Lawsuit Alleges Cover-up of Sexual Misconduct

On Thursday, the Trustees of Dartmouth College were sued for $70 million by seven former and current students (including an ’18 who graduated this past Spring) in the Psychology and Brain Sciences (PBS) Department, in relation to the College’s handling of systematic sexual harassment and assault at the department. The introduction to the lawsuit claims that “Dartmouth College has knowingly permitted three of its…professors to turn a…department into a 21st century Animal House”, tipping its hat to the eponymous movie that reinforced Dartmouth’s reputation as a den of debauchery. It adds that “for well over a decade, female students…have been treated as sex objects.”

The College’s response to the lawsuit has been muted at best. A press release made by the College acknowledges that while “sexual misconduct and harassment have no place at Dartmouth,” the College “strongly disagree[s] with the characterisations of Dartmouth’s actions.” The focus of the lawsuit isn’t on the actions of the three professors, but on the College’s handling of reports of sexual misconduct, harassment, and assault — the plaintiffs state as such, claiming that the “plaintiffs now turn to this Court for appropriate relief to…force Dartmouth College to enact meaningful reforms.”

There is no doubt that if the allegations are true, the lawsuit reveals the extent to which the College’s talk on sexual assault and misconduct does not equate with its actions. The plaintiffs allege that Dartmouth knew about the professors’ misconduct for “more than sixteen years” but did absolutely nothing to stop their behaviour until the matter spilt over into the public domain. The then-department chair, Howard Hughes, in response to the 2002 allegations of Heatherton groping “the buttocks of two graduate students,” told students off by telling them to “not ‘make a fuss’ by pursuing the matter.”

A former professor in the department, Jennifer Groh, reported the matter to a student dean and claims that “several faculty…initiated a grievance process [against Heatherton] led by Michelle Meyers in the Institutional Diversity and Equity Office” in protest against Heatherton’s promotion to department chair. Groh left a tenured professorship at Dartmouth for Duke in 2006, attributing her departure — and that of “a number of faculty” — to the systematic sexual misconduct that pervaded the department. The lawsuit filed corroborates many of Groh’s claims, alleging that “the Department’s faculty have described Dartmouth as ‘the capital of sexism’ and likened the Department to a fraternity house of which Kelley, Whalen, and Heatherton were self-appointed co-presidents.”

However, in a statement released by his lawyer, Heatherton “categorically denies playing any role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth.” He emphasizes that “none of the complaining parties were his graduate students,” and attempts to distance himself from Kelley and Whalen, both of whom are accused of having non-consensual sex with their graduate students. Kelley and Whalen have not released any statements.

The lawsuit alleges that Whalen sexually assaulted Vassiki Chauhan, a graduate student in the PBS department, twenty days after “a group of female graduate students [including Chauhan]…contacted Dartmouth’s Title IX office and detailed instances of sexual assault and sexual harassment by these three professors,” in “early April 2017.” The Title IX investigation had “at least 27 complainants” who participated in the process. It was kept secret from the rest of the community, but “in October 2017, Dartmouth was forced to publicly disclose the existence of the investigation for the very first time after the news was leaked to the media.”

Additionally, the College failed to notify relevant authorities of potential criminal behaviour by the three professors. The NH Attorney General, Gordon J. MacDonald, only learned of the incidents and allegations on October 31, 2017, which is after news of the investigation was widely published. On the same day, MacDonald, in a press release, emphasised that his office “has engaged in a dialogue with Dartmouth College and we have learned from the College that it has received allegations of sexual misconduct.” The criminal investigation, which is being jointly conducted with the NH State Police, Grafton County Sheriff’s Office, and Hanover Police. MacDonald declined to release further information, citing the ongoing and sensitive nature of the investigation and case.

The complaint also indicts then-Provost Carolyn Dever’s handling of the situation. One of the plaintiffs, Kristina Rapuano, a PhD student, claims that “on January 13, 2017, Ms. Rapuano contacted Provost Carolyn Dever (“Provost Dever”) to report that she was experiencing sexual harassment at Dartmouth and had realized this was a pervasive issue…Provost Dever failed to launch any investigation of her own and took no steps to protect Ms. Rapuano or other students from sexual harassment.” In 2002, Associate Dean Richard Wright was informed of Heatherton’s improper behaviour; Associate Dean Hull and Director Wheatley “confirmed that they both received numerous complaints” but did not take any action.

One of the more surprising aspects of the lawsuit is how this atmosphere of callousness around sexual misconduct on behalf of the College pervaded and significantly affected undergraduate education at the Department. Marissa Evans ’18, a neuroscience major who worked in Kelley’s lab in the PBS department from the start of her sophomore year to the end of her junior year, is one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. Evans switched labs at the end of her junior year to “escape Kelley’s sexual harassment” — she was “terrified that he was going to force her to have sex with him.” Evans came to Dartmouth from the Pope John XXIII High School, a Roman Catholic private school in Sparta Township, New Jersey.

