In a vociferous rebuke of its former employees, Dartmouth College on Tuesday responded to a sexual harassment lawsuit from seven female students by acknowledging that many of their allegations were true and praising the women’s courage in coming forward.
In its first answer to the $70 million civil lawsuit filed in federal court in November, the Ivy League institution wrote that top school administrators “now understand that an unacceptable environment involving excess alcohol consumption, an inappropriate level of fraternization, and inappropriate personal comments” existed for several years in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.
Dartmouth’s lawyers also acknowledged that a Title IX investigator the school hired to look into the women’s claims in 2017 “credited” plaintiff Vassiki Chauhan’s accusation that former professor Paul Whalen raped her weeks after a group of students had complained to administrators about him.
But the school also distanced itself from the assaults and harassment allegedly perpetrated by Whalen and former psychology professors Todd Heatherton and William Kelley, who all either resigned or retired in the wake of the allegations.
“Dartmouth does not speak for, and has no intention of speaking in defense of, the former professors,” the school’s lawyers wrote. “If they acted as alleged, they did so completely outside the scope of their employment and in violation of Dartmouth’s policies and core values.”
The seven plaintiffs in the case — current and former female students in the brain sciences department — allege in their lawsuit and in interviews that the school failed to protect them from the professors’ predatory behavior and that administrators delayed taking any action against the men, at one point instructing a group of students who had filed internal complaints to continue working with Whalen, Heatherton and Kelley.
But Dartmouth rejected those claims in its response, saying that it “promptly addressed” the earliest reports of abuse, dating back more than a decade. It also claimed that the delays the women complained about “resulted from their own requests for anonymity,” the amount of time it took for the Title IX investigator to interview more than 50 witnesses and review thousands of pages of documents, and adherence to “procedural safeguards” once the school decided to terminate the professors.
“Dartmouth had no knowledge of the misconduct that the students reported in April 2017 until they came forward with that report,” officials wrote in a statement on the school’s website. “Contrary to the allegations in the lawsuit, upon learning of the students’ concerns, Dartmouth promptly conducted a rigorous and objective review.”
Lawyers for the plaintiffs seized on what the college admitted, and what it did not.
“Dartmouth’s 85-page answer includes a laundry list of crucial admissions: that complaints about inappropriate conduct by (Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences) professors spanned more than a decade; that the college considered them ‘isolated’ incidents and chose to address them in isolation; and that high-level administrators knew about inappropriate conduct by the professors,” Deborah Marcuse, an attorney with the firm Sanford Heisler Sharp and lead counsel in the case, wrote in a statement. “Even now, faced with the reality of a toxic environment Dartmouth fostered for multiple generations of female students, Dartmouth considers itself blameless. A jury will certainly take a different view.”
A Dartmouth official previously said in an email to the Union Leader that the school "did not force" the three professors at the center of the scandal to resign or retire. Heatherton retired and Whalen and Kelley resigned, all before the conclusion of their disciplinary processes. In its response to the sexual harassment lawsuit, the school wrote that it took “unprecedented” steps to terminate their employment.
It also highlighted its on-campus response to the lawsuit, which drew national media attention to the Hanover campus and to larger problems of sexual harassment in academia and STEM fields at large.
“The burden shouldn’t be on victims to request this type of change,” Andrea Courtney, one of the plaintiffs, told the Union Leader in November. “But we, as a group and individuals, feel an obligation to do this for future women scientists. This behavior is intolerable and it can’t be allowed to continue to happen.”
Earlier this month, Dartmouth unveiled a new plan to overhaul its sexual misconduct policies — by creating a single set of rules for faculty, students, and staff — and review practices in each of its academic departments.
School officials said that an external advisory committee had been set up to review Dartmouth’s progress on its anti-harassment initiatives and that the committee would eventually release a public report.