Three professors of psychological and brain sciences left Dartmouth College this year under a cloud of alleged sexual misconduct. But the exact allegations against them have been unclear. A new federal lawsuit against Dartmouth brought by seven former students may be filling in the blanks, with serious claims of misconduct on the part of the professors, up to and including assault, and negligence on the college’s part.
Dartmouth “knowingly permitted three of its prominent (and well-funded) professors to turn a human behavior research department into a 21st century Animal House,” reads the suit, filed in the U.S. District Court of New Hampshire. For more than a decade, it continues, female students in the department were “treated as sex objects by tenured professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley, and Paul Whalen. These professors leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated, and even raped female students.”
Dartmouth denies mishandling student complaints. All three professors were on a yearlong administrative leave prior to departing Dartmouth over the summer, following an investigation and recommendations by both the administration and a faculty committee that they lose their tenured positions. Kelley, the last to leave, resigned in July. Whalen resigned in June and Heatherton retired that same month.
President Philip J. Hanlon said at the time that Dartmouth did not enter into separation or nondisclosure agreements with any of the professors, and that they’d continue to be prohibited from entering campus property or attending any Dartmouth-sponsored events, on campus or off. The former faculty members are not named in the suit, and Kelley and Whalen could not be reached for comment. Heatherton, through his lawyer, told The New York Times Thursday that he “categorically denies playing any role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth.” He has previously apologized for acting “unprofessionally in public at conferences while intoxicated.”
But the lawsuit, per the frat house reference, describes a pattern of misconduct on and around campus, and of “conditioning faculty mentorship and support on students’ participation in the alcohol-saturated ‘party culture’ they perpetuated.”
The professors' “predatory club" was arguably “founded” by Heatherton, a prolific researcher who in 2005 was a co-principal investigator on Dartmouth’s biggest-ever peer-reviewed grant, according to the lawsuit. The faculty members conducted lab and one-on-one meetings at bars. Drinking alcohol, often to excess, was expected at department gatherings, and Kelley allegedly labeled one student who refused to drink a “bitch.” Comments about students' anatomy were commonplace; one student was told she didn't need a "boob job," for example, and another student was told a colleague had a "big penis." The professors allegedly asked students to late-night hot tub, or “tubby time,” parties at their homes, encouraged female students to stay overnight and invited undergraduates to use real cocaine during class lectures on addiction as part of a “demonstration.”
As for Dartmouth, the lawsuit says that it has known about the professors’ behavior, via student reports, since at least 2002. “But Dartmouth did nothing and ignored” them, it says, “thereby ratifying the violent and criminal acts of its professors.”
Allegedly emboldened by Dartmouth’s failure to respond to complaints against the department, Whalen announced to a group of students in 2010-11 that one female complainant’s action had “backfired” and that she’d lost “resources” and “steam in her career,” the suit says. The complainant “got what was coming to her, of course -- you don’t bite the hand that feeds you,” Whalen allegedly said.
Finally, in April 2017, according to the lawsuit, a group of female graduate students together contacted Dartmouth’s Title IX Office, which is responsible for complying with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, prohibiting gender-based discrimination. But Dartmouth again “did nothing” to immediately alleviate the situation and even encouraged students to continue to work with the professors so as not to disrupt their studies. As a result, it says, Whalen sexually assaulted one of the complainants 20 days later, after he allegedly forced the graduate student into a night of drinking with him.
The student says she attempted to leave Whalen's home several times, but he did not let her. When he allegedly forced her into intercourse, she says she begged him to wear a condom and he refused. Kelley also allegedly pressured another plaintiff, also a graduate student, into sex in 2015. After she confronted him about it, he allegedly tried to coerce her into leaving Dartmouth early, saying she wasn’t getting “anything done here” and was “really bitter.”
The plaintiffs and the other women in the department continued to have to work with the professors for four more months, with the sexual harassment “unabated,” until they were placed on leave. Dartmouth did not publicly acknowledge the suspensions, causing some students to post fliers on campus asking about their “missing” professors, according to lawsuit.
Eventually, some 27 complainants became involved in a Title IX investigation, the lawsuit says. Soon after Dartmouth was forced by news media to publicly acknowledge the case, last fall, New Hampshire’s attorney general opened a criminal investigation into the allegations.
Dartmouth later hired an outside attorney to conduct a third-party investigation, but the college stopped the inquiry and allowed the professors to retire or resign, some 15 months after the group of graduate students’ initial complaints, the lawsuit says.
“The seven plaintiffs, each an exemplary female scientist at the start of her career, came to Dartmouth to contribute to a crucial and burgeoning field of academic study,” reads the lawsuit. “Plaintiffs were instead sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by the department’s tenured professors and expected to tolerate increasing levels of sexual predation.”
The women are seeking $70 million in damages and to force Dartmouth to adopt “meaningful reforms that will permit women to engage in rigorous scientific study without fear of being sexually harassed and sexually assaulted.”
“Sexual misconduct and harassment have no place at Dartmouth,” the college said in a statement. As a result of the misconduct it found earlier this year, it said, “we took unprecedented steps toward revoking their tenure and terminating their employment. They are no longer at Dartmouth and remain banned from our campus and from attending all Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where the events are held.”
While applauding the “courage” it took for the students bring the misconduct allegations to Dartmouth’s attention last year, Dartmouth said it “respectfully, but strongly” disagrees with the characterizations of its actions in the complaint.
Dartmouth remains “open to a fair resolution of the students’ claims through an alternative to the court process,” it added.
Michael Barasch, managing partner of Barasch McGarry, who has represented thousands of clergy sex-abuse victims, said Dartmouth’s lawsuit “should be a loud and clear warning to institutions of higher education that ignoring sexual misconduct could have serious financial consequences. Even for a college like Dartmouth, with a $5 billion endowment, $70 million amounts to an enormous liability.” Barasch said the case also underscores that institutions must create processes by which survivors can report abuse "without the threat of retaliation, for both moral and financial reasons.”