The story of the teacher whose life was almost destroyed by false accusations of harassment

“Sexual harassment”, wrote Billie Wright Dziech and Linda Weiner in the book ‘The Lecherous Professor: Sexual Harassment on Campus’ , de 1984, “constitutes one of the most persistent and serious violations of human rights in academia”. The book became a reference in that decade. This was exactly the term chosen by the leftist magazine Mother Jones to characterize Florian Jaeger, professor of linguistics at the University of Rochester, in New York, when telling the story of his student graduate Celeste Kidd: “She was a rising star at a major university. Then a lewd teacher made her life hell.” The text is from September 2017.

Four years of denunciations and riots followed. In 2021, forty students marched across campus against Jaeger to “raise awareness among freshmen” that there would be a sexual predator at the university. Rumors accuse him of being an abuser and even rapist. He had become an outcast in his own field, pressure for his dismissal to the point of almost destroying the Department of Cognitive and Brain Sciences. Four investigations were carried out, costing the institution millions of dollars. Some resigned from their positions, including the dean.

Florian is German, has a PhD in linguistics and cognitive sciences from Stanford University, and was hired at a young age, in the age of graduate students, by the University of Rochester: at 30 years old, in 2007. It was the same year that Celeste was invited for an interview for the opportunity to become a PhD student there. She reports to Mother Jones that she left the interview distraught as Florian used her to invite her to a party over the weekend. She refused. Days later, he sent a message on Facebook: “you should have come”. She explained that she wanted to maintain a certain seriousness before being accepted, and he reassured her that with him such concern was unnecessary, adding that “Rochester used to be a place of legendary parties (lots of nudity etc)”. Celeste passed the selection, which was not conducted only by Florian.

The accusations

At a party in 1984, Florian said that another teacher found a student attractive, in front of her. She told investigators she found the event “super mortifying”. He dated and slept with several students, but none of them worked in his lab or were under his tutelage. Now, after the , he himself agrees that this is problematic, but says he saw no problem when he was in his early thirties.

A letter from a graduate student written in 2013 and delivered to the head of the department illustrates the climate around Professor Jaeger: “There is a professor here who has been doing unprofessional things that make me uncomfortable,” wrote Keturah Bixby. “It’s never a big deal, but it’s been building up over the years I’ve been here and I don’t feel safe around him. Although I am generally happy in Rochester, these situations have made me very sad at times. It’s Florian.”

Keturah complains about the time he wrote on a sticky note pad standing behind a colleague. On another occasion, at a party, she asked him not to take a picture of her, but he did. “I got really angry, and in the picture (if it still exists anywhere) I’m giving him the middle finger. To think that he has a picture of me somewhere makes me feel angry, disgusted, gives me goosebumps.” She reports that she avoided social and professional events for fear of seeing him again, and says she never wanted to interact with him again. “I don’t want him in one of my lectures. It’s possible?” In addition to writing to the department head, she also asked the advisor for help.

The head spoke with two other people that Keturah indicated as also having problems with Florian, and took the complaints, without naming the teacher. The German said he was surprised and upset to hear of the inconvenience, and also that the complainants had not approached him directly. He decided to change his attitude and became more alert about how he was perceived by others.

Complaints ceased for a few years, and Florian Jaeger found a stable relationship with a professor in the department. . He didn’t date students anymore. He also gained a permanent position, was promoted and appointed director of the Center for Language Sciences. In 2010, peace once again ended.

The conflict returned in , when the sudden death of a professor opened a position, and one of the candidates for the new vacancy was attacked by a colleague who was also ambitious for having married a former student. Florian objected: it was illegal and immoral to use the candidate’s relationship against him. The meeting turned into an argument. Jessica Cantlon, the accuser, insinuated that the candidate had predatory sexual behavior, but had to admit later that she had no evidence of it. She previously had a friendship with Florian, but the friendship cooled when he didn’t want to be “on her side” (in her perception) when she spoke ill of colleagues, and she claimed he did so not out of impartiality towards the two parties in the disagreement. , but for sexism.

The candidate ended up being hired, which inflamed tensions. Jessica called Keturah’s advisor, telling her about Florian’s past affairs with students and comparing the new hire’s alleged immorality. Richard Aslin, the adviser, who was once apathetic to his student Keturah’s complaints, had now been co-opted to Jessica’s cause: he was “disgusted and angry” and would not let “the matter die until [Florian Jaeger] is out” of Department. The two outrage partners now had reason to dig up all they could of the linguist’s first phase in the department, when he was not yet acclimated to the norms. Both made formal confidential reports to the university.

