Dartmouth Faces Class-Action Lawsuit Following Professor Misconduct Allegations

  • Prospective Dartmouth College students are given a campus tour in Hanover, N.H., on October 7, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Valley News file photograph — Geoff Hansen

  • Psychology professor Todd Heatherton is photographed in a study area at Dartmouth College's Moore Hall on October 7, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • Bill Kelley, former professor of psychological and brain sciences at Dartmouth College. Photo courtesy Dartmouth College.

  • Paul Whalen Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth College. Photo Courtesy Dartmouth College

  • In this Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018 photo from left back row, Annemarie Brown, Andrea Courtney, and Marissa Evans, and from left front row, Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Kristina Rapuano, pose in New York. The women filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth College for allegedly allowing three professors to create a culture in their department that encouraged drunken parties and subjected female graduate students to harassment, groping and sexual assault. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) ap photograph — Mary Altaffer

Concord Monitor
Published: 11/15/2018 9:36:49 AM
Modified: 11/16/2018 2:21:48 PM

Concord — Seven female science students filed a $70 million class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth College on Thursday, saying they and dozens of others were sexually harassed and assaulted by three tenured professors who have since left the Ivy League institution.

The women accuse college administrators of turning a blind eye to the abuse for more than 16 years, despite knowing that the professors “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated and even raped female students,” according to the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Concord.

The plaintiffs, some of whom still are at Dartmouth, say Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen “perpetuated an alcohol-saturated ‘party culture’ ” by conducting lab meetings at bars, by inviting students to “hot tub parties” at their private residencies, and by suggesting undergraduates use cocaine as part of a class demonstration on addiction.

Sasha Brietzke, Annemarie Brown, Vassiki Chauhan, Andrea Courtney, Marissa Evans, Kristina Rapuano and an anonymous plaintiff identified as Jane Doe are bringing the lawsuit on behalf of every current and former female undergraduate and graduate student enrolled in Dartmouth’s psychological and brain sciences department between March 31, 2015, and the date of judgment. They have brought six claims against the institution, including Title IX violations to include sexual harassment and gender discrimination, as well as claims of breach of fiduciary duty and negligent supervision and retention under New Hampshire law.

The women accuse Heatherton, Kelley and Whalen of turning the department into a “21st Century ‘Animal House.’ ” The suit alleges the three professors objectified their female students by making inappropriate comments about their physical attractiveness, with Kelley going so far as to publicly rank them on what he called a “Papi” scale. The scale began at zero, which equated to “would never bang.”

In late spring and early summer, Kelley and Whalen resigned and Heatherton retired as Dartmouth took steps to fire them following an internal investigation by the college and a criminal investigation by the state’s Department of Justice.

The professors were accused of creating a hostile work environment in which undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students endured a hostile workplace where the line between professional and personal relationships was blurred.

Kelley and Whalen each are accused of assaulting a student after a night of drinking, attempting to seduce women under their supervision and punishing those who rebuffed their advances in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

“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 academy study,” according to the lawsuit. “Plaintiffs were instead sexually harassed and sexually assaulted by the Department’s tenured professors and expected to tolerate increasing levels of sexual predation.”

Whalen and Kelley could not be reached for comment, and it is unclear if they have attorneys. Heatherton apologized for acting inappropriately at conferences but said, through a lawyer, that he never socialized or had sexual relations with students.

In a page-and-a-half long statement distributed by his attorney on Thursday afternoon, Heatherton said that he “categorically denies playing any role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth College.”

“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 (Heatherton’s) graduate students. He is disturbed by the graphic allegations.”

Six of the plaintiffs were graduate students and one was an undergraduate.

The lawsuit paints a harrowing picture of women being forced to endure a program in which their academic careers were dependent on men who seemed mainly interested in drinking and getting them into bed. Those who refused to take part in their parties or bar hopping often were denigrated or ignored, according to the lawsuit.

Repeatedly, the lawsuit alleges, the three would set about grooming incoming graduate students. They often would comment on their physical appearances, give them extra attention and then bombard them with invitations to drink with them at area bars or while out at conferences. When the women would oblige, they would seek to get them drunk and take advantage of them.

One of the plaintiffs, Rapuano, alleges that Whalen in March 2014 forced himself upon her and put his hands down her pants when she visited his office. About a year later, she attended a conference with Kelley and alleges that he got her drunk and raped her. The lawsuit does not say whether she went to the police.

After the assault, she alleges Kelley kept pressing her for sexual favors. When Rapuano finally rebuffed him, she said Kelley became hostile, stopped providing her with academic guidance and attempted to undermine her research by sharing it with colleagues.

“This is the person who really holds the keys to your future,” Rapuano, who completed her doctoral degree at Dartmouth this spring and now is at Yale University, told The Associated Press. “For me, it became a situation where I felt trapped and I couldn’t get away from it because getting away from it meant leaving the career that I had worked so hard to get at.”

Chauhan, another plaintiff who still is at Dartmouth who alleges she was raped by Whalen at his home, said everyone in the department was aware of the trio’s behavior but took no action. She did seek medical attention, but the lawsuit does not say whether she went to the police.

The New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office also has been investigating.

The women who now are suing Dartmouth say they were told they would have a voice in the college’s independent investigation, but ultimately were ignored as the three professors departed.

They are seeking compensatory and punitive damages of at least $70 million, according to their lawsuit.

A group of female graduate students had contacted the college’s Title IX office in April 2017 to detail instances of sexual harassment and assault by the professors, with the goal of ending the “intolerable conditions.” However, their complaints went unanswered and, consequently, Whalen sexually assaulted a graduate teaching assistant 20 days later, the suit says.

In an email to the college community on Thursday morning, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon said that while “sexual misconduct and harassment have no place at Dartmouth,” the college disputes the allegations in the suit.

“We applaud the courage displayed by members of our community within (the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences) who brought the misconduct allegations to Dartmouth’s attention last year,” Hanlon wrote. “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.”

The lawsuit against Dartmouth was filed by Steven Kelly of the Maryland-based law firm Sanford Heisler Sharp LLC, who represented St. Paul’s School sexual assault survivor Chessy Prout and her parents in a 2016 federal lawsuit against the Concord prep school. Concord attorney Charles Douglas served as local counsel in that case and will do the same in this matter.

The Prouts accused St. Paul’s of endangering the welfare of the children entrusted in their care by allowing a sexually pervasive culture to continue at the school for decades. The parties reached a confidential settlement resolving the case in January.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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