Meliora Weekend is an important landmark in our collective life as a university, when students, faculty, parents, and alumni come together to celebrate and to take stock. All of us who filed the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint are deeply committed to the success of UR, to which many of us have devoted most of our working lives. It is precisely because we believe in the spirit of Meliora that we filed that federal complaint. We want to explain briefly to the UR community where our case stands, and what role we hope to play in improving the climate at UR in the wake of the Board of Trustee’s decision to appoint a special committee, and that committee’s statement today on the scope of its investigation.
In an important sense, the Board of Trustee’s appointment of the committee, and the president’s creation of the Commission on Women and Gender, have validated our work. At first the University dismissed our complaint as false, but that simply could not be sustained. An outpouring of support and further information from students, faculty, and alumni confirmed our account of the heavy burdens imposed on female students here by sexual harassment and the University’s flawed processes for dealing with them. More witnesses have since come forward, so that we know of at least 15 women who altered their education in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department to avoid or otherwise deal with Professor T. Florian Jaeger, up from 11 in the complaint. Other people have called us with worrying accounts of sexual harassment by other University employees and flaws in the system for responding to it. President Joel Seligman has now admitted in public that it was wrong to promote Jaeger in the middle of the University’s investigation of him, contrary to his earlier view. He has also changed the policy that enabled one aspect of the University’s retaliation against us — trawling through our emails to look for material to use against us. This is progress, which we welcome.
The force of the media reaction has had an upside. UR has sparked an important national debate on sexual harassment in academia and the sciences in particular. As loyal UR citizens and people who would prefer to concentrate on our regular academic work, and knowing that the publicity has also caused upset, we recognize there have been costs too. We never wanted to go public. But we tried to get the University to take this issue seriously for over a year and were rebuffed every time. After our formal complaints had been rejected, we emailed the president, provost, and other senior figures, held meetings with them, were promised that things would be looked into — and nothing happened. The University’s stonewalling left no alternative but a public filing.
Now the Board of Trustees has said it wants to investigate what went wrong and why, using Mary Jo White and her Wall Street firm to investigate. We endorse this goal and want to cooperate. The special committee’s claim that we have declined to participate is false.
Rather, we simply pointed out that we cannot help the University’s lawyers in their private investigation while they are still working to defeat us in court. We must file a federal court complaint in just a few weeks or lose forever our ability to hold UR to account in an unbiased court for its serious failings. We have had enough experience of being ignored and indeed belittled by multiple University officials that it would be rash for us to assume everything will work out if we simply disappear from the ongoing controversy. So far, UR has not substantively responded to our inquiries about seeking to resolve our dispute. We hope that the committee will meaningfully engage with us. We want its inquiry to succeed, but cannot jeopardize our case if the University insists on continuing to fight us.
Additionally, many witnesses who provided vital information for our complaint have contacted us to say they too feel in an impossible situation. Some are exhausted. Others are too afraid to identify themselves to UR. But they are concerned that if they don’t come forward, UR will assume we made them up. We don’t want to discourage witnesses from participating in the investigation, but we also fully understand their concerns. This is why we chose the McAllister Olivarius firm to conduct an investigation and to bring our complaint forward. They are specialists in this area. They know how to treat victims of sexual harassment. They helped create sexual harassment law and have been advocating for victims for over 40 years. The firm’s senior partner, Dr. Ann Olivarius, was named by the ACLU as one of the most influential people in the history of Title IX. Nelson Mandela said her work had “courageously advanced the cause of justice, and improved life opportunities, for hundreds of millions of women, blacks, and disadvantaged, worldwide.”
The witnesses find reliving their experiences by giving testimony to be difficult, sometimes traumatic. If they’re going to have to testify in court anyway, they tell us they don’t see great value in rehashing matters just for White’s lawyers, who in any event specialize in corporate fraud.
Unless our claims are resolved, the committee’s approach is like organizing a big wedding, but deciding to exclude the bride and groom. If we are kept away from the investigation into complaints that we raised, including retaliation that we experienced, we don’t see how its final report will be as strong as it could be — and if the University is going to spend several million dollars on a comprehensive inquiry by a Wall Street law firm, what’s the point of excluding us? How can White’s report achieve the finality that the committee seeks if the same matters are being litigated for another year or more?
We think working together is by far the best route to fixing the problems our complaint has brought to light. We would much prefer to resolve our dispute with the University than continue in court, thereby enabling us to cooperate in making the UR a world leader in preventing and fighting sexual harassment.
We offer our cooperation sincerely to the University. After the Board meets this weekend, we hope to hear that the University wishes to reciprocate.