She Was a Rising Star at a Major University. Then a Lecherous Professor Made Her Life Hell.

“I desperately wanted to show them how capable I was as a scientist.”

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Celeste Kidd was elated when she learned, in 2007, that she had been invited to interview for a Ph.D. program at the University of Rochester in New York. The talented 24-year-old linguistics major had applied to many of the country’s top cognitive science departments, but among those, she had her eye fixed on UR’s. There, she might have the chance to work with Richard Aslin, a nationally respected expert on infant learning, her area of research. Aslin had the right lab equipment, the right grants, and a reputation for supporting his students’ interests even when they diverged from his own. Getting an interview in his department was “one of the most exciting moments of my life,” Kidd remembers.

As she began the interview process, Kidd was told that in addition to Aslin, she would be encouraged to work closely with the department’s prized recent hire, professor T. Florian Jaeger, an expert in linguistics and computational methods. She met with Jaeger—but left the interview disturbed. Rather than asking about her research, she says, the professor invited her to a party that weekend, which she declined. Within days, he had sent her a message on Facebook. “you should have come to that other party,” he wrote.

“I wanted to come, and ordinarily I would have but what with my not being accepted into Rochester yet, I didn’t want to make myself look like I enjoyed myself too much too often, you know?” Kidd wrote back.

“you should not be worried about that type of stuff. at least no with me,” Jaeger replied. He added: “rochester used to be the place for legendary parties (with lots of nudity,etc. =)”

Kidd was bothered by the messages, but she was soon accepted into Rochester’s program, with the understanding that she would split her time between Aslin’s and Jaeger’s labs. So she continued to talk to Jaeger on Facebook, trying to stay on his good side, changing the subject when the tone of his messages turned sexual. “send me your manuscript when it’s ready to take the world in storm,” he wrote to her a few weeks later. “you could read it to me in rachacha [Rochester], while i lie lazily on the couch (you have to pace around occasionally in front of the fire place for the more agited parts if there are any). what a service.” 

“He was somebody who was in the field who I didn’t want to upset,” she explains now. “I wasn’t sure what was normal and what wasn’t. The idea that this kind of thing was common was totally believable.”

That spring was the start of Kidd’s decadelong effort—as a doctoral student and, later, as a junior faculty member—first to appease Jaeger, then to isolate herself from his influence, and finally to hold him responsible for years of sexual harassment in UR’s cognitive and brain sciences department, according an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission complaint filed last week.

Seven current and former professors, including Kidd and Aslin, as well as another former graduate student, have submitted identical EEOC complaints claiming that Jaeger, the University of Rochester, and several administrators violated laws that ban discrimination in the workplace and in federally funded education, and stating their intent to sue if the EEOC does not take up their case. The charges, laid out in a detailed 111-page document, allege that over a span of 10 years Jaeger contributed to a “hostile environment” for some graduate students, postdocs, and professors in the department, causing at least 11 women to actively avoid him and lose out on educational opportunities.

When Aslin and a colleague, Jessica Cantlon, complained to the university about Jaeger’s behavior last year, UR investigated and ultimately cleared him of violations of its harassment and discrimination policy. Yet the EEOC complainants dispute the investigation’s conclusions and say the university has since retaliated against the professors involved.

“The administration has inexplicably failed to defend its most vulnerable citizens—its students—and put future students at risk by failing to act appropriately on their behalf; and it has retaliated against the faculty members whose only motive was to defend these students,” Aslin and Elissa Newport, the former chair of the brain and cognitive sciences department, wrote in a letter delivered to members of the UR Board of Trustees. “The present situation must be viewed as a colossal failure of UR leadership at all levels.”

In a statement, UR spokeswoman Sara Miller said the university had already thoroughly investigated the allegations contained in the EEOC complaint and could not substantiate them. “We are highly confident in the integrity of these investigations—we followed our processes for fair investigations and due process for all involved, interviewing dozens of witnesses whose names were given to us as alleged victims,” Miller said. “No violation of the law or University policy was found.”

Experiences like those that Kidd allege are not uncommon for women in academia, especially those working STEM fields, says Janet Bandows Koster, CEO and executive director of the Association for Women in Science, a professional organization. In a 2015 survey of female scientists, 35 percent of respondents said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment. A separate survey found that among female scientists working in field programs, that number rises to 71 percent.

For women of color, the problem is especially severe, according to research released this summer. In that survey, led by STEM sexual harassment expert Kathryn Clancy, 40 percent of women of color in astronomy reported feeling unsafe in their workplaces because of their sex or gender. Meanwhile, over at BuzzFeed News, reporter Azeen Ghorayshi has been documenting cases of prominent academics who, unlike Jaeger, were found guilty of sexual misconduct by their universities: astronomer Geoff Marcy, Ebola expert Michael Katze, and California Institute of Technology astrophysicist Christian Ott, among others.

Bandows Koster says rates of sexual harassment remain as high as they do because of the rigid hierarchy in university science departments, which requires students to maintain long-term relationships with powerful professors and causes them to fear retaliation. “Who you study with, whose lab you’re in, could make or break your career,” she explains. “Oftentimes you go to an institution, and everyone knows who the serial sexual harasser is, but none of them will say anything.”

In 2007, as Kidd, still an undergraduate, was trying to navigate her relationship with Jaeger, she consulted her mentors and listened when they warned her that there could be exploitative professors at any Ph.D. program she chose. Her undergraduate adviser “convinced me that these things are common and maybe not avoidable,” she says. “The idea was that if it hadn’t been Rochester, it might have been somewhere else.”

