TIME Names University Silence Breakers People of the Year
No one sets out with the goal of being a hero. Jessica Cantlon and Celeste Kidd had focused their work on understanding how the brain processes information and makes complex decisions. Yet their path to understanding fundamental aspects of what makes us human was sidetracked by the persistent harassment and retaliation of senior university colleague Florian Jaeger.
Like too many women in academia, Kidd was unable to severe ties with her chosen field to escape Jaeger’s unwanted attention. In spite of being rebuffed and increasingly rebuked and isolated by colleagues like Cantlon (as well as other members of the University of Rochester faculty), Jaeger persisted in his relentless campaign of cyberstalking, gossiping and manipulating. As he grew in international fame for his own work, there was a corresponding awareness of his infamy amongst a whispernet used by women in academia to help trainees and colleagues avoid sexual harassers.
Cantlon rose to the aide of Kidd spurred on after witnessing a graduate student who was previously romantically entangled with Jaeger burst into tears at a departmental gathering when someone asked him about the new love in his life.
Complaints about Jaeger’s romantic entanglements with students, rebukes by other women and complaints that his reported motto that ‘free love was his right’ and victims were prudish, not only fell on deaf ears, they fell in the laps of administrators intent on protecting the reputation of the University of Rochester at all costs. Those costs would include losing faculty members, having student Lindsay Wrobel stage a nationally publicized hunger strike protesting Jaeger’s presence on campus and, more recently, backlash by hundreds of professors boycotting University of Rochester.
In an EEOC filing, details emerged of the extent universities go to silence victims of sexual harassment and retaliation. Administrators searched the email of faculty who sought to limit Jaeger’s influence in order to frighten them with threats they were colluding against the university. Even as Jaeger bowed out of his fall undergraduate teaching responsibilities, he is still playing a role in faculty life at Rochester by video conferencing into faculty meetings and attending mixers with students, faculty and staff.
Rochester has yet to apologize to the faculty or make any kind of amends, but a reckoning is coming on several fronts. With Time’s coverage, there will be an increased pressure to help draw out the horrific practices in academia in this new post-Weinstein era. There’s also the matter of the massive EEOC complaint to contend with, and a haphazard investigation by former US Attorney Mary Jo White. White may prove to be the least effective weapon in ending abuse of the Title IX process. Faculty and former trainees who joined with Kidd and Cantlon in the EEOC filing have refused to participate in this investigation recognizing that outside lawyers are routinely used by universities to put together reports that favor the people who are paying for the reports – university administrators. White’s credibility is further impugned by her cozy past professional relationship with Rochester’s president Joel Seligman.
Kidd and Cantlon are perhaps the most public figures in academia this year to end the scourge of harassment and bias targeting women, but they are certainly not the first. Indeed, these women are building upon a platform laid out by countless women in academia speaking out about their professional #AstroSH and #MeToo experiences
Speaking to Cantlon earlier this fall, she was keen to grow awareness of this problem and, like many women in academia, frustrated by the lack of resources and resolve to change the culture both at Rochester and nationally. No professor is keen to add ‘I participated in a 5 year long battle to ensure my personal and professional safety’ to their biosketch, and Cantlon said funding agencies, administrators and colleagues had no tangible suggestions on how to fill the professional gaps that occur as one participates in these kinds of battles.
A lawsuit will likely be these researchers only recourse, and it certainly won’t help the students of these researchers or do much to help restore their reputations and research careers. The legal team representing the U of R professors and trainees seems ready to dig in to a greater extent than other individual has been able to make headway previously. The progress that Cantlon and Kidd have made has already paid off for members of the beleaguered neuroscience community of Dartmouth where long time harasser Todd Heatherton and two colleagues were ousted from campus as the news of pervasive history of sexual discrimination, harassment and retaliation went public.
More than any other recent investigation in academics, Dartmouth’s Title IX office seemed to finally be getting things right. The offending faculty members were banned from campus while the investigation is ongoing, multiple levels of law enforcement were called in and ample information was provided to enable past victims of these neuroscientists to share information with the authorities. This is in stark contrast to other investigations that fly very much under the radar as adminstrators attempt to draw as little attention as possible which limits the ability of other victims to avoid harassers or share their experiences related to that faculty member. This change of tone is particularly ironic at Dartmouth where administrators couldn’t even locate prior complaints that had been lodged against Heatherton.
The advances on campuses like Dartmouth may seem small, but, as Cantlon pointed out, when harassers are allowed to stay on campus and intimidate victims and witnesses and gaslight colleagues nationally and internationally, universities are giving a ‘wink and nod’ that what they have done isn’t all that bad.
Thanks to Kidd, Cantlon, Lindsay Wrobel, Kate Clancy, the women of #AstroSH, Jennifer Groh and the media and donors who finally paying attention, there will be a whole lot less winking and nodding.