Seven women accuse Dartmouth College in a lawsuit of allowing three prominent professors to harass and sexually assault students in a “21st Century Animal House” atmosphere.
For more than a decade, the lawsuit contends, female students in the school’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences “have been 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.”
The lawsuit describes a culture in which well-regarded professors who helped build a powerhouse department at the Ivy League school acted with impunity and repeatedly mistreated students who were dependent on their academic support. It asserts that professors regularly held professional lab meetings in bars, invited students to late-night hot-tub parties, and conditioned academic support on participation in a hard-drinking party culture and tolerance of unwanted sexual attention.
“This was an open secret,” said Andrea Courtney, one of the plaintiffs, who earned her doctorate at Dartmouth. “This was happening in front of everyone, in the department, in the town of Hanover, at academic conferences -- these men had reputations as . . . gropers and predators. It was very widely known, yet no one in positions of power stepped up to do anything to change that.”
David Sanford, one of the women’s attorneys, said the $70 million class-action lawsuit filed Thursday in federal court in New Hampshire, “puts the Trustees on notice of their responsibility to implement significant, systematic reforms before other female students are criminally impacted by Dartmouth’s callous indifference and perpetual inaction."
The former Dartmouth professors could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday.
Justin Anderson, a spokesman for the college, said in a written statement that “sexual misconduct and harassment have no place at Dartmouth."
“As a result of the misconduct we found earlier this year” by the three faculty members, Anderson said, Dartmouth “took unprecedented steps toward revoking their tenure and terminating their employment.” The former professors are banned from campus and from all Dartmouth-sponsored events.
Anderson said the college applauds the courage displayed by those who brought the allegations to Dartmouth’s attention last year. “And we remain open to a fair resolution of the students’ claims through an alternative to the court process.
“However, we respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint and will respond through our own court filings.” He wrote that the school’s trustees and leaders are dedicated to maintaining a safe and inclusive campus, and remain committed to improving the school’s culture.
Kristina Rapuano, one of the six named plaintiffs, alleges that while she was a graduate student at Dartmouth in 2014, Whalen sent her a text message summoning her back to his office after they had finished grading exams. When she arrived, he closed the door, the complaint alleges, turned the light off and began trying to touch her. When she tried to leave, the lawsuit says, Whalen pinned her to the wall and repeatedly tried to put his hands down her pants despite repeated demands that he stop, until she forcefully removed his hands.
At a professional conference in 2015, after drinking with Kelley one night, he told her the next morning they “had sex” two times, and that Rapuano had “freaked out,” according to the lawsuit. Rapuano has no memory of engaging in sexual intercourse, and does not remember leaving the bar or how they got to the hotel, according to the lawsuit. During the 2015-2016 school year, the suit alleges, Kelley ignored Rapuano’s discomfort with his sexual advances and continued to pressure her. The lawsuit describes her repeated attempts to distance herself from him, including securing a fellowship overseas, and alleges he engaged in academic retaliation.
Over several months in 2017, more than two dozen complainants participated in a Title IX investigation, according to the suit. Last month, the New Hampshire attorney general opened a criminal investigation into the allegations against the professors. A spokeswoman for the attorney general said Thursday the investigation is ongoing.
The lawsuit claims that even after serious complaints were lodged, Dartmouth encouraged the women to continue working with Heatherton, Kelley and Whalen. “Dartmouth warned the victims that the accused professors would likely retaliate against students who discontinued working with them by disparaging them and revoking their academic support, actions which could result in the victims being expelled or placed on academic probation,” the lawsuit said. “Thus, at Dartmouth’s suggestion, the victims continued working with their harassers for nearly four months.”
One woman was sexually assaulted 20 days after a group of women had filed a complaint, the lawsuit alleges.
An attorney for Heatherton sent a statement Thursday saying his client categorically denies playing a role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth. “The specific allegations in the lawsuit predominantly involve the other professors and their relationships with students," the statement said. “None of the complaining parties were his graduate students. He is disturbed by the graphic allegations.”
Heatherton previously acknowledged regret for his behavior in public while intoxicated, including touching a graduate student in a bar in 2017. He denied it was sexual in nature.
“Many of the allegations that attribute knowledge or conduct to Professor Heatherton are patently false,” Julie Moore, his attorney, wrote, including the statement that the three professors all tended to hire attractive research assistants. All of the hiring for Heatherton’s lab was done by his female lab manager, Moore wrote, and the male and female research assistants were selected for their interests and skills, not their appearance.
Heatherton did not regularly socialize with graduate students, and did not attend the parties or events mentioned in the lawsuit, Moore wrote. Lab meetings with his graduate students did not involve alcohol, she wrote, and he did not drink shots with underaged students.
Courtney said that as graduate students, there’s so much at stake, with their academic careers heavily dependent on their relationship with advisers. Dartmouth’s resources, its funding from federal grants and its technology “were huge draws for us, and a huge opportunity for our careers. But along with that came this highly sexualized culture and this boys' club environment,” and the expectation that they would play along with that or be cut off.
Kelley often made unwelcome comments, Courtney said, saying he had the hottest lab assistants, talking about their breast sizes, asking about their sex lives and the penis sizes of their partners or male lab-mates. People who returned sexual advances had access to academic resources, she said, but she felt completely shut out and ignored by Kelley academically. She said Whalen made unwelcome comments as well.
Annemarie Brown, another plaintiff, said she was groped by Whalen at a party at his home, and she pulled away and left immediately, but then, like Courtney, she said she saw her academic advising dwindle. “I was essentially academically abandoned.”
It was terrifying to come forward publicly, said Courtney, now a postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University, not knowing what ramifications it could have on her career. But she felt she had no choice. The women received professional advice that they should just keep their heads down and do science, she said. “We wish we could," she said. "In order to do science we need to stand up for ourselves and future women scientists.”
Jennifer Jenkins contributed.