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Opinion The most horrifying part of the Dartmouth sexual harassment case

Students walk across the Dartmouth College campus green in Hanover, N.H. (Jim Cole/AP)
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The Dartmouth “Animal House” stereotype might be closer to reality than we thought — but this time, it’s not the students who are to blame.

Last year, a number of current and former students accused three tenured professors in the university’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences — Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen — of sexual misconduct. According to reports, the professors had a long history of crossing lines with students and helped create a culture of rampant gender discrimination and sexual harassment.

One woman alleges that Whalen coerced her into drinking and then sexually assaulted her without a condom. Another woman claims Kelley manipulated travel arrangements to force her to stay in his hotel room during a conference and then assaulted her after getting her intoxicated. Other accusations span a litany of inappropriate behavior, from forcing students to participate in hot-tub parties and making suggestive comments to groping and sending unsolicited explicit photos. (Heatherton has denied “playing any role in creating a toxic environment” at Dartmouth, as claimed in the lawsuit, but admitted in June 2017 that he “acted unprofessionally in public at conferences while intoxicated.” Though Kelley and Whalen resigned from their positions earlier this year, both appear to have remained silent about the lawsuit and allegations.)

Despite complaints from eight women in early 2017, the professors maintained their positions. Whalen was even allegedly able to assault another woman just 20 days after the complaints were filed. Last week, seven of the accusers filed a class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth for $70 million in damages; a CNN report suggests that as many as 40 women could be eligible to join the suit, according to plaintiffs’ attorneys

The allegations — lying in plain sight within a prestigious department at a world-renowned institution — are horrifying. But even scarier is the all-too-plausible scenario in which the Dartmouth case is not an outlier after all.

For all the furor over assaults on college campuses, little attention has been paid to misconduct committed by tenured faculty. Yet a June report finds that women experience extremely high rates of harassment in academia — often from mentors or respected professors. In the past year alone, Yale medical school professor Michael Simons was stripped of an endowed chair he was awarded after he was found responsible of sexual harassment. At Harvard, the school was shaken by reports that long-standing professor Jorge I. Dominguez was found responsible for “serious misconduct” in the 1980s but still rose through the ranks to become vice provost for international affairs. Well-known astronomer Geoff Marcy was forced to resign from Berkeley after his own allegations of harassment rose to the national spotlight — over a decade after a graduate student first reported he behaved inappropriately in 2006. The allegations are not just directed at men: German and comparative literature professor Avital Ronell was found responsible for sexually harassing a former graduate student at New York University. But even after news of an official investigation against Ronell emerged, a group of well-known feminists and academics wrote a letter supporting her and arguing that her stature and academic contributions should factor into the investigation.

Over and over again, we see examples of powerful professors found responsible for misconduct getting away with slaps on the wrist — while the researchers and students they prey on face lifelong career setbacks and emotional trauma.

Part of this pervasive culture of objectification stems from poor institutional responses to misconduct. If faculty members do not face consequences for misconduct, they can continue to harass students and others may follow their example. But the issue goes deeper, to the power and incentive structures that prop up academia today.

For most research institutions, prestige and funding are directly related to the amount of cutting-edge research they put out. This incentivizes them to protect high-profile professors and researchers at all costs — even at the expense of student and staff well-being. To make matters worse, academia relies on networking and mentorship structures that put people’s entire careers in the hands of a doctoral adviser without much external supervision, creating an environment that is ripe for abuses of power.

Education Secretary Betsy DeVos’s new Title IX rules governing sexual assault on campus, released last week, could deepen these power imbalances. The new regulations narrow the definition of harassment and give the accused the ability to cross-examine — and thereby intimidate — their accusers. But no amount of tinkering with Title IX will change the academic culture of unchecked hierarchical power and the abuses that inevitably follow. Universities cannot hope to get rid of these cases without targeting the underlying culture that permits and propagates misconduct. And unfortunately, while academics are great at talking about systemic change, they’re terrible at enacting it.