To the University community,
We are six former graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in the Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department who contributed testimony to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint. Each of us has a story where our life, career, or educational trajectory was altered by avoiding Professor T. Florian Jaeger’s unwelcome advances and other inappropriate, offensive, and unprofessional behavior. Together, we write to implore the UR community to take on the very difficult and important work of improving Rochester’s culture, policies, and procedures related to sexual misconduct.
First, it is with gratitude that we applaud the efforts of the complainants who courageously brought forward complaints that had been ignored and continue to speak up not only on their own behalf, but on the behalf of many affected graduate students and post-docs, including ourselves. They have persisted in face of scrutiny and inaction from the University while enduring great personal cost. If not for the efforts of the complainants, important conversations about much-needed changes, both here and at colleges and universities across the country, would not be occurring.
While the Debevoise & Plimpton report does not view our experiences as constituting, in a narrowly interpreted legal sense, a pattern of pervasive sexual harassment, its account of the details of the behavior also does not substantively differ from that of the EEOC complaint. We all agree that these things happened and that they had real effects on real people. Some of us had trouble completing our degrees, others lost educational or research opportunities, and yet others had their career or research trajectories bent or stunted in an effort to avoid unwanted advances and inappropriate behavior.
The report admits that we should never have had to experience what we did as graduate students — but also asserts that these experiences did not violate the University’s policies, and do not rise to an actionable level. What kind of message does this send to this community? Is this who we want to be? Do we wish to be a university where documented behavior against multiple women over a multi-year period that is described as offensive and inappropriate is tolerated? Do we wish to put the burden on students to subject themselves to repeated harassment in order to hold a harasser accountable since avoiding a harasser offers no basis for making a harassment claim that rises to the level of being pervasive? We hope that the UR community joins us in finding the report’s conclusions deeply unsatisfying.
In his remarks upon being invested as dean of the college, Jeff Runner spoke powerfully about the importance of belonging and the necessity of creating a university community where every single member feels that they belong. When inappropriate behavior is allowed to persist, it damages not just the individuals who are directly affected, but the entire community. Misconduct can’t be tolerated and must be something that the institution is willing to investigate and issue progressive sanctions against. If we wish to create a community in which every individual feels like they belong, we must work to develop better procedures and policies around sexual misconduct and harassment. We need procedures, policies, and, most importantly, social norms that discourage inappropriate behavior and encourage those impacted to come forward. The policy changes originally suggested by the complainants have been echoed in the Debevoise & Plimpton report, and we add our voices to strongly encourage that changes be made. But that is only the beginning of the work that must be done.
As the #MeToo movement has demonstrated, this problem is larger than UR. There are too many of us, across all fields, who quietly change our career trajectories in order to avoid harassment and miss out on opportunities that are available to others — and in the process, our fields miss out on the important contributions we might have made and the leadership we might have provided. If we do nothing to change this, the diversity of our fields ends up being shaped by those who harass or otherwise abuse power.
But the University now has an opportunity to create changes that could lead to an open and respectful campus environment in which every student and faculty member is able to pursue their educational goals. We call on the UR community to make sure this opportunity is not thrown away. Honor our experiences by keeping these conversations going. As Dean Runner has said, not only do you belong to the University, the University belongs to you, and we ask you to work to push this institution to live up to its own motto: Meliora.