College agrees to investigate harassment allegations if student ends hunger strike

by Gigi Grigorian | 7/21/20 11:53pm

maha

Students protest in front of the Parkhurst Administration building in a "March for Maha." 

Source: Courtesy of Aileen Eagleton

Updated July 23, 2020 at 11:30 p.m.

Updated July 22, 2020 at 11:02 a.m.

On Monday — seven days after computer science graduate student Maha Hasan Alshawi initiated a hunger strike against the College — Dartmouth announced that it would conduct another review of Alshawi’s claims of sexual misconduct and retaliatory academic action by two computer science professors if she ends her protest and seeks medical attention. 

The first-year Ph.D. student began her hunger strike on July 14, publicly posting on Facebook that she started the strike “because the Title IX office conducted [an] unfair assessment” of her case.

Alshawi alleges that she was sexually harassed by her supervisor, computer science professor Alberto Quattrini Li, and that computer science department chair Prasad Jayanti unfairly gave her a “low pass” for her performance as a teaching assistant in a class after she reported the misconduct. On Facebook, Alshawi wrote that the College’s investigation of her claims “refused to take evidence or information from [her] side” and instead based its conclusions off of “false information” provided by computer science professor Amit Chakrabarti, Jayanti and Quattrini Li.

The College announced in a statement on Monday that it would bring in an external investigator to re-review Alshawi’s case if she ends the hunger strike, provides certification that she has sought medical attention and shows that she is not in danger.

“Dartmouth is prepared to take the extraordinary measure of engaging an external investigator to conduct another review of her allegations,” the statement said, so long as Alshawi cooperates fully and agrees that “the investigator’s findings and any subsequent actions” can be made public.

The statement came as a reversal of an announcement from the College last Thursday, in which Dartmouth stated that Alshawi’s allegations were “carefully reviewed” and that it would therefore not investigate the case further. 

"We have confidence that those policies and processes were fair, reasonable, and thorough, and we communicated our decisions to Maha transparently and comprehensively," the July 16 statement said,  adding that "no further investigation or other action is warranted or appropriate." 

On Tuesday, Alshawi told the Valley News she was working with a lawyer and that they were still negotiating with the College. College spokesperson Diana Lawrence wrote that by “mutual consent,” Alshawi and the College will not comment on the matter. 

Despite the College's offer, however, on Thursday Alshawi said that she was still on her hunger strike. 

Alshawi goes on strike: “I don’t have any other options”

Alshawi alleges that she was sexually harassed by Quattrini Li on two occasions in the fall of 2019. In February, she reported these incidents to the College’s Title IX office. She said that the office then began an initial assessment into her case and determined not to proceed with a full investigation. 

The Title IX office’s website states that a case’s initial assessment “seeks to gather information only to determine whether the [Dartmouth Sexual and Gender-Based Misconduct Policy] applies to the report.” 

According to Alshawi, the Title IX office told her that the harassment should be severe and consistent” in order to launch a full investigation, and that the two incidents she reported were not sufficient to do so.

After weeks of publicly urging the College to investigate her claims, Alshawi says that she decided to go on a hunger strike because she felt that she had no other options. 

“This is the only way that people will listen,” she said. 

Alshawi told her social media following that she would end her hunger strike if her “low pass” grade was changed, or if she was provided a “reasonable explanation” for receiving it.

On Monday, Lawrence said that dean of the Guarini School of Graduate and Advanced Studies Jon Kull ’88 spoke with Jayanti about the rationale for the grade, and added that Kull has provided that information to Alshawi. Alshawi did not respond to requests for comment regarding whether her grade had been updated since her conversation with The Dartmouth on Saturday. 

Alshawi also said she anticipated that the hunger strike would have a detrimental impact on her health.

“I will get very sick in the next couple of days and since I am a very thin person, I might die [within a] few days,” she wrote in her Facebook post announcing the strike. “This hunger strike will cause a permanent disorder to my health especially to my internal organs and my brain cells.”

Alshawi maintained that the Title IX office and Dartmouth administration would be responsible for any physical consequences she faces as a result of her hunger strike “because they can stop [the] injustice but they decided not to.”

A College statement released Thursday said that Alshawi refused to “to accept numerous offers of support resources and medical and mental health assistance,” which the College said it would  “continue to make available.”

Supporters of Alshawi condemned the College’s July 16 statement and Alshawi’s critics for suggesting that her hunger strike was driven by mental illness. 

“They can stop [the] injustice but they decided not to.”

“Some people are painting [Alshawi] in a light of being mentally unstable and that she’s not doing the right thing for her best interest,” chemistry Ph.D. student Aileen Eagleton said. “But [Alshawi] has agency of her own body, and it’s her decision of what is best for her, her health and her life.”

Eagleton added that she thinks Alshawi is “sound of mind” and praised her bravery in speaking out about sexual harassment.

Alshawi said that the College reached out to her family after her hunger strike began, even after asking the College not to do so. Alshawi said her family was “proud” and “supportive” after she explained the purpose of her protest.

Dartmouth community weighs in

Students and community members have taken to social media and to the streets on Alshawi’s behalf, posting graphics and updates and participating in demonstrations around Hanover.

On Thursday, supporters of Alshawi organized a walk-out in front of the Parkhurst Administration building, which houses College President Phil Hanlon’s office and the Title IX office. Eagleton said that the event drew about 30 protesters, including members of the class action sexual harassment lawsuit against the College regarding three former professors in the psychological and brain sciences department.

“[Alshawi] has agency of her own body, and it’s her decision of what is best for her, her health and her life.”

On Friday, organizers held a sit-in in front of Hanlon’s house, which also drew about 30 people, according to Eagleton, and on Saturday, about 20 people participated in a march around campus and in downtown Hanover. While passing by diners at Hanover restaurants, protesters chanted “Maha is hungry too,” in reference to Alshawi’s hunger strike. 

Protesters also taped signs on the doors of Parkhurst and on the signs for parking spots outside the building. A sign that said “Justice for Maha,” “believe survivors” and “Dartmouth do better” was taped to Hanlon’s parking spot. Eagleton said it was taken down by the following day. 

Sirajum Sandhi ’21, who made infographics about Alshawi that have been liked and shared hundreds of times across social media platforms, said they sought not to speak for Alshawi but instead to “amplify her voice.” 

An online petition in support of Alshawi had over 10,000 signatures as of press time.

Students and alumni have also launched email campaigns, contacting Hanlon and Title IX coordinator Kristi Clemens to advocate for Alshawi.

Meanwhile, computer science department professor and chair Devin Balkcom took to the department email list on Thursday, writing to students and faculty that he “[has] the highest confidence in the honesty, professionalism and kindness of the faculty members who have been named in discussions on social media.”

He added that he “[is] aware of no evidence that casts any shadow on them.”

Alshawi said that she has not determined whether to remain in her Ph.D. program at the College. She took classes through the spring quarter, and she is taking this summer as a leave term. 

Clemens and Kull could not be reached for comment. An automatic response from Clemens’ email account said that she is out of the office until Monday. Quattrini Li and Jayanti directed requests to comment to the College’s office of communications.

This story will be updated as more information becomes available.

Correction appended (July 23, 2020): A previous version of this article incorrectly used she/her pronouns for Sandhi. The article has been updated to reflect their use of they/them pronouns.