Jurisprudence

The #MeToo Case That Gave Me Hope

A group of women at Dartmouth stood up for what they deserved and won.

An illustration of a crowd of women on Dartmouth's campus.
Franco Zacharzewski

In November 2017, a group of undergrads, graduate students, and postdocs at Dartmouth College went public with accusations that three psychology professors perpetrated “a hostile academic environment in which sexual harassment is normalized.” While the details of the accusations against Paul Whalen, Bill Kelley, and Todd Heatherton weren’t fully disclosed at the time, their seriousness was confirmed when the New Hampshire attorney general announced a criminal investigation into the professors’ behavior.

Amid all the accusations of sexual abuse that emerged that fall—the Dartmouth accusers made their first public statements a month after the New York Times published its first article on Harvey Weinstein—I felt preoccupied by this one in particular. I went to Dartmouth, and I had Whalen for Psych 1, though I’d never thought much about him. (He’d seemed like a charismatic professor, if a little arrogant.) As Slate’s science editor, I worked with my colleague Dan Engber on an investigative piece that revealed how Whalen and his colleagues Kelley and Heatherton allegedly fostered a culture of extreme drinking within Dartmouth’s brain science department. Engber also got an on-the-record account from a woman, Simine Vazire, who said Heatherton had groped her at a conference. (At the time, Heatherton said he did not recall touching Vazire, though he added that “if I touched her as she described, all I can say is that I am profoundly sorry.”) Soon after, other news outlets reported that Heatherton had once allegedly admonished one of his grad students in public while simultaneously groping her breasts. Heatherton denied this claim, and his lawyer told reporters in 2017 that the college had concluded that the incident was “accidental and totally unintentional—not a sexual touching at all.” In a statement sent to Slate through his lawyer last week, Heatherton said that he “categorically denies playing any role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth College.” Neither Whalen nor Kelley has publicly responded to any accusations regarding their behavior at Dartmouth and did not respond to requests to comment for this story.

As these stories emerged, I watched as my alma mater appeared to handle the allegations … reasonably well. First, the college put the professors—all of whom held positions of power in one of Dartmouth’s most prestigious departments—on paid leave without access to campus. Then, eight months after the school’s Title IX investigation became public, a panel of faculty members, having reviewed the results of the inquiry, recommended stripping all three men of tenure and dismissing them. By the summer of 2018, Whalen and Kelley had resigned while Heatherton retired (he was the only one of the three who was old enough to be eligible to do so). While the criminal investigation into the three professors is still ongoing, I was relieved that the school’s own proceeding had been dealt with swiftly and decisively. For Dartmouth, which is still plagued by its legacy as the last Ivy League institution to go coeducational and a painful history of drinking and abuse, this all felt downright radical.

And then, in November 2018, seven women filed a lawsuit against Dartmouth. The suit, a 72-page class action, alleged that the school had been negligent in acting on complaints about these professors and had therefore enabled the gender-based harassment these women had suffered. The most serious accusations made in the lawsuit concern two instances of sexual assault, one allegedly perpetrated by Whalen and one allegedly by Kelley. In one instance, Kelley allegedly rebooked one of his grad student’s flights to an academic conference so she would get there earlier, insisted she share a hotel room with him, and then sexually assaulted her after forcing her to drink heavily (she says she blacked out but that Kelley later told her they had sex). Whalen allegedly forced one of his graduate students to have sex with him after a night of drinking in Hanover, New Hampshire, despite her repeatedly refusing and trying to leave his house; he also allegedly insisted on not wearing a condom and subsequently mocked her medical concerns regarding the incident.

The suit meticulously cataloged the professors’ alleged harassment—drinking, bullying, manipulation, control—forming a clear, disturbing picture of what these women say they had to live through to pursue their careers. It also documented the victims’ struggles to get anyone at Dartmouth to care. In response to complaints, the professors were asked to stop drinking with students. But when they allegedly kept doing it anyway, they faced no consequences. (In Dartmouth’s formal response to the women’s suit, it argued that its responses to allegations of misbehavior had been satisfactory and that it had not been informed of many of the claims until the spring of 2017, at which point the college claims it took decisive action resulting in the professors’ departure.)

Reading all this, I thought back to the accusers’ original claim about a “hostile academic environment.” More than anything else I’ve ever read, this document revealed the discrepancy between what the term hostile environment sounds like—banal, nonspecific HR jargon—and what it actually is: brutal, soul-crushing, impossible to navigate. The complaint also convinced me of something else, something that felt obvious as soon as I realized it. Even as the #MeToo movement has made us unavoidably aware of the ubiquity of gender-based harassment, we’ve spent too much time thinking about how perpetrators can be stopped and how they should be punished (or whether they should be punished at all) and far too little pondering how victims ought to be made whole.

