The first time Dartmouth neuroscience graduate student Vassiki Chauhan met former professor Bill Kelley, she says, it was after being hit by his car. The impact knocked her down and sent her belongings flying across the street; she later heard that he and his girlfriend (who was allegedly driving) had been drinking earlier that day. A few months later, Kelley suggested Chauhan dress as roadkill for Halloween, and proceeded to call her by that nickname—Roadkill—for the next two years.
That allegation might as well be a metaphor for all the others from the 72-page class-action lawsuit against the trustees of Dartmouth College that was filed Thursday in federal court in New Hampshire. The complaint, made on behalf of Chauhan and six other current and former students, alleges rampant gender discrimination, sexual assault, and sexual harassment perpetrated by three tenured professors in the school’s department of psychological and brain sciences. (One retired under pressure last summer; the other two resigned in the weeks that followed.) If its assertions are accurate, then Kelley and his colleague Paul Whalen in particular have been on a cruel and reckless path for quite some time, without even pausing to look in their rearview mirrors.
I’ve been following this scandal since fall 2017 and have reported on the Dartmouth PBS department’s long history of inappropriate behavior, as well as prior allegations of sexual harassment made against one of these professors (who was subsequently promoted). The claims made in this week’s lawsuit, though, are far more disturbing than anything that’s yet come out.
For one thing, this week’s lawsuit has multiple accusations of rape. The suit alleges, for instance, that Whalen forced Chauhan to engage in nonconsensual intercourse—and refused to wear a condom—after having cajoled her into a night of drinking. The complaint says Chauhan sought out medical attention after this encounter, and that Whalen told her she was being “paranoid” for doing so. At one point, according to the filing, he asked that she meet him at a bar to “celebrate” the results of medical testing she’d decided to pursue following the rape.
Those events are alleged to have occurred several weeks after several of the plaintiffs had reported sexual misconduct by Whalen, Kelley, and the third professor, Todd Heatherton, to Dartmouth’s Title IX office, PBS department chair Dave Bucci, and Director of Graduate Studies Thalia Wheatley. The complaint alleges that no immediate action was taken to protect the graduate students.
Another plaintiff in the suit, Kristina Rapuano, says that Kelley tweaked arrangements for her travel to an academic conference such that she would arrive a day earlier and need to stay in his hotel room. The two went out drinking and ended up having sex that night, the complaint alleges, despite her having been so intoxicated that she could not consent and does not remember what happened. The filing characterizes this as a “sexual assault.”
Beyond these allegations, the plaintiffs describe a pervasive, suffocating culture of harassment and retaliation in the Whalen and Kelley labs. Even incidental details are astonishing. Take the allegation that Kelley hosted students for “tubby time” hot-tub parties at his house, for example; or that he played an “adult content” version of Charades with them while drinking; or that he’d inform his students that he preferred “boobs that have a natural, ski jump shape.” He’s also alleged to have “regularly accessed students’ cell phones without permission to send out inappropriate messages to others;” and to have texted a student instructions to masturbate, along with photos of himself having sex with various people.
Whalen, for his part, is alleged to have trapped a graduate student in his office and tried to force his hands down her pants. He’s also alleged to have told a different student, while staring at her breasts, that it was important for her to put a lot of sunscreen on her chest area. According to the lawsuit, he informed a third female student whom he’d harassed and belittled that he was a “benevolent sexist.”
There are stories of bullying and retaliation when women tried to speak up, too. Students are said to have been called “goody two shoes” and “bitches” when they refused to go out drinking with their professors. Other graduate students say they were ostracized in personal and professional ways for rebuffing sexual advances. Whalen is alleged to have told female graduate students that Dartmouth “protects its male professors” and that a woman in the department who had previously complained of harassment realized that her action “backfired.” She “got what was coming to her, of course,” the lawsuit says, claiming to quote him: “you don’t bite the hand that feeds you.”
The alleged incidents of abuse are made more overwhelming by the degree to which they repeat themselves. As you read through the narrative laid out by the plaintiffs, Kelley and Whalen start to seem like interchangeable characters or generic stand-ins for one another. After a while, the question of which groping and controlling party bro made each demeaning comment and nonconsensual advance fades into the background.
That’s a striking side effect of these women’s decision to speak out in such detail: The sorts of behaviors they allege cause many harms, great and small. An especially pernicious one, I think, results from the way in which these professors are said to have treated their students and mentees like a common pool of targets, rather than as individuals. Kelley is said to have made a spectacle of rating women on his “Papi” scale of hotness, and how much he’d like to “bang” them. The lawsuit claims that Whalen told a student that she was an “8.5 out of 10” (and should “act accordingly”). According to the allegations, these professors turned their female students into data plotted out in one dimension.
By coming forward now, and in this way, the plaintiffs have flipped the script. Now each tells a story for herself, and it’s the men they say are predators—Kelly, Whalen, and also Heatherton—who have been collapsed into a set of laboratory observations. The lawsuit treats these men as specimens for analyzing more expansive claims about systemic sexism and institutional failure. It’s fitting that the ex-professors are not the defendants in this lawsuit, but rather its exhibits.
In this they’ve followed in the footsteps of the high-schoolers who survived the shooting in Parkland, Florida, last February. They’re focused on something bigger than the individuals who treated them so poorly. The lawsuit asks the court to mandate programs, policies, and “remedial action” from Dartmouth in order to remedy the gender discrimination and sexual harassment (as well as $70 million in damages). The plaintiffs are also media-savvy and well-organized, directing press inquiries to their strategic communications firm and laying out their goals for the lawsuit in short video statements on social media. “I’m fighting to demand policies that respect the reputations and careers of victims,” says Chauhan, “and to ensure that the process of reporting is not more traumatizing than the incidents reported.”
For two years, the lawsuit claims, Bill Kelley called this woman “Roadkill.” We know who’s in the driver’s seat now.