University of Rochester Joel Seligman gave an exclusive TV interview to News 8 Friday to respond to the independent investigation into the sexual harassment claims made against UR Professor Florian Jaeger.
The report, led by former Securities and Exchange Commission chair Mary Jo White, concluded neither the university nor Jaeger broke any policies or laws, but did cite mistakes made by both and put forth recommendations on how to prevent a similar situation.
Below is the full Q&A between Adam and Seligman. Scroll to the bottom to watch the full interview.
Adam: What are your initial thoughts?
Seligman: With respect to the investigation, I thought it was a highly professional job, I thought it was fair, I thought of the pains that she and those who wrote the report took to credit evidence that could be corroborated by everyone. She didn’t play any favorites, she has a reputation for being tough and incorruptible and you heard her at her very best yesterday and that’s reflected in a very detailed 207-page report.
It didn’t matter to me what the report said because it wasn’t a question of what the report was going to find. This has been a massive distraction and it has done some transitory harm to the reputation of 2,780 faculty, over 11,000 students, over 100,000 alumni and my job was always to protect their interests and I came to realize that I needed to lance the boil I needed to help this university make a fresh start and as I reflected on it, I became convinced the only sure way I could do that was by recognizing that it had come time for a new leadership.
Adam: I‘m wondering why you concluded that staying on, being the person who changes things, by bridging the old and the new wasn’t in the cards for you?
Seligman: I became convinced that to some degree the rapport was gone and maybe it could be repaired over time, it was going to be a long process and at best doing a kind of internal analysis I was convinced it couldn’t be entirely repaired and when you get to that point you have to be honest about it. This is not about me, my ego, my personality, it’s not about that, it’s about the University of Rochester.
Adam: You said you realized the magic was gone during a Town Hall meeting where you were addressing the controversy and you received some vocal pushback.
Seligman: It was a very significant moment for me. This was in September of last year, it was shortly after the EEOC complaint was made public and an article in Mother Jones, the magazine, was published, at that time, I did what I’ve been doing for 12 years, I basically said we need an independent investigation, I intended to appoint someone who was totally independent of the university and would be the kind of person like Mary Jo White who has vast experience at internal investigations and had the resources to do it systematically and well, I created the commission on women and gender in higher education and I did those two things and those are, I believe very substantial steps and then I wanted to give them enough time to do their job.
The reaction from some in the town hall meeting with 400 or 500 people in part was quite awful. There were things said out loud that I’ve never heard before and it was reasonably clear in that room the magic was gone and it was reasonably clear to me that what I had done for the past 12 years wasn’t working. I had hope there would be patience for the independent investigation report. I had thought that the University of Rochester as it had in most times in its history could distinguish between allegations which anyone can say and facts you can prove. That patience for some was not there. There was a belief by some that what was said in allegations must be true. And I was troubled.
This matter to some degree was tried in the court of public opinion and the court of the public opinion is very difference than the court of due process. It’s the court in which the person who yells the loudest, who screams the most incessantly wins. It’s not about the merits, it’s not about the facts, it’s about the loudest voice.
I tried at all times to proceed with dignity, to proceed with integrity, to respect our due process, to not undercut our investigator or the commission on women and gender and there wasn’t the patience for that.
Adam: You talk about impatience. Do you think this resignation will encourage this type of activity that you see on the college campus?
Seligman: I hope it has exactly the opposite effect. I hope wise individuals and thoughtful individuals realize that in too many instances there’s a rush to judgment and that it’s not a healthy way to run a country, it’s not a healthy way to run a university and I think you’re beginning to see some of that and I think you’re going to see a lot more of that in the weeks and months to come.
Adam: The report found the university did not break any policies, nothing was done illegally. At the same time, the complainants are saying (the report) wasn’t thorough enough, and they point to the fact that Mary Jo White was with the SEC, you have a deep history with the SEC, there was an appearance in their eyes of a conflict of interest. How do you respond to those allegations post-investigation?
Seligman: There is really one conflict of interest in this case and that is on the part of the plaintiffs and on the part of their attorney who have made it unequivocally clear that they’re trying to extract from the university a huge financial settlement and I think that’s the serious conflict of interest. We haven’t talked about that publicly. We assumed people would understand that’s the institutional reality. Why was Mary Jo White selected, I have no friendship with her, I barely have ever heard her speak in public, she claims she can’t remember ever meeting me, I know I never had a private meeting with her, but that’s not why she was selected because she was the incorruptible US attorney, she prosecuted everybody based on the law, she always did it on the merits. She’s probably the best person they could have selected and that’s the right way to do it.
