Verbum Ultimum: Difficult Matters

Recent investigations have left more questions than answers.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 5/10/19 2:05am

Last week, the College announced that its workplace misconduct investigation into two administrators of The Dartmouth Institute had concluded. The investigation, which began nine months ago, resulted in Elliott Fisher, a nationally known expert in health policy, being removed as director of TDI and losing his endowed professorship title while being allowed to stay on as a member of the faculty. Meanwhile, Adam Keller, another TDI administrator, resigned from his position.

The next day, two former Dartmouth students joined an ongoing $70 million federal class action lawsuit alleging that College officials knew of and failed to act on allegations that three former psychological and brain sciences professors — Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen — sexually harassed and assaulted students and turned the department into a “21st century Animal House.” The two women, whose identities have been kept anonymous, brought forth additional allegations of sexual harassment and assault to an already long list of complaints from the seven other plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

These two stories are completely separate from one another, and we are not implying that they are in any way connected. However, these incidents — both of which involve investigations by the College into workplace misconduct — raise serious and concerning questions about the methods by which the investigations were conducted and the conclusions that were reached. 

Internal investigations by private institutions are inherently difficult to pass judgement on. We understand that these investigations are private and typically involve information not intended to be released to the public. We also understand that, in many cases, information should be kept private to protect those who served as sources for investigators. 

However, the conclusions of the TDI and PBS investigations raise more questions than answers. While the investigations have officially ended, we believe the College has a responsibility to answer lingering questions, both in the interest of transparency and building trust. If there is a lack of trust, it is inherently difficult to move forward and fix the problems at hand.

In the case of the TDI investigation, we are confused as to why Fisher — who has been demoted, stripped of his title and forced to move his office to a building across the street from TDI’s main offices — is still a member of the Dartmouth faculty. What, exactly, could someone have done that would merit such a contradictory punishment? If what he did was so bad as to lead to the aforementioned disciplinary actions, why should he still be allowed to interact with Dartmouth faculty and students? And why did the investigation, which focused on just two individuals, last nine months?

The questions associated with the PBS investigation are even more complicated. That investigation, too, took several months. The College’s Title IX investigation of the matter began in the spring of 2017, and the three professors did not officially resign — or “retire” in Heatherton’s case — until June and July 2018 when a College committee recommended that their positions be terminated. The College first publicly confirmed to The Dartmouth on Oct. 25, 2017 that the three professors had been placed on leave for “serious misconduct.”

 One question about this investigation that remains unanswered relates to its origins. After The Dartmouth reported that the three professors were on leave, the New Hampshire attorney general’s office announced it was initiating a criminal investigation of the professors — directly stating that the article in The Dartmouth was the impetus for investigators to open the case. If the College had sufficient evidence of sexual misconduct by the professors to put them on leave, why had it not informed law enforcement officials? 

Nearly a year after the conclusion of the PBS investigation, new questions have arisen. The very existence of the lawsuit, which asserts that College officials for over 16 years were aware of the sexual misconduct allegations against the three professors but did nothing to act on them, raises many questions. In response to an inquiry from The Dartmouth, College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote that the two new accusers added to the lawsuit were never addressed in the College’s Title IX investigation. One of the women alleges that she informed the then-chair of the PBS department of the professors’ conduct in 2004. That raises the question: Why didn’t the College’s investigation include the claims made by these two women?

To be clear, we are not claiming that the College acted inappropriately in the course of conducting the two investigations. We would like to believe that College officials did the best they could to address what are extraordinarily difficult matters. But there is no way for us to know unless the College takes an active role in being more transparent about the nature and conclusions of these investigations. 

The College’s first public statement about the PBS investigation was a message from College President Phil Hanlon on Oct. 31, 2017 — months after the College’s Title IX investigation had begun. The issue here is not that the information itself was kept private, but that the College took so long to inform campus that something was going on. In regards to the TDI investigation, Hanlon has yet to make a public statement to the Dartmouth community explaining what has happened. 

Transparency is more than answering questions when they are asked — it involves taking an active role in addressing concerns the community may have, which is essential so that the Dartmouth community can solve those problems. In a time when the very nature of truth is under attack, transparency on the part of our institutions is more important than ever. We do not demand that the College tell the Dartmouth community every detail it knows about these incidents, but we do urge the College to take initiative and address the lingering questions that these difficult investigations have left us to grapple with.

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