Rochester, N.Y. (WROC) — Former University of Rochester President Joel Seligman recently published a new book.
The end of the book has something of a hidden chapter, or at least a hidden year.
The title is 12 Great Years, but tucked away in the last few pages is his take on 2017, his 13th and final year as president.
A decade prior to that hidden year, 31-year-old Florian Jaeger splashed onto the scene as an assistant professor inside UR’s renowned Brain and Cognitive Sciences Department.
Brash and brilliant, Jaeger developed a reputation that years later fueled allegations of sexual harassment.
This is the case that flung UR into the center of the #MeToo movement.
It’s also what defined Seligman’s final year and prompted him the day after he resigned to tell News 8, “This matter to some degree was tried in the court of public opinion and the court of public opinion is very different than due process.”
These are words that former UR Professor Jessica Cantlon, one of several who complained about Jaeger’s behavior towards students, resents to this day.
“That hurt our credibility and made women who have experienced sexual harassment very nervous about coming forward,” Cantlon said.
If anyone thought this story was over and done with, Cantlon’s comment reveals it most certainly is not.
Not for the accusers.
Not for Seligman, who laments unfinished work at UR.
Not for Florian Jaeger, who, for this piece, agreed to his first television interview.
“Now, I am a persona non grata,” Jaeger said.
Widespread coverage of this story stopped at the beginning of the pandemic, but we discovered almost everyone involved is still living out their own hidden chapter.
This includes Jaeger’s colleague and domestic partner, Chigusa Kurumada.
“One way to put it is it’s a never ending nightmare,” Kurumada said.
A quiet, painful search for an end, that’s what this story is, but to understand it one has to jump back to the start, to 2007, when Jaeger first arrived on the UR campus.
What followed was detailed in the $4.5 million investigation lead by famed former federal prosecutor Mary Jo White.
In it, she found between 2007 and 2013 Jaeger did have consensual intimate relationships with several students, though he was not their adviser or primary supervisor.
At that time, however, a professor dating a student was actually allowed so the White report concluded Jaeger did not violate UR policy while adding the relationships were “ill-advised” and contributed to Jaeger’s reputation as a “womanizer” and they were eventually used by Cantlon and others to back up their claims.
“This was a pattern of behavior that happened over many years,” Cantlon said. “He announced at department events that faculty wanted to have sex with a particular woman student, he would talk about students’ breasts, legs, bodies with faculty members.”
White agreed with Cantlon that because of a combination of Jaeger’s “harsh and demeaning language, flirtatious behavior, use of sexual innuendo, promiscuous reputation, open relationships with students and blurring of social and professional lines” several female graduate students avoided him and, as a result, missed out on educational opportunities.
“Florian’s behavior really corrupted the whole educational program,” Cantlon said.
But the report also emphasized there was no unwanted touching and argued Jaeger was not a sexual predator as alleged, calling a number of the complaints exaggerated or misleading and concluded that even when taken all together his behavior did not rise to the level of sexual harassment.
Still, the report emphasized the behavior was inappropriate.
“Did I do something that caused discomfort to other people? I would say, that’s bound to have happened, the evidence is clear. Do I regret it? Yes. That was never my intention, which again some people don’t believe, but I can only say it wasn’t my intention,” Jaeger said.
Jaeger’s boss called him in when the first official complaint was lodged in 2013 by a graduate student who said, among other things, Jaeger took her picture without her permission.
“This is the first time I had heard of any of these allegations,” Jaeger said. “The first reaction was shock, trying to understand, asking for clarifying information.”
After that, things appeared to settle in the department with White noting Jaeger’s improved behavior saying he was no longer dating students nor was there any evidence of offensive language.
Then, in 2016, Cantlon and former UR Professor Richard Aslin submitted their complaints against their colleague.
The university investigated and, as noted, determined Jaeger did not break UR’s relationship rules, nor any rules for that matter.
Unhappy with that and the fact Jaeger was granted tenure during the appeals process, Cantlon, Aslin and others went public through an article in Mother Jones magazine.
“I felt it was a fundamental failure to protect the students at the university,” Aslin said in 2017.
A few weeks later, with a tweet, actress Alyssa Milano breathed life into the #MeToo movement.
For those looking to apply the hashtag to fresh stories, the Jaeger case had surfaced at the perfect time, and it caught fire.
Before year’s end, Cantlon and Jaeger’s other accusers found themselves on a list with #MeToo notables, all named Time’s Person of the Year and in the same breath people were now mentioning the names of Harvey Weinstein and Florian Jaeger.
“You don’t have to be Harvey Weinstein to have done something wrong that discriminates against women students at a school,” Cantlon said.
The wave crested and broke over Jaeger and by extension Kurumada.
“Everything was crumbling down,” Kurumada said. “My research wasn’t going well and we had to spend so much time and an emotional effort to deal with the situation.”
Despite this, Jaeger says he stuck by his marching orders from UR to remain silent.
Weeks later, the White report dropped.
That’s when Seligman let loose on Cantlon, Aslin and their group.
“(They) have made it unequivocally clear that they’re trying to extract from the university a huge financial settlement,” Seligman said in 2018.
That group did sue UR claiming the White report, which had been ordered and paid for by the university, was part of a larger effort of retaliation.
A federal judge gave them a win when he declined to dismiss a number of claims like retaliation saying he saw enough to at least send the case to trial.
And in March of 2020, right as the pandemic took hold, a settlement was reached and the nine who sued received $9.4 million.
“I did feel a sense of justice by the end, but it’s not complete,” Cantlon said.
Cantlon felt forced to leave UR and Aslin had retired earlier than he had hoped.
Jaeger stayed saying moving was impossible even if he wanted to.
Though the department has calmed, Jaeger says he still struggles to find grant money and the case occasionally flares on campus, usually with a protest, but his office has also been vandalized with messages calling him a sexual predator and telling him to resign because he sexually assaulted women. something he was never accused of.
When asked about the impact of this kind of fallout, Jaeger said, “I mean I have spent years thinking about this. It’s with me almost every day. I’d say the biggest challenge there was disentangling the made up, utterly false, outrageous stuff and still trying to say clearly I’m not flawless. Clearly there is stuff I’ve done that has upset people, so what are those things and how can I disentangle the BS from the real stuff, the things I’d like to address.”
Kurumada takes particular issue with the continued labeling of Jaeger as a sexual predator.
“People don’t remember anything about actual allegations, anything that was actually found in an investigation, but the term sexual predator is the only thing that people remember now and people approach this topic now assuming there must be something to support this term, that warrants the use of this term,” Kurumada said.
As we found, this case remains filled with resentment, yes, but also, as Seligman displays in a recent interview, reflection.
“I wrote in the very last page of the book that the Desiderata is a favorite poem and it concludes with the line, ‘With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world.’ And I believe that,” Seligman said.
And despite the fallout, notably absent, at least for Aslin, is regret.
“These cases never end well in the sense that everyone ends up being negatively affected by it, but I want reiterate the fact that if we just look the other way, these cases will continue,” Aslin said.
The University of Rochester hopes they don’t, especially within their community, which is why they’ve updated their policies.
UR’s Interim Chief Diversity Officer, Adrienne Morgan, says they’ve tightened up their faculty-student dating rules, increased the number of investigators ready to look into claims of misconduct and streamlined the complaint process.
Much of that change, she says, is a direct result of the Jaeger case.
“We’ve learned a lot from that incident and took it very seriously and took a deep-dive examination of what the policy was then and how we need to revise it and strengthen it as we move forward,” Morgan said.
Morgan and seemingly everyone involved are now looking forward, beyond this hidden chapter and into a new one, tied to the past, but not bound by it.