Her set of complaints starts with a claim not about the PBS department but about an alleged rape incident during her Sophomore Fall:

In the fall of 2015, when Ms. Evans was a sophomore, a male student broke into her dorm room and raped her. Ms. Evans reported the assault to Dartmouth College Health Service counselor Dr. Bryant Ford on November 10, 2015. When Ms. Evans relayed the assault, Dr. Ford replied, “Was it a dream?” Then, at Ms. Evans’s direction, Dr. Ford reported the sexual assault to Dartmouth’s Title IX coordinator and campus safety on her behalf on approximately November 19, 2015.

First, Dartmouth failed to inform Ms. Evans of her right to obtain a no-cost Jane Doe forensic examination at the nearest qualified facility, to which law enforcement is legally required to transport her. Moreover, Dartmouth falsely informed Ms. Evans that she would not be permitted to proceed anonymously to pursue a Title IX complaint.

In addition, Dartmouth engaged in no investigation concerning the reported rape, refusing even to check the entry logs to see which students had entered her dorm during the relevant hours on the night of her assault. Although Ms. Evans provided the approximate height, hair length and color, and build of the person who raped her, she is unaware of any steps that were taken to investigate her assault or identify the rapist.”

Dr. Ford is still employed at Dick’s House and focuses on “sexual violence/abuse concerns.” As the point of first contact for many students who believe they have been sexually assaulted, it is Dr. Ford’s prerogative to ensure that students are comfortable and that their complaints are taken seriously and investigated. Hanlon’s email to the “Dartmouth community” claims that “Dartmouth offers a range of support services to…those who have made reports of sexual assault and misconduct…Please do not hesitate to seek help.”

Evans’ allegations against Kelley, whose lab she applied to work in, stem from the very first day that she started working. At her interview, Kelley allegedly “plied her with several glasses of wine before taking her bar-hopping and buying her whiskey, commenting several times that Ms. Evans was underage and could not legally drink.” Kelley even “arrived, uninvited, at one of Ms. Evans’s track meets while intoxicated.”

Evans, in the lawsuit, alleges that:

Kelley began to send Ms. Evans sexually explicit images that were both unwelcome and unsolicited. These images displayed, among other things:

  • Kelley’s fully naked body, including his erect penis;
  • Kelley’s genitalia with sex toys, including a penis “cage” and a penis “hat”; and
  • Kelley engaged in sexual encounters with two unidentified persons.

Kelley barraged Ms. Evans with unwelcome and offensive text messages of a sexual nature, including:

  • Describing his personal use of sex toys, his past sexual encounters, and his sexual preferences in terms of dominant/submissive roles;
  • Asking Ms. Evans to describe her sexual practices and fantasies;
  • Instructing Ms. Evans on how to perform oral sex on a woman;
  • Seeking to assert sexual dominance by commanding Ms. Evans to masturbate and — likening her to a pet — calling her “good girl”; and
  • Expressing his intention to have sexual intercourse with her when she returned to Dartmouth in January 2017.”

If what the lawsuit alleges is true — and there is very little doubt that it is — it certainly is not behaviour becoming of anyone, let alone a professor, in any professional or personal environment. The lawsuit makes it clear than Evans made it clear to Kelley in no uncertain terms that she did not welcome any of the advances made and provided evidence to suggest that she had rebuffed any attempts at a sexual relationship.

The lawsuit alleges significant academic misconduct that was covered up by the College:

On May 23, 2018, Ms. Evans easily passed the oral defense of her honors thesis. Professors Bob Maue and Alan Green, the faculty judges, unanimously recommended that she pass with honors. However, Professor Maue then, without explanation, refused to provide Ms. Evans with his signature as required for Ms. Evans to turn in her honors thesis. Ms. Evans sent Professor Maue numerous emails requesting his signature. He did not respond. These circumstances delayed Ms. Evans’s submission of her honors thesis, forcing her to file it one day past its due date. Purportedly because of this “lateness,” Ms. Evans received a failing grade on her thesis.

Ms. Evans met with Chair Bucci, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Students Anne Hudak, and Professors Jeffrey Taube and Dave Kramer to explain the circumstances and request that Dartmouth reverse its decision to fail her. They refused and, instead, presented Ms. Evans with an untenable ultimatum: either accept an A- in an independent study without an honors thesis or receive her honors thesis but with a C grade for two semesters (which would drop her GPA below the threshold for medical school, the next professional step in her career).

