Dartmouth Plaintiffs Say They Hope to Change College’s Culture

  • 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) Mary Altaffer

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2018 10:59:29 PM
Modified: 11/16/2018 2:22:35 PM

Hanover — The seven current and former students who filed a lawsuit in federal court on Thursday say Dartmouth College’s failure to protect them from sexual assault and harassment stems from a deeply ingrained culture that the college has been slow to change.

One of the plaintiffs, Sasha Brietzke, who still is a graduate student in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, said she hopes that the national attention attracted by the case will have an impact that extends well beyond Dartmouth and will help change the power structure in academia that leaves students at the mercy of their advisers. Students rely on their advisers’ assistance to advance in their field.

For example, Brietzke said, tenure should be awarded to professors who nurture younger scientists, rather than simply to those who publish the most papers or bring in the most money to an institution.

“It should be good mentors (who) are rewarded instead of serial predators,” she said in a phone interview on Thursday from the plaintiffs’ attorneys’ office in New York. They are being represented by the firm Sanford Heisler Sharp.

The suit alleges that the now-former professors Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen and Bill Kelley were promoted and awarded tenure even as they perpetuated a “party culture” and — at least in Whalen and Kelley’s cases — pursued sexual relationships with their students and retaliated against those who rebuffed their advances. It also alleges that while the college was rewarding these professors, it did not grant tenure to qualified female scientists.

“Both Whalen and Kelley received tenure through the department, even as three promising female professors did not,” the suit alleges. “All three female professors went on to receive tenure, prestigious awards and great success — but at other institutions.”

The tenure process has left a gender imbalance in the department, Brietzke said, noting that the department currently only has one tenured female professor who works with graduate students in her lab.

Plaintiff Marissa Evans, who worked in Kelley’s lab as an undergraduate, said that shifting the culture will require everyone’s participation, not just policy changes at the administrative level and the departure of alleged perpetrators from the institution.

For example, Evans said that the gender politics in classroom settings needs to shift so that professors call on women as often as men and take women’s questions as seriously as men’s.

“There has to be an active motion against this,” she said.

Dartmouth President Phil Hanlon, in a message to the Dartmouth community on Thursday, defended the process the college undertook to investigate the professors’ misconduct and address it, noting that the college took steps toward revoking their tenure and terminating their employment. In addition, Dartmouth has banned the former professors — Heatherton retired; Whalen and Kelley resigned — from campus and from attending all Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where the events are held, he said.

“We conducted a rigorous, thorough and fair review of the allegations, consisting of three separate investigations conducted by an experienced external investigator who interviewed more than 50 witnesses and reviewed extensive documentation,” Hanlon said. “Throughout this disciplinary process, we took steps to protect the privacy and procedural rights of all the parties involved.”

But the plaintiffs remain unsatisfied by Dartmouth’s actions, including the independent investigation that Dartmouth said it conducted in regard to the complaints.

The suit alleges that the investigator shared confidential information from plaintiffs with the accused, failed to advise the plaintiffs of their rights to counsel and that her “focus appears to be helping institutions manage risk and minimize liability stemming from wrongdoing of employees.”

The plaintiffs also are concerned about retaliation. Brietzke, whom the complaint alleges was inappropriately touched by Heatherton, said that she and fellow plaintiffs Vassiki Chauhan and Annemarie Brown, who also are still at Dartmouth — Chauhan as a student and Brown as an adjunct professor — are anxious about returning to the department now that this suit has been made public.

“It’s going to be really scary,” said Brietzke, who has another 3½ years until she expects to earn her doctorate.

The risk, however, is worth it, she said.

“I want to fight for the community that I want to see,” she said.

Though Hanlon continually has updated the community on developments, Brietzke said implementing change has been slow.

Early this year, Dartmouth created the Presidential Steering Committee on Sexual Misconduct to review institutionwide policies and procedures on sexual misconduct response, prevention, education and accountability, Hanlon said in his Thursday email.

“As part of this ongoing process, we are now gathering campus-wide input on a new unified policy and mandatory comprehensive training plan,” he said.

But within the department, Brietzke said, she and Chauhan have been warned that if they continue to speak out, their future there could be threatened.

“The energy of the department is draining,” Brietzke said they’ve been told. “They might not be able to help us anymore if we continue to raise our voices.”

Overall, Chauhan, whom the complaint alleges was sexually assaulted by Whalen, said she hopes that the lawsuit succeeds in gaining victims greater respect in future investigations of sexual misconduct and more transparency in the tenure process that will result in women and other historically underrepresented groups gaining greater representation in the department and beyond.

In the future, she said, she hopes that investigators and others will pay attention to the implicit bias present when the parties involved have unequal amounts of power within an institution.

“I hope that this lawsuit (gets) Dartmouth to treat victims who report with more respect,” she said.

While the department may believe that the problem is solved now that the professors involved have departed, the institution has to make changes in order to solve the problems that allowed the professors’ behavior to occur, said Deborah Marcuse, one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys.

“Bad apples can only flourish in an institution that permits them to flourish,” she said.

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

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