For more than a year, a professor at the University of Rochester’s prestigious Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences had been under scrutiny for alleged sexual harassment. Two professors in the department filed an internal complaint with the university last year, claiming that they and others had experienced years of sexual harassment and intimidation. The university cleared the professor of violating any university policy.
After that, the two faculty members and their supporters claim, they faced defamation, along with retaliation so serious that they could barely work. One of them resigned in November. Meanwhile, the accused was promoted to full professor.
On Aug. 30, seven current and former faculty members and a graduate student filed an 111-page complaint against the university with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. They accuse the professor of engaging in harassment and intimidation for years while deceiving them into believing he had the university’s approval for his behavior. They also allege retaliation and defamation by university administrators.
The allegations have divided the university. Students and supporters of the complainants have picketed the university, demanding the accused’s firing. Supporters of the accused have expressed shock and dismay that such a luminary could face such allegations.
Three of the seven faculty members who filed the EEOC complaint are no longer with the university; the other four are seeking new positions even though two have been granted tenure. A petition to fire the accused professor has been signed by 7,000 people.
The university’s president has promised to hire an independent investigator to review the new claims, including those of retaliation by the department. However, he has refused calls by students to remove the accused professor, saying, “This is not rule by mob, guys.”
Unfortunately, retaliation is all too common after an internal complaint has been lodged. In cases of discrimination and sexual harassment, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and other civil rights laws prohibit retaliation against those who file complaints in good faith. Retaliation is unlawful even in cases where internal investigators find complaints to be without merit.
Any time an internal discrimination or harassment complaint is resolved in the employer’s favor, the complaining employee or employees have the right to file their complaint with the EEOC or a state anti-discrimination agency for further action. This may result in the agency taking on the case, or it may issue a “right to sue” letter allowing the complainants to take their case to court.
Conciliation and other settlement methods may also be used to resolve the dispute. It will be interesting to see if a settlement takes place in the charged atmosphere at the University of Rochester.