Ms. Evans appealed this decision to President Hanlon. In her appeal, she voiced concern about possible retaliation for her involvement in the Title IX investigation against Kelley, writing: “I personally feel as though this decision is rooted in retaliation, as I am the only undergraduate student who was directly involved in the investigation of the three neuroscience professors this past year.” A petition was started on Ms. Evans’s behalf requesting that Dartmouth reverse its decision, accumulating approximately 200 signatures.

Still [,] Dartmouth refused to reverse its decision. Ms. Evans was ultimately permitted to accept grades of B+ and A- for two semesters.”

The effects on Evans have been damaging in the long term — “she was forced to withdraw from her first semester in a post-baccalaureate premedical program due to mental health reasons resulting from her time at Dartmouth.” This pattern of wrongdoing drove Evans “to severe depressive episodes and a suicide attempt.”

The lawsuit raises pertinent questions about Dartmouth’s handling of the investigation, and exposes deep rooted and systematic faults with the way that the College responds to sexual misconduct. The administration’s poor response to the situation is simply thoughts and prayers — empty words that are not backed up by action. From two successive department chairs to then-Provost Dever to President Hanlon, everyone clearly knew what was happening.

The lawsuit mentions that “even after these serious complaints were lodged, Dartmouth actually encouraged the victims to continue working with or among Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen.” Furthermore, “Dartmouth waited nearly four months before notifying Kelley, Whalen, and Heatherton of Plaintiffs’ complaints (on July 20, 2017) and placing them on administrative leave (on July 28, 2017).”

The College’s own investigation into the matter was fraught with errors. The independent investigator hired by the College, Jennifer Davis, showed the Plaintiff’s “confidential records to Heatherton, Whalen, and Kelley, and their attorneys without Plaintiffs’ knowledge or consent,” while simultaneously failing to inform the plaintiffs of their rights and the ability to have outside legal counsel. The interviews that Davis conducted, too, were leaked to the “perpetrators and their attorneys” without the consent or the knowledge of the plaintiffs. More alarmingly, the lawsuit alleges that:

Investigator Davis and Dartmouth’s Title IX office failed to protect Plaintiffs’ privacy by erroneously including one reporting party’s confidential exhibits in a different reporting party’s folder. On several occasions, email communications from the Title IX office were addressed to the wrong person, revealing the complainant’s identity and confidential information to others.

Plaintiffs were provided with heavily redacted versions of the sections of the reports that pertained to them and given a limited opportunity to correct inaccuracies in the reports.

Investigator Davis demanded that Ms. Chauhan provide her counseling records to her and assured her that they would be treated as ‘confidential.’ Ms. Chauhan was appalled to learn, in the Title IX report, that Investigator Davis showed her private counseling records to the perpetrator and his attorneys to seek their ‘response.’”

In the middle of October, 2018, the PBS department, at the behest of its Chair, Bucci, and director, Wheatley, “convened a meeting with all graduate students in the Department,” to “‘dispel rumors’ about the Title IX investigation.” Both Bucci and Wheatley engaged in a problematic discourse with the students, shaming and criticizing the victims in the presence of Title IX coordinator, Kristi Clemens.

Chair Bucci accused the victims of “pulling the Department backwards rather than forward” by continuing to demand change at Dartmouth. Chair Bucci and Director Wheatley criticized the victims for questioning their involvement in the facts giving rise to the Title IX complaints and said that it was “very unfair” of the students to discuss the prior complaints about Heatherton and implied that these complaints were irrelevant.”

Bucci also retaliated against one of the former graduate students, Annemarie Brown, who joined the PBS department as a lecturer after graduating from the programme. He refused to allot her any classes to teach for the 2018–19 academic year “despite receiving outstanding student evaluations” and claimed that “they could not discuss her employment until the [Title IX] investigation had concluded.”

If these allegations are true, It is clear from the actions of Heatherton, Kelley, Whalen, Bucci, and Maue that the PBS department has deep rooted issues and a distinct lack of academic and professional integrity. Many of the administrative departments in the College meant to protect victims of sexual misconduct and prevent further abuse are implicated as well with both the Title IX Office and Dick’s House acting irresponsibly. The lawsuit is a timely reminder of institutionalised callousness and retaliation. What is even more surprising is the number of incidents that took place after information of the investigation and misconduct was made public. Dartmouth’s interest in maintaining good press for the College seems to have overruled its obligation to act in the best interests of the student body and larger community, and as the plaintiffs rightly pointed out in the lawsuit, “Dartmouth has taken no action that would demonstrate any intent to investigate how the abuse perpetrated upon Plaintiffs could have happened and/or to make any changes that would prevent it from happening again.”

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At the time of going to press, The Dartmouth Review had reached out to Prof. Bucci, Prof. Robert A. Maue, Prof. Annemarie Brown, and Ms. Marissa Evans for comment but has not heard back. We will update this article as and when we hear back from them.