Joel Seligman should resign immediately from his role as president of UR.
His administration’s failures of leadership in at least two recent instances — the handling of sexual harassment complaints and the kidnapping and torture of two athletes — have had serious repercussions for members of the UR community, resulted in the departure of distinguished faculty and scholars, and damaged the University’s reputation. Whether the administration acted appropriately in dismissing allegations of sexual misconduct that have prompted a detailed, disturbing complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or intentionally ignored the behavior of an athlete whose actions resulted in the kidnapping and torture of two teammates, Seligman’s public response in both cases has been wholly inadequate.
Let’s start with the federal complaint. Seven professors and a former graduate student allege that the administration downplayed accusations of sexual misconduct by Prof. T. Florian Jaeger, mishandled an investigation into the accusations, and retaliated against the faculty members who raised concerns about Jaeger’s behavior. In Seligman’s statement on the complaint, he likens its filing to a story Rolling Stone magazine ran in 2014, and later retracted, about sexual assault at the University of Virginia. That’s a false equivalence, and intellectually dishonest — Rolling Stone hired an outside investigator to assess and report on what went wrong. (Full disclosure: I worked for the magazine in 2012-13.) Seligman’s administration will instead be hiding behind a cloak of confidentiality.
It’s not until the last paragraph of his statement, after a lot of windy jargon about policies and procedures, that Seligman promises that “sexual misconduct will not be tolerated here.” Leaving that attempt at reassurance to the end reduces it to a limp platitude, and suggests that the University is more interested in deflecting blame than accepting responsibility for allowing to exist, at the very least, a toxic environment that put multiple women on the wrong end of a power dynamic that made them feel exploited and vulnerable. If that doesn’t constitute a violation of any UR policies, then it’s time for new policies.
The sexual misconduct allegations follow revelations reported by ESPN that the administration allegedly protected Isaiah Smith, a star football player, by ignoring reports that he was selling drugs to other students, and bailing him out of jail when he was arrested for burglary, robbery, and assault after he ripped off drug dealers. ESPN’s harrowing story recounts how those drug dealers retaliated against two of Smith’s teammates. Seligman was among several administrators who declined to explain to ESPN why UR had never disciplined Smith, or to acknowledge how the University’s failure to act helped contribute to the unimaginable cruelty those students faced.
When I emailed Seligman this week to express my dismay at UR’s public responses to these incidents, he responded with professional-level gaslighting: “I can well understand how the media coverage of both of these issues has been deeply upsetting.”
No, what’s deeply upsetting is blaming the media for laying bare a growing pattern of cynicism and incompetence. It shows Seligman doesn’t fully understand the gravity of the situations he has dealt so poorly with — Title IX complaints are not a frivolity, whatever Betsy DeVos thinks — or the extent to which he has betrayed the trust of the student body and the broader UR community. Seligman owes us all a full, public accounting of what happened in each case and why, and what steps the administration is taking to make sure UR does a better job living up to its Meliora motto.
I don’t imagine my position will weigh heavily on Seligman or, for that matter, the Board of Trustees — I haven’t given UR nearly enough money to make my voice so loud that it must be heard. But I won’t give another cent as long as Seligman remains president. I invite other alumni to join me in contributing instead, in UR’s name, to organizations that provide counseling and other services to people recovering from the kinds of trauma the University should have prevented in the first place.