The University of Rochester, assailed by outrage from students and alumni over accusations that it covered up a professor’s sexual harassment, has placed the professor on leave and hired one of the country’s most prominent lawyers to lead a renewed investigation into the allegations.
T. Florian Jaeger, a professor of brain and cognitive sciences whom 11 women accused in a federal discrimination complaint of sexual harassment or creating a hostile workplace environment, was placed on administrative leave for the duration of the investigation, the university’s board of trustees announced Tuesday. The university’s original investigation into Jaeger cleared him in June 2016.
Mary Jo White, who was the chairwoman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and is also the only woman to have served as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, will lead the new investigation. White will examine all of the charges laid out in a 111-page complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Aug. 30, which include the original sexual harassment accusations against Jaeger, as well as alleged retaliation by university administrators against professors who reported them.
The board of trustees said it hopes to complete the investigation by Dec. 31.
The new investigation, which a committee of five university trustees will oversee, has already drawn criticism from faculty, students and alumni who have questioned its independence. Celeste Kidd, a professor in the brain and cognitive sciences department who was among the group that filed the federal discrimination complaint, said she was concerned that there were no faculty members on the committee.
“The board of trustees has a financial interest in protecting the reputation of the university,” Kidd said. That interest, she said, “may not be aligned with the objectives of the faculty and students, who really want to protect the institution as a safe place to learn.”
But Joel Seligman, the university president, said in the trustees’ statement that he welcomed “this independent investigation by the board,” and assured the complete cooperation of the university and its staff. “Students, faculty, staff, alumni and the public deserve a full and transparent accounting on this matter,” he said.
In a statement through a university spokeswoman, the special committee said that neither Seligman nor anyone else associated with the university besides the committee had any input on White’s selection.
The decision to place Jaeger on leave was made in agreement with him, according to the board’s statement. Jaeger did not return a request for comment.
Legal experts said universities will often hire high-profile investigators like White to bolster the credibility of their investigations.
“This is a really unusually bad set of allegations,” said Michele Dauber, a law professor at Stanford who has been a vocal critic of campus sexual assault policies. “This is a signal that the board of trustees understands that they have a Category 5 problem, and they need to bring in someone who has a sterling reputation to try to restore confidence.”
Penn State, for example, asked Louis J. Freeh, a former federal judge and FBI director, to investigate its sexual abuse scandal in 2012.
Peter Lake, a law professor at Stetson University, said top investigators are often chosen because they have their own reputations to uphold, shielding them from questions about conflict of interest.
White, who is the senior chairwoman of the law firm Debevoise & Plimpton, specializes in counseling companies involved in government investigations.
She declined to comment on the investigation but wrote in an email that “the investigation will be completely independent.”
Kidd called the announcement of Jaeger’s leave “one step in the right direction,” but said she is waiting to see how administrators address larger questions about how the university handles complaints of sexual misconduct.
“It’s a small gesture,” she said. “They have not admitted to any problems with the process. It’s not the big picture issue.”