Fifteen students allege three professors created 'hostile academic environment'
In allegations that span multiple generations of graduate students, four students in Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain sciences told The Dartmouth this week that three professors now under investigation by the College and state prosecutors created a hostile academic environment that they allege included excessive drinking, favoritism and behaviors that they considered to be sexual harassment.
The three tenured professors, Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen, have been under College investigation for what College President Phil Hanlon has as alleged “sexual misconduct.” A student who spoke to The Dartmouth alleged that students filed complaints as early as March. The College internal investigations of the three professors on Oct. 25 following an inquiry from The Dartmouth. Hanlon formally the investigations on Oct. 31, the same day that the New Hampshire Attorney General’s office a criminal investigation into the three professors. The College had hired an external investigator to conduct its investigations, according to a Nov. 10 from Hanlon. All three professors are on paid leave and their access to campus has been restricted.
Fifteen graduate students, undergraduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the department have signed a statement to The Dartmouth alleging the three professors created a “hostile academic environment in which sexual harassment is normalized.” They accused each of the professors of violating one or more of Dartmouth’s , and .
The 15 individuals gave their statement to The Dartmouth only on the condition that their identities would not be disclosed. Four of the 15 also spoke directly to The Dartmouth, and three more provided their own written statements recounting their time with the department. All 15 have also given statements to the College’s external investigator describing what they considered to be inappropriate behavior by the professors.
The group requested anonymity because the three professors have sat on numerous grant-proposal review boards and are members of academic organizations that could influence the students’ professional futures. The students also generally declined to provide specific anecdotes, saying they were concerned about interfering with the ongoing investigations and protecting the privacy of victims.
The four students who spoke with The Dartmouth all had direct interaction with at least one of the professors under investigation. The Dartmouth has independently confirmed that all 15 of the signees have spent time in the PBS department.
Multiple signees confirmed that, as far as they know, the scope of the College’s investigation is focused on accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. They emphasized that, to the best of their knowledge, the investigation is not related to child pornography or to the content of the professors’ research — two rumors that have recently circulated around Dartmouth’s campus.
Julie Moore, a lawyer representing Heatherton, wrote that Heatherton “is confident that he has not violated any of the referenced policies.” She added that “he has never engaged in sexual relations with any student” and “rarely has socialized with students and the other professors under investigation.” The other two accused professors, Kelley and Whalen, did not respond to repeated telephone and email messages from The Dartmouth seeking comment. Neither did their attorneys. College spokesperson Diana Lawrence confirmed in a Nov. 5 email to The Dartmouth that the allegations regarding the three professors are “separate.”
Lawrence declined to comment on the students’ allegations, instead noting that the College is undertaking “an extensive fact-finding process led by an experienced external investigator ... we are determined to complete thorough and comprehensive investigations.” PBS department chair David Bucci declined to comment for this story.
Over a two-day period, The Dartmouth repeatedly attempted to contact Kelley and Whalen and their lawyers by both phone and email seeking a response to the students’ allegations. While the identities of Kelley and Whalen’s legal counsel have not been publicly disclosed, Lawrence said she believed they were represented by John Barter and the firm of Good Schneider Cormier & Fried, respectively.
Several PBS students who spoke to The Dartmouth said that they were part of a group that initiated the College’s internal investigation. The first source said that during an academic conference in March, several graduate students began exchanging stories about uncomfortable experiences they had had with the three professors. According to this student, before these conversations occurred, students had not realized how widespread student concerns were about these professors. The source said that this prompted a group of students to file a Title IX complaint with Dartmouth. In response to an inquiry about recently filed Title IX complaints, Dartmouth Title IX coordinator Allison O’Connell directed The Dartmouth to publicly available information on the College’s Sexual Respect website.
All of the students the external investigator interviewed were told at the time that they could reach out to law enforcement but chose not to do so, the first source told The Dartmouth. This student said that the investigation is taking longer than expected because more people, including alumni of the department, have come forward.