Soon a false rumor emerged that Florian was still dating students. Jessica and Richard’s whistleblower recruitment intensified. “We need soldiers on our side,” the latter said in an email to the former. This is where Celeste Kidd comes in, the subject of the magazine report Mother Jones.

Celeste was more daring than Keturah in the charges. She claimed that Florian had sexually harassed her since 2007. The investigations did not live up to the accusations. She is described by a person who knows both of them as similar to Florian in the aspect of ignoring social norms. The two did indeed talk about sex, but Celeste spoke about her sex life openly, getting into graphic detail, often and to different people. She told colleagues, for example, that she had a list of academics she wanted to sleep with. In fact, she ended up marrying a professor in the department, but it wasn’t Florian.

Amazingly, accuser and accused lived together for a while. An observer comments that he seemed to treat her in a fatherly fashion, like a girl, but that she seemed to admire him greatly. She denies that the admiration was romantic. In the messages revealed by the investigation, she seemed enthusiastic about initiating and restarting contact. Now, she claims the contact was inconvenient, and only on his part. A heavily edited version of the messages was passed to the press, the analysis of which also revealed typical behavior of a jealous and rejected person.

University investigations concluded in Jaeger’s favor, but with notes of concern for their behavior between 2007 and 2013, but recognizing that the dating was at the time within the rules (which later tightened up). Florian received informal punishments from the academic community, such as uninvitations to events, expulsions from editorial boards and, more unfairly, rejections of scientific articles written by his students. Frustrated with what he perceived as insufficient punishments, Richard Aslin resigned from the position he had held for 30 years.

The accusers took the case to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency established in the years 60 to deal with discrimination in the workplace. In the 60 page complaint, they say that Florian is “a narcissistic and manipulative sexual predator”. They also allege that one of the scientist’s field trips involved “drinking, drugs, music and a hot tub”, in addition to an “overdose” by a student. In fact, Florian’s wife, who is obviously not a student, ate a pot brownie and felt sick. Pressure from the accusers even involved a student who had never seen Florian in her life, but went on a hunger strike. Even famous actress Alyssa Milano talked about it on Twitter, at the height of the #MeToo movement.

A lewd teacher or just different?

In the early years of the new position, the professor published dozens of articles, won awards for research. As is common in the university environment, what was brilliance to some was seen by others as arrogance. Florian’s tendency to joke about sexual content and give very frank and direct reviews hasn’t won him many favors. The son of labor activists, he rejected hierarchy, and viewed graduate students and superiors as equals. “He doesn’t like to apply filters to himself,” one student told the magazine Reason, which published a reassessment of the case this month authored by journalist Katie Herzog.

The journalist says in her podcast that initially, due to the volume of press vehicles agreeing to condemn Florian, she tended to believe the accusations. Even after a two-hour conversation with the accused, she was not convinced of his innocence. But appearances changed once she gained access to the investigations and department intrigues that explain the allegations, along with his initial behavior, far better than more serious accusations like Celeste Kidd’s. None of the accusers wanted to speak with Katie for the Reason story.

There are many elements in the investigations that point to that the case was that the university community was not prepared for such an eccentric professor and with such “German” habits. Different personality and culture played an important role. Since the publication of the book on sexual harassment in the 1990s 60, what was at the time called “political correctness” has increasingly taken on the American campus culture. What Brazilians will find most strange is that universities have taken on the role of investigating accusations that are ultimately criminal and, therefore, a matter for the police, not for professors. Academic institutions also have rules with effect on private life, regarding, for example, romantic and sexual relationships between professors and adult students. And it is now almost universal that American universities charge professor candidates who make a “diversity declaration” in which they basically have to express ideological adherence to identity (policy of “inclusion”, “diversity” and “equity”) if they want to be hired. .

Here, in Latin America, we have a privileged point of view of a culture that is less tense than the American and others in sexual matters. But many intellectual fads are imported into our institutions, and identity denunciation, which especially puts “straight cis white men” in an automatic dock, is one of them. Eccentrics like Florian Jaeger, who don’t understand or reject rules that straddle the line between security for people lower in the hierarchy and employers’ intrusion into employees’ private lives, are easy targets. Identitarianism has already caused injustice, and it should cause more.

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