By Douglas Belkin
Seven current and former Dartmouth College students filed a lawsuit in federal court against the Ivy League school on Thursday, alleging it ignored an “Animal House” atmosphere created by three professors in the school’s department of psychology and brain sciences.
The lawsuit, which seeks $70 million in damages, claims the professors “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated and raped female students.” It alleges the professors conducted meetings at bars, invited students to late-night hot tub parties in their homes and invited undergraduate students to use cocaine during class.
The professors involved resigned from the Hanover, N.H., school last summer at Dartmouth’s request. The New Hampshire Attorney General is conducting a separate investigation.
In a press release, Dartmouth said it applauded the women’s courage for coming forward but disagreed with the characterizations of the school’s actions and will respond through court filings.
Due to the misconduct it found earlier this year by the three faculty members, the school said Thursday it took “unprecedented steps toward revoking their tenure and terminating their employment.” The professors “are no longer at Dartmouth and remain banned from our campus and from attending all Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where the events are held.”
The suit alleges the behavior started as far back as 2002 and the school “did nothing and ignored” students’ complaints. In April of 2017, a group of female graduate students contacted Dartmouth’s Title IX office and reported in detail the behavior of the professors. The suit alleges the school again did nothing and the sexual harassment continued. Over the next several months, at least 27 complainants came forward, the suit says.
“This lawsuit is the only means these women have to remedy the College’s past wrongs and ensure the institution implements meaningful reforms,” said Deborah Marcuse, an attorney representing the women.
In October 2017, Dartmouth disclosed that a Title IX investigation was under way. At the end of the month, the New Hampshire Attorney General launched its own probe and Dartmouth later hired an outside attorney to conduct its own inquiry.
Last July, Dartmouth closed its investigation and the three professors left the school.
The lawsuit provides the first details into the allegations. It alleges the professors, who had power over their students’ academic careers, threatened retaliation if the students didn’t have sex with them.
Two of the professors, Paul Whalen and William Michael Kelley, didn’t return calls seeking comment.
A third, Todd Heatherton, replied through his attorney Thursday, saying he “categorically denies playing any role in creating a toxic environment at Dartmouth College.” The “specific allegations in the lawsuit predominantly involve the other professors and their relationships with students. None of the complaining parties were his graduate students. He is disturbed by the graphic allegations,” he said.
“This power dynamic is completely and totally medieval,” said Anne Marie Brown, one of the plaintiffs. Professors “have a unilateral sense of control, they are the only guys you work for, the only people writing letters of recommendation.”
Sexual harassment and abuse cases have cost U.S. schools hundreds of millions of dollars. Last month, the University of Southern California announced a tentative agreement on a $215 million class-action settlement of claims involving alleged sexual harassment by a gynecologist who treated hundreds of students over decades.
In May, Michigan State University announced a $500 million settlement with the sexual abuse victims of a school doctor who treated hundreds of gymnasts.