lives, where our kids would grow. And breaking the news to our close friends has been really painful. There have been lots of tears from all of us. Trying to figure out how we can keep our close relationships going even though now we’ll be in another part of the country. We love our house, our street. We’ve poured our resources, our time, everything into living in this house. One of the things that makes me sad is that there are so many memories in this house. There’s real mourning and loss when leaving a space that contains so many memories.

We both have faculty jobs at Carnegie Mellon, in the psychology department there. They’ve given us great offers and resources to build new labs. This is a massive investment of time to tear down everything you’ve built over the last eight years, both with family life and a research program. To tear down a lab and go and rebuild it somewhere else—It’s going to cut off the momentum I built here in my career, and there will be a good lag in my productivity as we restart and rebuild everything we’ve poured our energy into building here. I’ve built a lot of professional relationships here. We have joint projects and federal grants with people here. That has to be reconceived somehow. There will probably be a lag of at least a year and a half before I can collect data again.

I study child development, and I’ve built up a database that has thousands of kids from the Rochester area. I’m at a point now if I need to do a study, I have access to willing participants. It will take about a year and a half before I get a steady stream of participants into the new lab. … There aren’t that many opportunities you get to try to do the right thing, and even fewer opportunities where that thing might affect everybody. So it’s not just me, but the broader movement, the people on our complaint, other complaints in academia that rang through at the same time, then movement across many industries. … Being part of that is not something I would trade for greater productivity in my research career.

In what way were you considering your two young daughters through all of this? One thing that has struck me as a parent of two young girls is there’s sort of a natural confidence that they have. Children feel uninhibited. They’re very self-aware kids, but they’re very confident kids, and they don’t think for a second that the kind of person they are, whether they’re a little girl, limits their ability to do things at all. That just doesn’t occur to them. I’m so proud. And then I think, based on my own experiences and those that I’ve heard from other women, it seems that starts to get taken away from you as you move through your education and career, and just thinking about that sort of dark cloud looming on the horizon for them compelled me to try to take some action to make sure that the worst forms of that weren’t lurking out there for them. I look at them, I see how confident and joyful and full of hope they are, and I don’t want that to be taken away from them.

Jessica Cantlon with her family

A Slow Change

Surprisingly outdated sexual misconduct policies get the axe at universities
By Mary Stone

In 2015, Harvard College banned sex between faculty and students. The move didn’t follow any particular incident at the school, an undergraduate program within Harvard University, but it did come on the heels of a federal investigation announced in May 2014 into how colleges handle sexual harassment.

University of Rochester was not on the list, but Harvard was, and so were Hobart and William Smith Colleges, Emory University, Dartmouth College, Princeton University, University of California-Berkeley, along with almost 50 others.

Late last year, during the backlash against UR over its handling of sexual misconduct allegations against one of its professors, the school issued a statement defending its policies: "The policies and practices in place at the University of Rochester are regularly benchmarked against those of peer institutions, and we believe they currently provide appropriate protections and support for both complainants and respondents,” the statement read.

Yet because the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights have been investigating many of UR’s peers for possible violations of federal law, few colleges—if any, it seems—have a clear view of how to handle sexual harassment. At UR, sexual relations between students and faculty were ‘strongly discouraged’ but not prohibited until after the Florian Jaeger scandal broke.

Jaeger is a professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences. An investigation into Jaeger’s behavior, completed in mid-January, described years of sexual relationships and unprofessional conduct but concluded he did not violate school policy. Sexual or amorous relationships, even when consensual, the faculty handbook had read, “are problematic because they may result in favoritism or the perception of favoritism which imperils the integrity of the educational environment. Such relationships may also lead to charges of sexual harassment.”

In Jaeger’s case, his consensual relationships with students did lead to charges of sexual harassment, with explosive results. So, if it was already known that such relationships had this potential, why allow faculty to sleep with students in the first place?

The reason, explains David Honig, a civil rights attorney and UR alumnus, is that universities are under a great deal of pressure from professors not to overreach or interfere with professors’ private lives.

A resident of Clermont, Fla., Honig manages the legal arm of the Florida State Conference of the NAACP and chairs its Legal Redress Committee. In 2010, he was hired to conduct a faculty-student sexual harassment case study for Bethune-Cookman University (BC-U), a private university in Daytona Beach.

