Column: Institutional courage absent at Dartmouth

  • FILE - In this May 22, 2018 file photo, pedestrians pass the Baker-Berry Library at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa, File)

For the Valley News
Monday, May 20, 2019

Dartmouth College is currently under immense pressure to reckon with its history of gender discrimination and its permissive attitude toward sexual misconduct. As public scrutiny increases and survivors come forward with personal stories of harassment, assault and institutional negligence, our attention is drawn to the disturbing incongruence between Dartmouth’s reality and its public relations narrative.

We have formed an advocacy group, Dartmouth Community Against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, to stand with Dartmouth survivors and call out the pervasive sexism and sexual misconduct at the college. In this piece, we focus on the persistent gender imbalances among Dartmouth’s faculty.

The recent class-action lawsuit raised against Dartmouth by nine former and current students from the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences exposes a grossly overlooked gender imbalance in the department. Yet in its official response to the lawsuit, Dartmouth asserts that men and women faculty are promoted at the same rate in the department. We believe this claim to be false, and the data used to support it cherry-picked. There is hard, publicly available evidence for a persistent gender bias in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences that has resulted in a glaring gender imbalance in its tenured faculty, especially relative to other psychology departments at Ivy League schools and comparable universities. (This can be calculated from faculty listed on department webpages.)

An analysis of the department’s hiring over the last 20 years (presented at a recent faculty meeting and reconstructed with data from Internet Archive) reveals that of the junior faculty who have completed review for promotion or left, 70% of the men received tenure (7 of 10), but only 17% of the women received tenure (1 of 6). In other words, men have been promoted to tenure at over four times the rate for women.

Dartmouth’s answer to the lawsuit disingenuously ignores the fact that women faculty have chosen to leave the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences before completing review for tenure promotion four times more often than men. From personal reports, we know that most of these women left because they were discouraged from completing tenure review or because of the hostile climate in the department.

Statistical data are essential for documenting gender discrimination. The role of gender discrimination in any single case may appear only suggestive, but the cumulative effect over many cases clearly documents the consequences of discriminatory attitudes that bias decisions. In Psychological and Brain Sciences, the statistics are clear: Women hired as tenure-track faculty have been and still are at a decisive disadvantage relative to their male colleagues. We are disappointed and infuriated at Dartmouth’s efforts to obscure this disparity, especially with the correct data publicly available and easily verifiable.

We must note that Dartmouth didn’t have to deny responsibility. Historical precedent exists at another Ivy League school, in the 1975 class-action case of Lamphere vs. Brown University. Dr. Louise Lamphere was denied tenure in 1974 in the Department of Anthropology, and her internal appeal was unsuccessful. Along with three other women, she filed a class-action lawsuit against the university. The president at the time when the plaintiffs had been denied tenure was replaced by a new president during the developing case. Confronted with clearly systemic discriminatory practices and overtly sexist behavior, the newly installed president, Howard Swearer, led the university in settling the case out of court, concerned partly for the potential damage to fundraising and image. Brown instituted a historic consent decree, in addition to providing promotion and back pay for the plaintiffs, offering recourse for thousands of other women potentially harmed by past practices and behavior. Brown agreed to set up an Affirmative Action Monitoring Committee that tracked progress toward full representation of women on the Brown faculty. This consent decree had a deep, positive impact on hiring and promoting women, not only at Brown but also in some other Ivy League and elite institutions.

That Dartmouth in 2019 is now in a place Brown found itself in the ’70s is a sign of institutional failure. Our advocacy group is distrustful, pessimistic and in search of answers. Are there effective mechanisms for checks and balances on those in positions of authority in the Dartmouth administration? How did the official response to the students’ lawsuit pass review with its errors and its victim-shaming strategy? How did the new “Campus Climate and Culture Initiative” (C3I) pass review? Why weren’t stronger, truly structural changes considered? With the current administration in an echo chamber, no one seems to catch the tone-deafness of the statements or the inadequacy of proposals, and each new set of “sweeping changes” appears designed to protect those in positions of authority and allow business as usual to continue.

Strong structural reforms are needed to change the culture of gender discrimination at Dartmouth, which exists at all levels and allows acts of sexual harassment, sexual violence and gender discrimination to persist. Fundamental change in governance structure is necessary to provide effective and independent review and checks on administrative decisions and actions. Most important, as our group has repeatedly demanded, the faculty gender imbalance must be addressed with greater urgency, including robust initiatives to recruit new senior women faculty who will have the stature and clout to really change the culture at Dartmouth. The goal should be a gender balance in each department that matches the proportion of women who have been trained. In psychology, that proportion is greater than 50% — not 25% to 30%. (Incidentally, a gender balance of 50% or greater has already been achieved at other schools, such as Princeton.) Increasing the number of women faculty with real authority can change Dartmouth’s regressive culture, providing a better educational environment and reducing sexual harassment and aggression. Achieving gender parity will also empower the strong women faculty already at the college.

Dartmouth still has a choice. Will the administration institute effective measures to make real progress toward full representation of women in Psychological and Brain Sciences and other departments, or will it choose to sweep the problem under the rug using deceptive data? Will Dartmouth take this opportunity to lead by example?

We believe that meaningful reform may require a large-scale effort guided by people outside the institution. An external commission of experts in college administration and diversity could design and oversee such an initiative. We are deeply troubled that Dartmouth has thus far responded with denial and deception, rather than acknowledging its history and grappling with it in good faith. We call upon the administration to redouble efforts to diversify its faculty — to recruit and retain women and people of color. The importance of such changes is widely acknowledged, and other institutions have found creative ways to make progress. This is a crucial step toward real culture change, and toward making Dartmouth a safe intellectual environment where all students and faculty can build their careers as scientists.

This piece was written collaboratively by Ruth Cserr, Jennifer Ditano, Ida Gobbini and Diana Whitney and other members of Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, a coalition of alumni, students and faculty formed to support members of the Dartmouth community who have been silenced or suppressed after facing gender harassment and/or sexual violence.