Verbum Ultimum: Talk Less, Do More

Dartmouth women deserve more than empty promises.

by The Dartmouth Editorial Board | 1/4/19 2:20am

This year, Dartmouth celebrates 250 years since its founding. On Jan. 10, the College will kick off a series of events commemorating its anniversary and honoring its longstanding legacy. These events highlight moments of pride throughout the College’s history — academic milestones, building blocks for the Dartmouth education students know today (both in the expansion of opportunities and in the expansion of groups to which those opportunities have been made available) and memorable achievements by members of the Dartmouth community across the globe. For the most part, these celebrations are well-earned. Dartmouth has and continues to offer a valuable and rewarding education to its students. Faculty members remain committed to teaching and to nurturing students’ personal and intellectual development. And many alumni go on to lead successful lives, often bettering their communities aided by the foundations they cemented while at the College, their experiences on campus and the bonds they formed with one another. But while Dartmouth deserves to cherish these successes, it ought not to ignore its failures. 

The recent lawsuit filed against Dartmouth sheds light on some of those failures. On Nov. 15, seven women filed a $70 million federal class action against the College, alleging that Dartmouth turned a blind eye to more than 16 years of sexual harassment and assault by three former professors in the psychological and brain sciences department. The lawsuit attested to a toxic department-wide culture that normalized sexual violence, ostensibly fostered by former professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen. The plaintiffs likened the PBS department to “a 21st century Animal House” and detailed their experiences with repeated sexual harassment, assault and misconduct. The women claim that Dartmouth knew about this conduct, that the College’s Title IX office violated their rights and that the “hostile academic environment” to which they were subjected caused them irreparable personal and professional harm, though the College disputes these claims.

The lawsuit brought into question Dartmouth’s judicial process and practices concerning sexual assault on campus. Members of the Dartmouth community pledged support toward the plaintiffs, and many alumni say they are considering or have already decided to withhold financial support from the College until it institutes meaningful reform. These allegations come at a particularly precarious time for Dartmouth’s fundraising efforts. The Call to Lead capital campaign, which seeks to raise $3 billion in funding, lists the involvement of female donors as a specific goal. Dartmouth has taken pride in the financial support it has received from alumnae, and through the capital campaign, the College sought $25 million from female donors. The magnitude of the potential loss in donations to the College is not yet clear, but the lawsuit serves as a wake-up call for Dartmouth — its efforts to combat sexual violence on campus must escalate, if not because women in this community deserve better, then because the College stands to lose far more than just their support.   

Dartmouth was the last Ivy League university to admit women, and in the decades since, the College has stood witness to a pervasive and deeply-rooted culture of gender-based violence and sexual harassment. The experiences of Dartmouth women have not been the same as those of Dartmouth men, and the College has so far done little more than watch from the sidelines. The 250th anniversary is not just an occasion to celebrate where Dartmouth has flourished. It is also an opportunity to take a decisive stance and implement radical reforms — from the judicial process through which sexual assault survivors seek recourse, to the institutions on campus that enable sexual assault in the first place. The vast majority of sexual assault survivors on college campuses do not report their assaults, and Dartmouth is no different. It is imperative that this campus becomes one in which survivors feel safe to come forward, but more importantly, in which this violence ceases to occur.

The first step is adopting a greater sense of accountability. Dartmouth is arguably ahead of peer institutions in framing guidelines, crafting policies and developing an infrastructure to hear and support survivors. However, the College has fallen short in actually enforcing its plans. Moving onward, the solution is not to add more committees, declare more “sweeping” plans or hide behind vaguely-worded campaigns. Tangible reform means taking a close and honest look at Dartmouth’s current process, patching loopholes and rigorously enforcing the policies this administration claims to stand behind. If the allegations in the lawsuit are true, the College needs to investigate the practices of its Title IX office and ensure that those who come forward are immune from the privacy and confidentiality violations alleged by the plaintiffs. More generally, this means ensuring that all survivors are treated equally, and that all perpetrators are punished equally — regardless of whether they are students or faculty, and regardless of their background, gender and socioeconomic or legacy status.

The College must also re-examine its process for granting tenure. Faculty members’ track to tenure ought to depend not just on their academic achievements, but also on the environments they create for their students. And the administration must ensure that all faculty members are incentivized to monitor the culture they create and enable within their departments, and that they feel compelled to share concerns without fear of repercussion. Going forward, Dartmouth needs to actively inspect the academic and social institutions that allow sexual violence to remain so entrenched, and it must not give in to pressure from those who would prefer that those institutions remain untouched. 

The pace of change at Dartmouth has been largely lethargic, and in some sense that is understandable. Many alumni cherish Dartmouth as it was during their time, being reluctant to see its traditions and institutions uprooted. And the educational opportunities made available by the College’s endowment depend upon continued donations from the alumni community. However, the alumni community to which the College caters now will not be the same in a decade or two, when the 250th graduating class will be called upon to contribute. Dartmouth cannot afford to be myopic — if the College refuses to take a strong stance on the issues this class, and future classes, care about, it may not see another 250 years added to its history. 

As the College advances the Call to Lead campaign to support future generations of Dartmouth students, it should lead by example. This community has a responsibility to go beyond acknowledging Dartmouth’s flaws — it must correct them, and it must give future students reasons to cherish their alma mater in the same way its current alumni will celebrate it this year. The College calls for leadership — it ought to show it first. 

The editorial board consists of opinion staff columnists, the opinion editors, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.