Dartmouth Runs Off Professors, Gives Few Details of Misconduct

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/22/2018 12:09:46 AM
Modified: 7/24/2018 6:45:58 PM

Hanover — When Dartmouth College President Phil Hanlon informed the Dartmouth community last week that a third professor in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences had left the college rather than be fired, it concluded a trio of internal investigations into allegations of sexual misconduct that had brought national attention to the campus.

But while Hanlon kept the community up-to-date about a process that began last October when professors Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen and Bill Kelley were placed on paid leave and barred from campus, questions remain about what it was specifically that each man did wrong, how many victims were involved and how long the misconduct had persisted.

Following each of the college’s inquiries, Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Elizabeth Smith recommended that tenure be revoked for the professors and that all three be terminated. Whalen and Kelley resigned, and Heatherton retired, before they could be fired.

Although Dartmouth has said the cases involved allegations of sexual misconduct, and there are no non-disclosure agreements in place with the former professors, the college has not released any details of the behavior that led to the recommendations that they be fired.

“The internal investigator’s reports are private and confidential,” Dartmouth spokeswoman Diana Lawrence said in a Friday email.

Dartmouth declined interview requests with Hanlon and Smith.

In a statement announcing Kelley’s departure last week, Hanlon said, “We are committed to improving our culture as we seek a safe and inclusive environment for all members of our community.”

Still, some members of the Dartmouth community want to know more, and they say that knowing more could further Hanlon’s state goals.

“I’m a little frustrated because nobody knows what happened,” Dartmouth sophomore Alex Conway said in an interview at Collis Cafe on Friday. “I’ve heard so many rumors.”

In a November statement to The Dartmouth newspaper, 15 Dartmouth undergraduate and graduate students and post-doctoral scholars anonymously alleged that the three professors had created a “hostile academic environment in which sexual harassment is normalized.”

Some details have emerged about Heatherton’s conduct, but little has been made public about the other two.

In a public statement at the time of Heatherton’s retirement in June, he acknowledged acting “unprofessionally in public at conferences while intoxicated.”

A former Dartmouth faculty member, Jennifer Groh, alleged in an email to Dartmouth administrators last October that she subsequently made public on social media, that a female student told her that she reported a sexual misconduct allegation against Heatherton to college administrators in 2002. The student alleged that Heatherton had touched her breasts during a recruitment event “while stating that she was not doing very well in her work.”

In the fall, Heatherton’s attorney, Julie Moore, of Wellesley, Mass., said in an email that the college had investigated the claim and determined the touching was “accidental and totally unintentional — not a sexual touching at all.”

Groh, who left Dartmouth in 2006 and is now a professor at Duke University, said in a phone interview on Friday that she isn’t sure what the appropriate consequences for Heatherton at the time would have been. But she did not think he should have subsequently been given an endowed chair and allowed to direct the department.

The incident occurred within the context of other inappropriate behavior in the department, Groh said. There was a dynamic of bullying in which more junior members of the department, such as herself, were expected to take sides in long-running rivalries.

It “didn’t seem like people were rooting for everybody’s success,” she said.

Though she didn’t experience direct retaliation after she passed along the groping report, Groh said, she “felt a distinct chill in my relationships in the department after that.”

It was a chill she said she felt was extended to all of the women in the department — and contributed to her decision to leave.

“I fundamentally felt like I did not want to contribute any more to this community that wasn’t going to support and nurture careers of women at the faculty level (and) at the student level,” she said. “I wanted to put my efforts elsewhere.”

Another groping complaint against Heatherton surfaced in a story published by Slate last November. Simine Vazire, a professor of psychology at the University of California–Davis, said Heatherton “squeezed her butt” at an academic conference in Savannah, Ga., in 2002. She was a 21-year-old graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin at the time.

Heatherton told Slate he didn’t remember the incident, but “if I touched her as she described, all I can say is that I am profoundly sorry.”

Emma “Charlie” Plumb, a sophomore government major with a women’s and gender studies minor, said that a friend of hers was a victim of one of the younger professors. The friend, an undergraduate neuroscience major, came to know this professor, whom she considered “young, attractive and really smart.” He made her feel special, according to Plumb.

The relationship evolved from comments that “sometimes crossed the line” to what her friend said were inappropriate text messages and emotional manipulation, Plumb said.

“She’s a really smart girl,” Plumb said. But, the experience led the Dartmouth student to re-examine her academic career.

“She felt like she didn’t deserve to be where she was now,” Plumb said.

A Historical Perspective

Some members of the Dartmouth community have a longer view of the evolution of relations between the sexes at the college. English professor Melissa Zeiger, who has worked at the school for 33 years, said she felt the college’s response to the professors’ misconduct was “serious and effective.”

“It’s been good,” she said, adding, “but it’s been much too long coming.”

In general, colleges see cases of misconduct as “burdens that have to be just done away with rather than dealt with.”