Adam: Why was Florian Jaeger promoted before the end of the appeals process?
Seligman: I made a mistake and I said this, I should not have supported the promotion, but no one should have any delusions that promotion from associate to full professor while important is not the real decision that’s made with an academic, the real decision that’s made with academic is tenure and Florian Jaeger already had that.
Adam: Even if he weren’t technically breaking policy, why wasn’t he shown the door given some of the inappropriate relationships that Mary Jo White outlined?
Seligman: Tenure is the most important privilege that any academic has, it’s why a lot of people become university professors, it is an opportunity to speak and think and it has been used to the greatest possible advantage in this country. To fire someone means a tenure revocation procedure, it’s very unusual, it only happens under the most extreme circumstances. There was conduct that was serious but not sufficiently serious to justify tenure revocation. He was subject to intermediate sanctions and he was required to go through training and he has shown since it stated in the report in 2011 that he has not done anything that would possible justify a tenure revocation. We just don’t fire people here. We like to consider ourselves like a family, we support each other. What the allegations or the complainants are saying is, we don’t care, we know what the truth is, we’ll tell you how to do how to do your job, that’s not how the justice system works.
Adam: What do you think of his conduct prior to 2011?
Seligman: I’m not going to approve of his conduct before 2011. I thought the sanctions that were applied to him, the training were appropriate
Adam: You have done quite a bit over 12 years and to see you go like this a lot of people are disappointed.
Seligman: I hope they won’t be disappointed. I had 12 great years, I don’t have any delusion that anyone in the university is irreplaceable, we are links in a chain. It will have better days than what we’ve seen in the last 12 years.
Friday, the complainants’ attorney, McAllister Olivarius, released this statement in response to Seligman’s claim the group exagerrated accusations in order to secure a settlement:
We have sought to resolve our complaints internally with University for over a year. It was only the University’s refusal to take any positive steps that forced us to get lawyers, to file with the EEOC and then to file a federal lawsuit. This has been costly financially, emotionally and in diverting us from our research and teaching. As in any other legal dispute, it is appropriate for the university to compensate for the damages it has caused to multiple victims of the hostile work environment it did nothing to curb, including the many witnesses cited in our Complaint who altered their careers to avoid a toxic sexist climate, and its retaliation against those who tried to fix the problem.
The University was happy to pay $4.5 million to Debevoise & Plimpton to attack our Complaint, which did difficult work in bringing serious problems to light. Our goal has never been money, and it’s wrong for President Seligman to cast us as greedy.
University of Rochester complainant Richard Aslin issued the following statement Saturday:
“Joel Seligman apparently doesn’t understand conflict of interest, which occurs when a person who has the power to influence the outcome of a decision would themselves potentially benefit from that outcome. For example, if someone were accused of a crime, it would be a conflict of interest if the judge were a close friend or relative of the accused.
It is not a conflict of interest for those filing a law suit to seek damages for their expenses, their legal fees, and their pain and suffering. Consider that each of the complainants in the Federal law suit against the University of Rochester in the Florian Jaeger matter has spent hundreds of hours of their time, totally uncompensated, to work through the policies and procedures of the University. Then they hired attorneys at their own expense to conduct investigations and formulate legal documents. All of this work on their part was in response to what the University itself should have done, but did not. In addition, there are real damages to the complainants by the actions (and inactions) of the University.
They have each suffered from the disruption to their personal and professional lives. Their research productivity has been reduced or delayed, and in many cases they have had to seek employment elsewhere, with its attendant relocation costs. They have also been characterized as liars and as engaging in vigilante justice, when in fact they have been truthful and have followed University processes and procedures. Justice does not have a price tag, but it is also not free of costs. Mary Jo White’s report was not produced pro bono.
As a legal scholar, Joel Seligman knows that claiming conflict of interest when plaintiffs seek damages is simply an attempt to make us look greedy, when in fact the greedy party is Seligman himself, who benefited from the fiction that the University of Rochester was a safe and welcoming environment for students who he put at risk by his failed leadership. His salary last year was $1.3 million. My UR salary last year was 1/10th of that.
If Seligman believes it is a conflict of interest for the complainants to receive compensation in a legal settlement, perhaps he should personally pay for the Mary Jo White report rather than using institutional resources.”