Seven women are suing Dartmouth College for failing to protect them from three tenured professors they say sexually harassed and assaulted them, and perpetuated an “alcohol-saturated ‘party culture’” in their department.
For over ten years, the plaintiffs say, professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen of the psychology and brain sciences department “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated, and even raped female students,” according to the complaint, which was filed Thursday in federal court in New Hampshire. “Among other things, these professors conducted professional lab meetings at bars, invited students to late-night ‘hot tub parties’ in their personal homes, and invited undergraduate students to use real cocaine during classes related to addiction as part of a ‘demonstration.’”
The complaint also says that the professors made their academic support and mentoring contingent on female students’ participation in this party culture, leaving them with few options if they wanted to excel in their field of study. One plaintiff, Annemarie Brown, tells Rolling Stone that when she first complained, her then-advisor Whalen changed the funding structure for her position as a graduate student, taking her off of a centralized Dartmouth grant and putting her under his discretionary budget. “That made it clear that he had complete control over whether I stayed in the program or not,” she says. “That was one way he put me back in my place.”
In 2017, several female graduate students lodged formal complaints with the school about the professors’ behavior. “Dartmouth did nothing,” the complaint says, but encouraged the students to continue working with the professors. Over the next several months, at least 27 students came forward to participate in the school’s internal investigation, which eventually went public. The three professors were eventually pushed out, more than 15 months after the initial complaints; all three were allowed to either retire or resign in good standing.
The plaintiffs in this case are not satisfied with the specific bad actors here being removed; they’re after institutional changes at Dartmouth and in academia at large so nothing like this happens again.
“I think the primary thing that all of us are looking for is to see policies change, to see the process more streamlined for victims, more trauma informed,” says plaintiff Sasha Brietzke, who is still a graduate student at Dartmouth and started her program over again after her original adviser was let go as part of this investigation. “I would also like to see some accountability at the very top for why that was allowed to happened when there were known complaints and known knowledge.”
“This complaint reaches the bedrock of academia,” Brietzke says. “The way that academia is structured is really archaic. As graduate students, our adviser is our everything, we’re completely dependent, and that leads to exploitation. As a field, we need to reconsider the power dynamics that we’ve set up.”
Brown says that another policy change they’re looking for would address that issue, having at least one additional advisor involved with each student’s work.
“There is supposed to be a system where you can request a new advisor,” Brown says, “but when I came forward to try to escape my situation I was told that even though it was on the books, there was really no way to implement it.”
“We want to improve the environment for women scientists going forward,” added plaintiff Andrea Courtney. “This kind of thing shouldn’t be happening in the first place.”
The suit, which asks for $70 million in damages, claims that the behavior of the professors and the learning environment it created, and the school’s failure to act, violated the students’ Title IX protections against gender discrimination, under which sexual harassment and assault are considered discrimination because they leave victims with the choice to either work and study alongside their abusers, which many find intolerable, or to leave school and miss out on the opportunity to study.
“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,” the complaint says. “Plaintiffs were instead sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by the Department’s tenured professors and expected to tolerate increasing levels of sexual predation.”
A representative of Dartmouth said in a statement that the college is open to resolving the students’ claims out of court, and reiterated that the professors involved no longer work at the school, adding that they’re banned from Dartmouth events. “However,” he said, “we respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint and will respond through our own court filings.” The three professors named in the complaint could not be reached for comment.