You can see it in the very first stories about Weinstein—the idea of containment, that his victims were mainly coming forward to stop others from being harmed. “Several former employees told me that they were speaking about Weinstein’s alleged behavior now because they hoped to protect women in the future,” Ronan Farrow wrote in the New Yorker. It’s a trope in almost every big story about harassment. “Realizing they were not alone, the women chose to speak out about their experiences in the hopes of protecting others and moving forward,” explained the New York Times, describing the motivations of musician Ryan Adams’ accusers. (Adams issued a blanket denial of the accusations in the Times’ reporting, though he did apologize “to anyone I have ever hurt, however unintentionally.”) “This is not something I would have put myself through if I did not feel morally compelled to do so. I do not want this man to hurt anyone else the way he hurt me,” said a Yale student alleging she’d been sexually harassed by a professor.

I heard something similar in my own reporting, on allegations of sexual harassment against a different Yale faculty member. A woman told me she decided to report law school professor Jed Rubenfeld only after witnessing him acting inappropriately toward a new, younger group of students. “It’s so much easier to be angry on someone else’s behalf,” she told me. (Rubenfeld did not respond to repeated, detailed requests for comment.)

The Dartmouth women started out with that same motivation. As she recounted in the filing, Sasha Brietzke says Heatherton groped her during a karaoke event at an academic conference in March 2017. (In a statement sent via his lawyer, Heatherton denied that this was sexual touching. He added, “my actions at the karaoke bar in Los Angeles on St. Patrick’s Day 2017 were unprofessional, and I deeply regret pulling the graduate student onto my lap.”) Brietzke told her fellow grad student Kristina Rapuano, who says Kelley had been harassing her for years at that point; Rapuano is the woman who alleged that Kelley raped her after rescheduling her conference flight. The women then started reaching out to others in their circle. “A sense of protectiveness came over me,” Brietzke said in an interview. “I really felt like, We have to do something. We’re about to leave soon. There are other first years here who are vulnerable.”

While I had thought the ensuing investigation had unfolded the way it was supposed to, the women describe it very differently. In their complaint, they said that the second alleged sexual assault—the one at Whalen’s house—occurred in part because of Dartmouth’s failure to respond to their initial set of allegations. It was only when the victims reported this second incident that the school hired a Title IX investigator and banned the men from campus. But even after those remedies were put in motion, the women said, Dartmouth didn’t truly address the harms they had experienced. Instead, the women claimed, administrators kept focusing on how difficult the college’s task was. It was unusual for three professors to be investigated at once, school officials allegedly said. Those officials also emphasized that Title IX—the 1972 statute that dictates that discrimination based on sex is illegal at any federally funded institution of higher education—didn’t have clear guidelines around faculty-perpetrated harassment (compared with student-on-student harassment). Brietzke told me the unspoken message the victims received was that, as a result of this unusualness, the women would “have to be patient” and excuse any screw-ups along the way. (In Dartmouth’s response to the complaint, the college stated that it took immediate action once learning of the allegations against the professors and that “Dartmouth took the unprecedented step of seeking to terminate the tenured employment of all three.”)

According to the suit, the Title IX investigator made several errors, most notably sharing confidential information with the professors and closing the investigation without consulting the victims and without conducting a previously planned hearing. (Dartmouth says the women were informed that their allegations would have to be presented to the professors and noted that “administrative errors sometimes can and do happen in virtually all offices.” It said it canceled the planned hearing because the professors had already left the college.) The biggest issue the women had with Dartmouth’s investigation, though, was a conceptual one. The college saw the complaint as narrowly focused on the behavior of three professors, men who, if found to have done what the victims alleged, would be punished. The plaintiffs didn’t see this as a problem confined to these men nor did they think that problem would be totally remedied if the supposed bad apples got removed. They wanted to know who was responsible for the fact that Heatherton, who had been accused of sexual harassment through official channels, had been awarded a prestigious professorship instead of disciplined. They wanted to discuss how all three professors had thrived on campus for so long. They wanted Dartmouth’s administrators to grapple with the harm the victims were still grappling with themselves.

“We’ve asked time and again to have an honest conversation about our experiences,” one of the plaintiffs, Vassiki Chauhan, told me. Instead, they say, they were constantly put off. “We weren’t allowed to have truth and reconciliation,” Brietzke said. The lack of a comprehensive fact-finding process bothered Brietzke given her training as a neuroscientist—she told me that she’d never dream of offering up a solution without first assessing the evidence. “If you don’t understand what the problem was—if you ostensibly don’t know what happened—how can you solve the problem?” she said. Instead, “the general vibe of the [brain science] department,” according to Brietzke, was “we cut the cancer out, and we can move forward.”

