NYT: Former PBS chair grew distressed after mentioned in lawsuit

by The Dartmouth Senior Staff | 1/7/20 2:20am

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Dave Bucci was chair of the psychological and brain sciences department from 2015 to 2019.

Source: Courtesy of Dartmouth College

Dave Bucci, a former psychological and brain sciences professor and department chair who died by suicide last October, grew “deeply distressed” after being mentioned several times in a class action sexual misconduct lawsuit filed against the College and fell into the depression he had been treated for years prior, according to a recent report in the New York Times.  

Citing interviews with Bucci’s wife, Katie, some of his closest colleagues, as well as emails Bucci sent at the time, the Times reports that after being mentioned 31 times in the lawsuit, Bucci was shunned by some of his colleagues and was called a “disgusting human being” by a woman at a local store. 

“I don’t know why he took his life that day, and I’ll never know,” Katie Bucci told the Times. “But I know that he wouldn’t have gotten to that point had he not gone through that experience with this lawsuit.”

According to the article, psychiatrists say it is nearly impossible to know for certain why someone would take their own life, and Katie Bucci is unwilling to point the finger at anyone for her husband’s death. 

In 2017, a group of students approached Dave Bucci with allegations of sexual misconduct against three PBS professors — Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen — upon which Bucci notified the administration and the College opened a Title IX investigation. In Oct. 2017, The Dartmouth reported that the three professors had been placed on leave, which prompted the opening of a criminal investigation by the New Hampshire attorney general’s office. 

In the summer of 2018, the three professors had their tenures revoked by the College and were forced to leave the school, but in November of that year, seven former students who had worked with the professors filed a $70 million federal lawsuit alleging that the College had turned a blind eye for years toward accusations of sexual misconduct by the three former professors, whom the plaintiffs allege had turned the department into a “21st century Animal House.”

The plaintiffs’ complaint in the suit alleged that Bucci, who was chair of the department at the time of the investigation and lawsuit, knew about the professors’ actions but did not act sufficiently to protect the victims. The suit also asserts that Bucci called a meeting of the department in which he “disparage[d] the victims and discourage[d] them from pursuing legal action.”

The College denied the plaintiffs’ account of that meeting in a January 2019 court filing, which contested many of the plaintiffs’ claims and asserted that Dartmouth officials had not knowingly permitted the acts of sexual misconduct. 

According to the Times, Bucci was “closely involved” in drafting the response, having been advised by the College’s general counsel and public relations offices that the best way he could address the allegations was through the legal process. The article also notes, however, that part of the reason Bucci had grown distressed was due to his inability to publicly defend himself. 

In an email statement to The Dartmouth, College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote that Bucci was an “exemplary” chair of the PBS department.

“He had Dartmouth’s unqualified support for the principled and sensitive way he responded on behalf of the graduate students who sought him out to report concerns about the behavior of the three former faculty members,” Lawrence wrote. “The entire Dartmouth community mourns the tragic loss of a remarkable colleague, scholar, teacher, and mentor.”

In early May 2019, two additional former students joined as plaintiffs in the lawsuit. In an amended complaint filed by the plaintiffs, one of the students, whose name was kept anonymous in the filing, alleged that Bucci contacted her in October 2017 to inform her of the Title IX investigation and acknowledged that he had been aware of “rumors” about the woman’s sexual relationship with one of the former professors. 

Days later, an organization called the Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence wrote a letter to College President Phil Hanlon urging the College to put the PBS department on receivership and to open a new investigation — demands that were repeated in an additional letter sent a week later by the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault. 

The letter from DCGHSV called for leaders of the PBS department to step down, saying that “while department chairs and deans may claim not to have known about years of harm done to at least nine students, we insist that it was their job to know.” 

Hanlon responded to the letters by urging the groups to “appreciate the work of many concerned administrators, faculty and staff in the PBS department, led by chair Dave Bucci, who are actively pursuing significant measures to ensure that students have a safe environment in which to learn, research and grow.” Meanwhile, dean of the faculty Elizabeth Smith had extended Bucci’s term as head of the department for a fourth year, citing her confidence in his leadership in an email to the faculty. 

Soon after, the College and the plaintiffs in the lawsuit entered into mediation, and the two sides announced a $14 million settlement of the lawsuit in August 2019. The settlement has not yet been granted final approval by the judge in the case.