Please consider downloading the latest version of Internet Explorer
to experience this site as intended.
Tools Search Main Menu

Features

Setting a High BarRochester looks to set higher standards for itself as it moves forward from a sexual harassment investigation.By Kathleen McGarvey

NEXT STEPS

Cultivating a Culture of Respect

In an effort to share progress and plans for responding to the report, the Office of the President launched a website in February to keep the University community up-to-date.

With the theme of “Cultivating a Culture of Respect,” the site—Rochester.edu/respect—outlines the report’s recommendations and other issues related to the campus climate.

The site, which will be updated regularly to show progress on key steps and which includes a forum for feedback, is one of several steps under way in response to the report. Others include:

  • A new Board of Trustees committee has been created to oversee implementation and compliance with deadlines.
  • The Office of the President is working with the Faculty Senate and the newly created Commission on Women and Gender Equity in Academia as both groups develop their own recommendations.
  • Work has begun to create a new role in the president’s cabinet to strengthen and coordinate University activities related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  • A Student Task Force to Review Sexual Misconduct Policy is planning to publish its own set of recommendations.

When philosopher and former dean of the College Richard Feldman was appointed interim president of the University in January, he sent a message to the campus community: it is time to better define and articulate Rochester’s values. His words came in the wake of a report by independent investigators who examined allegations of sexual harassment against a member of the faculty.

The investigation found that the professor’s actions early in his career were “inappropriate, unprofessional and offensive” and led some young women scientists to avoid working with him, but the report affirmed that he didn’t violate University policies or federal laws.

The legalistic distinction left many frustrated, disappointed, and angry—reactions that Feldman acknowledged:

“Many different community members have shared their views that adherence to law and formal policy is not sufficient, and that our community needs to hold its members accountable to higher standards. I agree. To do so, we need to carefully define and articulate the community values that determine those standards.”

Since taking on a new leadership role, Feldman has been listening to and talking with faculty, staff, and student leadership groups. It’s a first step in meeting a three-month deadline set by the report to strengthen Rochester’s policies and procedures and improve the supportive bonds of its community.

“The University of Rochester,” Feldman says, “has an opportunity to be a model for other institutions, not just in the letter of our policies and procedures but in the spirit of our actions, measured by our respect for each other and our differences in a campus community that is safe and inclusive for all.”

What happened?

Former U.S. Attorney Mary Jo White, senior chair of the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, was hired in September by a special committee of the Board of Trustees to investigate how the University had handled complaints about the conduct of T. Florian Jaeger, a faculty member in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences (BCS). Those complaints alleged that—largely between 2007, the time of Jaeger’s hiring, and 2013—Jaeger engaged in sexual harassment, had intimate relationships with students, and created a hostile environment for women graduate students in his department.

The University carried out its own investigations in 2016, concluding that Jaeger’s conduct had not violated its policies then in place and that the University had not retaliated against those who had made allegations against him.

In August 2017, the complainants filed a formal complaint against the University with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), a federal agency that enforces civil rights laws in the workplace.

The EEOC granted the complainants a “Right to Sue,” and a lawsuit is pending.

White was commissioned to examine the issues raised in the EEOC complaint. Her 207-page report was released on January 11. In it, she called on the University to “promptly take a number of bold steps, including but not limited to the Recommendations in this Report, to repair the resulting wounds and distrust that have occurred.”

Setting the Bar

“In our view,” White writes, “the University and all involved here now have a unique opportunity to make such amends as can be made, heal and work hard to become the thought and moral leader for the academic community in preventing and dealing fairly with allegations of sexual harassment and all forms of discrimination in the academic workplace. Set the bar and set it high. ‘Ever Better’ is what UR is about.”

Responding to the report and creating a transparent campus dialogue are Feldman’s top priorities as interim president. Progress, he stresses, will be rooted in careful deliberation and in the broad participation of faculty, students, alumni, and staff.

The conversation will involve not only formal groups, but all who care about the University.

“I am committed to making deliberations as open and inclusive as I possibly can,” Feldman says.

He’s confident that the voices he hears will lead Rochester in the right direction, setting a course to determine the kind of community that Rochester wants to be.

“The challenges before us are significant, but our strength and talent run deep.”