In that case, four professors of the college’s school of social sciences were fired in 2009 for overwhelming evidence of sexual misconduct. In that case, the college’s president and Honig had to defend the decision to terminate these professors in front of the AAUP, the American Association of University Professors. He remembers facing a highly skeptical panel.

“AAUP was threatening to challenge BC-U’s accreditation not over the sexual harassment—which extended to hundreds of women over more than a decade—but over the four professors’ academic freedom,” Honig explained. Some of the relationships might have been amorous, romantic, loving. And if so, AAUP claimed it was their right. If the students are consensual and of legal age—and the professors do not have evaluative authority over the students—AAUP argues, then the professor has the freedom to have sexual relations with students, unless policy expressly prohibits it.

“We had to concern ourselves with whether one of the professors might have enjoyed a ‘loving relationship’ with one of the students, like the Curies of Paris, or Masters and Johnson,” Honig says.“That’s why my report's recommendations couldn't draw an explicit bright line and say, ‘No sleeping with your students,’ and neither could the policies of the other universities whose harassment policies we examined. Instead we had to focus on individualized coercive activities, which we were able to define with considerable specificity thanks to Title IX and the underlying case law.”

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 prohibits discrimination on the basis of sex in all education programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. As Honig points out, universities in the past have not had a formal policy on sexual relationships between faculty and consenting students. Yet the effects of those relationships can be far reaching, as the controversy at UR shows.

In August 2017, a group of eight faculty members filed a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against UR for failing to act appropriately against Jaeger, whom they say engaged in sexual harassment and created a hostile environment for graduate students. In Dec., the EEOC’s  complainants filed a lawsuit in US District Court against the university, its provost and president for mishandling the allegations. In Feb., the school made a motion to dismiss the suit—a decision, which as of press time, had not been made. 

“Arriving at this point is especially tragic because it could easily have been prevented with appropriate action by the UR administration,” the original EEOC filing reads. “Instead, the administration has inexplicably failed to defend its most vulnerable citizens—its students—and put future students at risk by failing to act appropriately on their behalf; and it has retaliated against the faculty members whose only motive was to defend these students. Some of these actions by the University were illegal and others unethical.”

For the university, there is a delicate balance between protecting students’ rights to equal education opportunities and respecting professors’ personal lives. A policy that wasn’t stringent enough complicated things further. In Jaeger’s case, he had at least two sexual relationships with graduate students over whom he had a supervisory role. This would have been a clear violation under the school’s newly revised policy that now prohibits such relationships.

“...the administration has inexplicably failed to defend its most vulnerable citizens—its students—and put future students at risk by failing to act appropriately on their behalf;”

In walking the fine line between protecting professors’ and students’ rights, the school sided with the professor, says Jessica Cantlon, a former UR professor and a lead complainant in the EEOC filing.

“The policy (at UR) for the last 10 or so years was: Faculty are ‘strongly discouraged’ from engaging in romantic relationships with students (undergrad and grad). Title IX law against sexual harassment has been the same for over 10 years, and forbids hostile environment sexual harassment. So there are two issues and two relevant policies: Abuse of faculty power pursuing sexual relationships with students (school code) and sexual harassment (Title IX law),” Cantlon says. “We will ask an unbiased judge to decide which rules were broken in federal court.” 

The school’s board of trustees hired law firm Debevoise & Plimpton to conduct an independent investigation and review of the university’s response to allegations of sexual misconduct and its policies on the matter. In January, the findings were released, showing that the professor acted inappropriately but within the existing policy. (It also highlighted ample room for improvement in policy and procedure, including banning relationships between faculty and students altogether.) 

Hours before the report was released, President Joel Seligman announced his resignation, saying it was in the best interests of the university to move forward with new leadership.

In the wake of Seligman’s resignation, POST asked the school’s provost and senior vice president for research, Robert Clark, why it wasn’t in the best interests of the university to dismiss the professor at the root of the scandal, regardless of the findings. He did not directly answer that question or the others we posed but did provide a statement:

“The recommendations in the independent investigation’s report present us with an opportunity to lead the way in addressing important issues of sexual harassment and misconduct in academia,” Clark wrote. “We are working to make the most of this opportunity and will provide updates to the community on our progress.” He added: “Florian Jaeger is on leave for the spring 2018 semester. He is not scheduled to teach classes, but he will continue his research, including working with students in his lab so that they may complete their graduate studies.”

