The president gave answers, but none seemed to soothe.
What stuck over the three hours Tuesday night that University President Joel Seligman fielded questions about the school’s handling of sexual harassment investigations were the calls of “liar,” the shouts and tears of those looking for justice, and the demands that he fire the accused professor, fire several members of his administration, or even resign himself.
“We are still angry, we are still upset, this is still happening,” Jenna Register ‘16 — an organizer of Wednesday’s planned protest — told Seligman, perhaps the simplest distillation of the night.
“You want instant answers, fine. I want to give you answers that are appropriate and ones that address not only these concerns but others,” Seligman said in a different exchange, summing up many of his responses. “I cannot shoot from the hip, I’m sorry.”
Hundreds filled the Feldman Ballroom for Seligman’s town hall forum, the latest peak in five days of campus outrage sparked by a 111-page legal complaint filed with the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, first reported in Mother Jones.
That complaint details how UR, through two investigations, left Professor T. Florian Jaeger untouched after he was accused by Celeste Kidd, another professor and former graduate student under Jaeger, of years of sexual harassment. Kidd was one of 17 professors and students to complain about Jaeger’s behavior according to the document, which was submitted by seven current and former professors and a former graduate student. The complaint primarily argues that UR retaliated against the employees who had come forward about Jaeger’s alleged harassment. The federal commission would not pass judgment on anything related directly to students.
In an email to his undergraduate class on Tuesday, Jaeger stepped aside from his teaching duties for the time being. Seligman told attendees that the professor would not be on campus “for the balance of the semester.”
At the start of the town hall, Seligman promised to hire an independent, professional investigator to examine claims of retaliation and to create a commission on women in academia. He also apologized for comparing the case to the hoaxed gang-rape covered by Rolling Stone in 2014. He said the school would review its policies about sexual misconduct reporting.
“There will be many specifics in the days to come,” he said.
He also said that though UR would not be reopening its prior investigations of Jaeger, it would begin new ones into claims that had either not been brought up before or had been kept out of the previous investigations. He refused to fire Jaeger when pressed by speakers.
Several speakers called for the firing of Morgan Levy, the University’s Title IX coordinator, who they said had allowed oversights in the reporting process for many students.
“I have not been made aware, but that is unacceptable,” Seligman said in response to one student’s claim that Levy admitted her office has made oversights.
Soon after, Seligman called another alleged statement by Levy — that “it was not uncommon for less powerful women to seek out more powerful men for sexual relationships, similar to how poor women sometimes enter into a relationship with a rich man for economic benefit” — “grotesque.”
But he said he would not fire Levy, either, without an investigation, prompting outcry from attendees.
“This is not rule by mob, guys. File something in writing,” he said. “We’re not going to ignore it.”
Many of the exchanges played out like this, with both Seligman and speakers raising their voices and cutting each other off. Seligman sighed often, pacing around the stage and at one point sitting on its edge. Some speakers swore at him.
When freshman Andrew Bailey asked Seligman if would he say whether he believes the accusations against Jaeger, using only yes or no, the president replied: “That is McCarthyism.”
People laughed at his response, but their tone, as it was in other instances, was mocking or in disbelief.
“Some of the allegations [in the complaint] are totally false,” Seligman said in that exchange. “Some of the allegations, I believe, are probably true. The question is, do they rise to a level where they are actionable under our standard?”
Two of the professors who filed the federal complaint — Jessica Cantlon and Steven Piantadosi, who is married to Kidd — pressed Seligman throughout the night, often interjecting to “fact-check” the president.
“Are not you protecting — do you have the power to fire [investigator] Kate Nearpass and Morgan Levy?” Piantadosi asked at one point.
“I have the power to fire a lot of people,” Seligman said.
“Great, so you’re protecting them right now,” said Piantadosi.
“But I have to do it on the basis of an evidentiary basis,” Seligman said.
“Well, now you got it — you got 100 pages there,” said Piantadosi.
Seligman told the audience that the pain and frustration he feels over this situation “is as acute as anything I’ve felt in my 12-plus years here,” but many called this — and the entire forum — just lip service, for which they would hold him accountable.
“I’m sick of your pointless commissions and retroactive, save-face actions,” senior Laura Cowie-Haskell told Seligman. “I want change now.”
A protest against Jaeger and UR is slated for 1:40 p.m. on Wednesday, outside Rush Rhees Library. The Campus Times will be live-streaming it on Facebook. Video of the town hall can be found on the Campus Times’ Facebook page, with some small gaps due to technical issues.
News Editor Lumi Schildkraut and Managing Editor Jesse Bernstein contributed reporting to this piece.
Editor’s Note (12/22/19): A sentence saying that, according to the EEOC complaint, Kidd’s account of harassment was supported by seven professors and 11 students was changed to reflect that Kidd was one of those professors and one of those students. The sentence was also changed to reflect that, according to the complaint, not all of the individuals necessarily supported Kidd’s account of her own experience, but complained about Jaeger’s behavior as they experienced it.