She entered the UR later that year. According to the EEOC complaint, as Kidd started her research there, Jaeger began pressuring her to rent a spare room in his apartment. Despite her misgivings, she felt like she couldn’t say no. She ended up living there for a year.

The complaint alleges that Jaeger questioned her repeatedly about her sexual history; asked her to set up dates for him; entered her room without knocking; went through her belongings; showed up where she was socializing; and chastised her for eating, warning her against “spoiling her physique.” 

“I was so mentally distraught for that year,” Kidd remembers. One night, sick of feeling like she was under surveillance in her rented room, Kidd sneaked into Aslin’s locked lab. “It was cold, and there was no ability to adjust the temperature, and there was no blanket,” she remembers. She spent the night curled up on a too-small couch, crying, questioning why she had come to Rochester at all. But she felt safer in the lab than she felt in Jaeger’s apartment, and she kept returning, moving her toothbrush and a change of clothes to the office and showering at the university’s gym.

In 2008, convinced that she had wasted a year of her Ph.D. worrying about Jaeger, Kidd made arrangements to move out of the apartment and shift her academic focus, scrapping a year’s worth of work she had completed on two projects. Then she told him she was moving out and leaving his lab.

But for years afterward, Kidd says she was afraid to report her experiences to university authorities or senior faculty in her department—especially because she believed they knew and didn’t care about Jaeger’s behavior.  “I wanted a tenure-track position,” she says. “I wanted to run my own lab. I desperately wanted to show them how capable I was as a scientist. I didn’t want to risk everything I put on the line, up to that point, by being any more aggressive with my complaining.”

According to the EEOC complaint, it wasn’t just Kidd: After Jaeger, who did not respond to a request for comment, began teaching at UR in 2007, he became involved in the graduate student social scene and used his position to blur professional and personal lines. He attended weekly student gatherings at a local bar, hosted parties at his house, and planned “lab retreats” in the Adirondacks that allegedly involved hot tubs, drugs, and, once, an accidental overdose, according to the EEOC filing. The complaint claims he became known for using objectifying language about women, flaunting his sexual relationships, and bullying graduate students and postdocs. “He made it clear that students who wanted to excel needed to please him, socially and sometimes sexually,” the complaint alleges, detailing the cases of multiple female students who allegedly avoided taking classes or working on research with Jaeger because they did not want to become targets.

As far as the professors involved in the EEOC complaint are aware, the first formal report filed at UR about Jaeger’s behavior came in 2013, when a Ph.D. student approached Greg DeAngelis, the chair of the brain and cognitive sciences department, to report that several women in the department, including Kidd, had endured “toxic experiences” with Jaeger. Yet, according to the complaint, DeAngelis found that Jaeger had not broken the university’s rules about “harassment.” Jaeger received tenure the following year. 

In 2016, Kidd—who had been hired as an assistant professor in 2012—and her colleague Jessica Cantlon approached Aslin with allegations about their own experiences with Jaeger. After conferring with a group of junior faculty concerned about Jaeger, Aslin—the highest-prestige professor of the group, who had formerly served as a UR vice provost and dean—and Cantlon reported the allegations to university administrators. 

The investigation into Jaeger’s behavior took about three months. In her final report, UR investigator Catherine Nearpass concluded that Jaeger had had a sexual relationship with at least one graduate student in the department, as well as a prospective Ph.D. student; that parts of his behavior were inappropriate; and that he “liked to push boundaries with students,” the EEOC complaint alleges. Still, the university ultimately found that Jaeger had not violated the university’s policy against discrimination and harassment, and that there was not enough evidence to conclude he sexually harassed Kidd or any other student in his lab. An appeal was unsuccessful.

Since Nearpass’ final report was issued, the UR professors have alleged not only that the investigative process and its conclusions were flawed, but also that the university and some of its employees have embarked on a “retaliation campaign” against them. In one case, according to their EEOC complaint, department chair DeAngelis announced at a faculty meeting that he had evidence of “manipulation and deception” by faculty members and the “smearing” of Jaeger, thus poisoning the reputations of Aslin, Cantlon, Kidd, and their collaborators. (The complaint notes he later apologized for these comments). The professors also allege that DeAngelis allowed Jaeger to participate in Kidd’s performance review this spring, tried to increase Cantlon’s teaching load to “repay” past maternity leaves, and deviated from normal hiring practices to encourage another involved professor, Ben Hayden, to leave the university. DeAngelis did not respond to a request for comment.

UR believes that the complaints against Jaeger are “largely based on hearsay” and ignore factual evidence, Miller says. “We would be fully prepared to respond to these allegations in a court of law,” she added.

With their EEOC filing, Aslin, Cantlon, Kidd, and the others are pushing the university to revamp its system for investigating sexual harassment complaints, according to the letter to the UR Board of Trustees. “The people that bring these complaints, I now know, have systematically been attacked,” Kidd says. “That’s a whole new level of betrayal.”

“I just don’t understand what the game here is,” Aslin says. “If they’re trying to protect a perp, they’re doing a really good job of it.”

In December, Aslin resigned in protest after more than 30 years of teaching at Rochester. Kidd is seeking to move her lab. Meanwhile, Jaeger remains a full professor, having been promoted in the middle of the investigation last year. He is teaching an undergraduate course this semester.