The four PBS students who spoke to The Dartmouth said that as far as they know, no one involved in the investigation has sought to press criminal charges, though the New Hampshire Attorney General opened a criminal investigation on Oct. 31. Associate Attorney General Jane Young declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.
In interviews with The Dartmouth, several students in the PBS department described what they called an uncomfortable workplace culture that blurred the line between professional and personal relationships. They said they often felt pressured to drink at social events in order to further their professional careers, a dynamic that they allege promoted favoritism and at times inappropriate behavior.
“There were clearly points at which I felt like people were testing my boundaries, and if I didn’t immediately push back, that then the next step would make me even more uncomfortable,” a second student said.
She described an incident at a social event with members of the department, at which she said everyone was drinking, and one of the professors put his arm around her. She said his arm slid lower, to the point that she was uncomfortable and “very aware of where his hand [was] on [her] body,” and she said she felt like she was being tested. She immediately left and went to the bathroom, she said.
Several students who spoke to The Dartmouth said that Kelley encouraged his lab members to drink and socialize at least weekly, often on weeknights and at times during business hours, noting that Whalen occasionally joined Kelley for events off-campus.
At certain social events, the second student said she sometimes refused drinks, only to find another drink in her hand, purchased or provided by one of the professors under the premise of being “a good host.”
Graduate students and mentors often have collegial relationships, which can involve occasionally grabbing a drink, but some interactions with the professors in question blurred personal and professional lines, the second source alleged.
She said her perception is that work-related advice and assistance were implicitly contingent on socializing and being part of the “in crowd,” and graduate students were pressured to choose whether they would participate in the socializing or not.
“Access to professional opportunities and professional information was specifically associated in participating in casual social events that included alcohol,” she alleged.
A third source said he believed almost everyone in the department was aware of the excessive drinking, but not everyone had knowledge about the associated consequences. He corroborated accounts that the socializing between the professors and students sometimes appeared to cross the line from professional to unprofessional.
“What’s [not] normal is the amount of drinking, the number of times they did it and how it affected their relationships with the other students,” he said. “It didn’t have the professional character of an after-work meeting.”
In a Nov. 13 in Slate, Simine Vazire, a tenured psychology professor at the University of California-Davis, alleged that Heatherton “squeezed her butt” at a conference in 2002. In an email statement to Slate, Heatherton wrote that he did “not remember touching her in any way.” In a Nov. 15 in the Valley News, Jennifer Groh, a former professor in Dartmouth’s PBS department and a current tenured professor at Duke University, said she filed a report against Heatherton in 2002 after a female student told Groh that Heatherton had touched her inappropriately at a graduate student event. Heatherton denied the claim via a lawyer to the Valley News.
Multiple PBS students who spoke to The Dartmouth said they and others they had talked to had either considered leaving Dartmouth at one point or regretted coming to Dartmouth over other institutions because of the workplace environment.
“People turned down other professional opportunities in order to be here, and upon finding out the extent to which these inappropriate behaviors influenced their professional careers, very much wanted to switch,” the second source said.
Several of the individuals interviewed said they are optimistic about the progress of the investigation and are hopeful for the future of the PBS department.
“I’m looking forward to hopefully the eventual conclusion of this being that we can move things back to a place where people can continue to do incredible science and continue to pursue positive careers without the constant and sometimes unconscious ways in which this kind of pernicious behavior infiltrates a community,” the second source said.
The third source noted that the investigation has not yet concluded and is hopeful that the investigation will yield positive outcomes for their community.
“I’m really appreciative of the work the College and PBS as a department are doing to make sure this investigation gets to the truth and that the people who are involved in it are safe,” he said.
Several members of the PBS department expressed hope that the investigation will eventually communicate a clear finding to the community.
“Because there are three professors involved, my fear is that people will compare them to each other,” a fourth source wrote. “They’ll excuse one professor’s behavior because it wasn’t as bad as another professor’s behavior. But that’s the wrong reference point. The standard of comparison should be a professor that doesn’t engage in sexual harassment.”