The women say the college enlisted them to take up this line of thinking themselves. In advance of a weekend for students who’d been accepted into the department, “we were told to inform the recruits that the three bad apples were gone,” Rapuano told me. The department did ultimately institute some reforms, including creating “inclusivity committees” and a co-mentorship system meant to alleviate the overwhelming power professors have over individual students. (The college noted in its response to the plaintiffs’ complaint that “Dartmouth—and many concerned faculty, staff, and administrators in the Department and elsewhere—are actively pursuing significant steps to ensure that such actions will not recur, to ensure that students have a safe environment in which to learn, research, and grow, and to facilitate a prompt and effective response to any report of inappropriate conduct in the future.”) But the women say that all of this took place without their input and without any acknowledgment or understanding of how the school had failed to rein in the professors’ behavior for years. It was this final breakdown that convinced the women to file their class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth.

The suit accused Dartmouth of violating Title IX by not properly handling initial complaints about the professors’ behavior, setting the stage for future abuse. “These harms directly resulted from Dartmouth’s breach of its duty to protect its students from unwanted sexual harassment and sexual assault and to provide an education and/or workplace free from sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based discrimination,” the suit argued. The plaintiffs requested two remedies. The first was fairly standard for Title IX litigation: They wanted more of a formal say in the reforms Dartmouth was implementing. Their second request was typical for class-action cases but very uncommon in the Title IX context: The suit asked that the women (and anyone else harmed in a similar fashion) be compensated $10 million each for what they went through.

The women’s argument against Dartmouth boiled down to: We came to this institution because we wanted to study psychology. Thanks to the creeps you let run this department, we were denied that opportunity. You did not uphold your end of this bargain, and you owe us for the time we wasted, the education we didn’t receive, and the abuse we were forced to endure. Yes, other people will suffer if these professors aren’t removed. But we’ve already suffered, and you owe us for that.

“I can’t quantify the professional harm that was done,” Brietzke told me. “We came to school to do a specific thing, and we were derailed.” Annemarie Brown, a plaintiff who had already graduated from Dartmouth by the time the allegations were raised, told me that she spent a year in therapy trying to process what had happened to her. Marissa Evans, the one undergraduate participating in the lawsuit, said the stress affected her physically. “I lost 20 pounds and was asked to leave the track team,” she said.
“I lost a whole other aspect of my life.”

Some victims decline to ask for compensation as part of sexual assault or harassment complaints, not wanting to give credence to the smear that women make up these crimes to benefit themselves. A request for policy change is the sort of selfless act we like to see from victims—it’s the natural extension of I don’t want this to happen to anyone else. Asking for money is seen as crude, even selfish. And yet, what else aside from money can help make up for what these women have lost?

What struck me about the Dartmouth case was the pairing of selflessness and self-worth. By demanding action on behalf of others and compensation for themselves, the plaintiffs forced us to hold both victimhood and strength in our heads at the same time.

On Aug. 6, after several weeks of negotiations, Dartmouth and nine plaintiffs jointly announced that they had reached a settlement. (In the months since the suit was first filed, two anonymous women had joined the original seven.) The resolution includes the creation of a settlement class “comprising all students who meet certain criteria and who certify that they endured a hostile environment created by the conduct of the three banished professors.” Dartmouth will put aside $14.4 million toward compensation for these victims.

As Dartmouth’s provost noted in the joint press release, “These current and former students not only brought to light the completely unacceptable behavior of these three individuals in one department, but, through their courage, also led to our launching—and now with their help, expanding—initiatives to address issues of sexual misconduct and power imbalances here, and we hope over time on other campuses as well.” Those initiatives include a commitment from the college to fund programs aimed at prevention and resolution, including expanding the Title IX office and making Title IX training for faculty, staff, postdoc, and graduate students mandatory. And a week after the settlement was reached, Dartmouth publicized its new policy on harassment, which clarifies the process for reporting misbehavior perpetrated by faculty and staff. (The previous policy focused on student perpetrators.)

In other words, the women got what they asked for, minus tens of millions of dollars. More seriously, and profoundly, they received both compensation for the harms they experienced and the right to participate in systemic reform. That is quite a step beyond the professors just losing their jobs.

The resolution is important beyond it being what the plaintiffs deserved. As we continue to learn more about sexual harassment and sexual violence and how they happen, it’s increasingly clear that they’re not merely caused by individual perpetrators—“bad apples”—doing the wrong things. Bad apples get away with bad behavior because they’re enabled by leaders who choose not to investigate or fail to follow up on reprimands. Failure to take action can be costly. It costs the victims, often dearly. Cases like this one show that it could also cost institutions, both financially and reputationally. In a perfect world, powerful people and organizations would do the right things all the time, simply because they’re the right things. But in our world, costs matter to places like Dartmouth. Maybe the risk of such a cost will matter to the next Dartmouth, and to the Dartmouth after that.