Column: Dartmouth can lead in ending gender-based violence

Published: 8/30/2019 10:10:20 PM
Modified: 8/30/2019 10:10:13 PM

Dartmouth College had good reason to settle the $70 million lawsuit brought by nine current and former students. The plaintiffs cited rampant sexual harassment and assault, allegedly perpetrated by three professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences for at least 16 years while administrators allegedly ignored their complaints.

The case was a public embarrassment, particularly inconvenient in the midst of Dartmouth’s $3 billion capital campaign. And Dartmouth certainly did not want to suffer the consequences of those institutions that have sheltered predators, such as Larry Nasser at Michigan State or Jerry Sandusky at Penn State.

Yet Dartmouth’s leaders have thus far failed to assume any responsibility for the prevailing environment that enabled the alleged abuses. Instead of reckoning with the harm done or offering an apology, Dartmouth’s self-promoting news release called the settlement “a unique opportunity” to form “a historic partnership seeking ... meaningful change.” President Philip Hanlon’s public relations-driven statement implied that the problem had been solved by the resignation of two professors, the retirement of a third, and the banning of all three from campus — effectively culling bad apples from an otherwise healthy tree.

By agreeing to settle but failing to take ownership, Dartmouth continues to betray survivors. And the college keeps skirting questions that are crucial to the repair of institutional trust. For instance: Should an open investigation be made to determine how this situation was allowed to continue for so long? Who in the faculty or administration could have confronted the professors? Why didn’t they take steps at any time to rein in the professors, one of whom was promoted to a prestigious position despite official reports of his egregious harassment? Why do some of the senior administrators, who should have been responsible for ensuring campus safety, remain in positions of leadership? What procedural changes have already been made to prevent future violations?

Although the $14 million settlement to the plaintiffs is a start, Dartmouth needs to go much further. For real change to have a chance — for students to have a “Dartmouth Experience” free from gender-based violence — the college must take a survivor-centered approach. Dartmouth now needs to assume responsibility for the historical abuses within Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, as well as those that occurred during its painful early decades of coeducation.

As graduates of the college from those early years, we can personally attest to the insidiousness of male primacy on the Dartmouth campus, which has persisted for far too long. The continuing prevalence of sexual violence is evident in the powerful narratives published in Dartmouth Speaks, an independent website dedicated to amplifying the voices of Dartmouth survivors. The relevant statistics are just as grim: A 2018 student survey shows that 34% of undergraduate women report experiencing sexual assault.

Looking ahead, if Dartmouth is serious about making a cultural shift, it should take immediate action. First, it must include survivors in the external review committee that will monitor its progress. Second, it must acknowledge that its recent legal opposition to some plaintiffs’ anonymity was a misguided and harmful tactic, inconsistent with Hanlon’s pledge to foster a culture “that reflects a deep understanding of the perspective of survivors.” Third, Dartmouth must integrate the goal of ending gender-based violence into its current capital campaign, giving public progress reports at regular intervals.

The Dartmouth Community Against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence will continue to advocate for survivors at the college. We cannot change Dartmouth’s history, but we can call for Dartmouth’s accountability in righting historical wrongs and creating a just campus environment going forward.

Dartmouth wants to be seen as a leader in overcoming gender-based violence on its campus, and it has become more skilled at talking the talk. The college now has a watershed opportunity to prove that it can be a leader. It’s time to walk the walk.

Stanley Colla, of Hanover, Carol Muller, of Palo Alto, Calif., and Veronica Wessels, of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, are Dartmouth graduates and members of the Dartmouth Community Against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence.

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