Tenure tethers Jaeger to the school and a policy that, at the time his relationships developed, left plenty of room for allowable inappropriate behavior, as complainants and the UR’s independent investigation point out.

UR’s new policy in 2017 forbids faculty members from sexual relationships with undergraduates or anyone at the university over whom they hold “academic authority,” including “teaching, mentoring, supervising, and making professional recommendations.”

In Honig’s case study of BC-U, he found that the school’s policies actually were pretty clear about sexual misconduct, but they went unenforced.

“The more immediate issue before us was that BC-U's faculty handbook already unequivocally proscribed all of the misconduct that had occurred over the course of more than a decade,” Honig says. “How, then, did it go unnoticed by the administration and unremedied year after year?

“Through our interviews with students and faculty, the answer became quite clear: The four professors—one of whom actually was a dean—had developed an uncanny proficiency in selecting, as sexual targets, precisely the most vulnerable and cooperative young women as their targets.”

In his case study, Honig did not list the criteria with which these predators selected women for fear of providing sexual harassers with a roadmap for their behavior. “In all the years when the sex-for-grades scam went on, only one or two women ‘snitched,’ and that was only because one of the professors made the careless error of straying from (these) screening factors,” Honig says.

POST asked the American Association of University Professors for its position on professor-student relationships. The organization doesn’t recommend for or against allowing it, says Hans-Joerg Tiede, the AAUP’s associate secretary in the department of academic freedom, tenure, and governance in Washington, D.C. 

“For us to say, unilaterally, that all of universities should prohibit (sexual relations between faculty and students), it seems …” Tiede trails off. “What matters to us is that universities address it, that they don’t simply ignore this, and that they in particular recognize that when a faculty member has actual power over a student, sexual relations are particularly ethically fraught, and there needs to be an explicit policy addressing such situations. Policies should be worked out between the faculty and the administration, and they should be reasonable.”

There is a general impression, Tiede says, that tenure means someone cannot be fired at all. This isn’t true, he says. “There are grounds to fire someone with tenure, but it needs to cross a certain threshold to make sure that it isn’t on false grounds.”

Tenure is important to protect academic freedom, he says. But it doesn’t end there.

“We also believe that professors have certain ethical obligations on how they should conduct themselves as faculty members, ethical obligations toward their students,” Tiede says. “We certainly believe that when professors violate those kinds of ethical obligations in some very significant way that there need to be mechanisms to seek to dismiss them, and they should have due process in those circumstances, because that is what is needed to protect academic freedom.”

“This episode (at UR) is a sad reminder that all institutions need to be proactive in setting appropriate policies and revising them as needed...it is imperative to have effective policies and procedures firmly in place before events occur.”

POST asked AAUP and other sources where parents and students could go to find out university policies on student-professor relationships, which in faculty handbooks sometimes are referred to as “amorous relationships.” There is no database as far as we could find (although maybe there will be someday soon), and so far, colleges do not seem to be advertising these policies in their view books. Perhaps some should.

Schools such as Harvard, which outrightly bans romantic relationships between professors and undergrads, make the waters of dealing with sexual harassment a little less murky. At the time Harvard announced the ban in 2015, Alison Johnson, a Harvard history professor who was on the panel that wrote the policy, said, “Undergraduates come to college to learn from us. We’re not here to have sexual or romantic relationships with them.”

Codes of conduct for faculty and students ought to be readily available on university websites, says Michael Poliakoff, president of the American Council of Trustees and Alumni.

“This episode (at UR) is a sad reminder that all institutions need to be proactive in setting appropriate policies and revising them as needed,” Poliakoff says. “Whether the issue is sexual morality, substance abuse or treatment of invited speakers, it is imperative to have effective policies and procedures firmly in place before events occur.”

Honig, who in the early 1970s attended UR’s Graduate School of Management, now the Simon School of Business, was shocked by the allegations levied against the professor and UR. 

“It would have been unthinkable for a professor to have sex with, or even transparently and non-sexually date, a student in his or her class,” Honig says. “It just wasn’t done."