Early on in her time at Dartmouth, Zeiger recalled, a group of young men going around campus singing The Cohog Song. Originating in 1975, the song was apparently intended to make the college’s new female students feel unwelcome. Dartmouth first began accepting women in 1972.

According to the Dartmouth Review’s “History of Hums,” The Cohog Song was performed to the melody of This Old Man. Its lyrics said that Dartmouth’s women were “all here to spoil our fun” and that “they all ruined our masculine heaven.”

So, though sexual misconduct is a challenge faced by all colleges, Zeiger said, it may be that “Dartmouth has particular obstacles to overcome that way.”

In the cases involving the three professors, an external investigator was brought in and submitted findings to Smith. The dean then sent her recommendations to a faculty-elected review committee, which endorsed them. The professors retired or resigned while a larger, faculty-elected Council on Academic Freedom and Responsibility was still reviewing the recommendations. Had that panel agreed that they should be terminated, Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon would have sent a report to the college Board of Trustees, who would have made the final decision.

In the future, Zeiger said, she would like to see the investigation process streamlined. She would also like to see victims compensated for their time.

To Gina Barreca, a member of Dartmouth’s class of 1979, a humorist and a professor of English and feminist theory at the University of Connecticut, the power dynamics that seemed to be at work in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences sounded like a throw-back to her days as a student. In those days, the attitude of the men on campus was: “I’m going to do this for you, what are you going to do for me?”

That dynamic of people in power using it to get what they want, however is unacceptable, particularly in academia, she said. Professors are there to provide for students.

“That generosity goes one way,” she said.

Despite the difficult history, Barreca said she was glad that Dartmouth administrators kept the community informed about the recent investigations.

“It’s a start,” she said.

Perhaps, she said, the incoming provost Joseph Helble, the longtime dean of the Thayer School of Engineering, will take steps to further address the problem of sexual misconduct at Dartmouth. Helble, whose appointment the college announced in May, will start in October.

Next Steps

Hanlon also appointed a Presidential Steering Committee on Sexual Misconduct, which was charged in January with reviewing institution-wide policies on sexual misconduct response, prevention, education and accountability, and has prepared a report now being reviewed by top college officials. Dartmouth said it is being reviewed by senior leadership and that the college will eventually seek community feedback on next steps from the report.

By failing to provide students and other members of the Dartmouth community with details about the actions the professors were engaged in, Plumb said, it was difficult for people to take away a message from the college’s efforts to remove the professors.

“Some action was taken,” Plumb said. “I don’t think it was enough.”

Conway, a sophomore majoring in biology and Chinese, said the lack of clarity about what the professors have done is “scary.” It makes it difficult to know how to respond, she said. She wonders if she should be checking in with friends who took classes with the now-departed professors.

She also seeks clarity in determining when a professor’s off-color comment might cross a line.

“I think the whole college is kind of scared — not scared, on edge,” she said. “You never know how anything could get misconstrued.”

On the positive side, she said, that lack of clarity inspires everyone to reflect on their own behavior, “not just with faculty, but with each other.”

But Groh said Dartmouth ought to release some sort of summary of its findings as a way to start a conversation about where the college goes from here.

“A question I have going forward … How will they denormalize something that shouldn’t have been normalized in the first place?” she said.

David Bucci, the chairman of the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, in an email to the department on Thursday, thanked members of the department for their patience as the investigations unfolded and expressed a desire to “promote the equitable and respectful treatment of each and every member of our community.”

“Although this has been a challenging time for the department, it provides an opportunity to articulate and affirm our shared values,” Bucci wrote. “Science depends on the free exchange of ideas that can only occur in an inclusive environment built on respect and trust.”

Bucci said he’s looking forward to learning more about the Presidential Steering Committee on Sexual Misconduct’s report and next steps proposed by Dartmouth’s senior leadership.

“At the same time, I encourage you to continue to share with me ideas for strengthening the PBS community,” Bucci wrote. “… It is our responsibility to create a culture in which victims of sexual misconduct come forward without fear of repercussion or of being ignored.”

An investigation by the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office is ongoing, Deputy Attorney General Jane Young said on Friday.

The fact that Dartmouth has concluded its own inquiries of the three professors “does not impact our investigation in any way,” she said.

  Valley News Staff Writer Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.


Three Dartmouth professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences opted to retire or resign amid allegations of sexual misconduct after a faculty-elected review committee had endorsed recommendations from Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences Elizabeth Smith that their tenure be revoked and their employment terminated. The larger, faculty-elected Council on Academic Freedom and Responsibility was still reviewing the recommendations, which, if upheld by that panel, would have been forwarded via Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon to the college Board of Trustees, who would have made the final decision. In addition, witnesses and reporting parties in Dartmouth’s investigation were interviewed by telephone or Skype if they lived outside the Upper Valley, according to a college spokeswoman. Another professor who raised concerns about the burdens on victims incorrectly described the interview process in an earlier version of this story, and the original story also misstated at what point in the disciplinary process the three professors departed.

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