Betsy DeVos did exactly as expected last week when she released a sweeping proposal to strengthen protections for people accused of sexual misconduct on college campuses. But for seven women at Dartmouth College, her timing was ironic, at best: The announcement came just one day after they filed a $70 million class-action lawsuit against the university for turning a blind eye to rampant sexual harassment and assault on campus.
“It’s kind of poetic that these kinds of things are happening at the same time,” said Vassiki Chauhan, a graduate student at Dartmouth, and one of the plaintiffs accusing the school of enabling three male professors to transform a research department “into a 21st-century Animal House,” according to the lawsuit.
In the 72-page complaint, which was filed in federal court in New Hampshire, the plaintiffs say that Dartmouth professors Todd Heatherton, William Kelley, and Paul Whalen “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated, and even raped female students." All three men were tenured professors working in the school’s Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences.
Title IX bans sex discrimination in educational settings receiving federal funding, but how colleges interpret those rules depends on the administration enforcing them. Under DeVos’ new proposal, the definition of on-campus sexual harassment would not only be narrower, but the requirements around reporting it would also be stricter. Lawyers or advisors would be also permitted to cross-examine the accused or accusing student during live hearings, and the hearings would maintain the presumption of innocence. The public has 60 days from Friday to comment on the proposal, before it becomes finalized.
It was DeVos' proposed rule that Title IX protections be changed to apply only to actions that take place within a school’s program or activity that left Chauhan feeling particularly “aghast.” Chuahan says she fears it will make it more difficult for victims to hold people accountable for sexual harassment or assault that happens off-campus.
“It would be interesting to examine our experiences in light of Betsy DeVos’ policy proposals and how hard it would have been to come forward,” Chauhan said. “It just frightens me about how much harder it’s going to be for victims of sexaul assualt to come forward now.”
Another plaintiff, Marissa Evans, concurred, pointing out that graduate students are especially likely to spend more time off-campus. For her, DeVos’ actions are yet another sign of powerful individuals’ attempts to tamp down on the rise of the #MeToo movement.
“It gives us even more of an obligation, even more of a drive to keep pursuing and doing what we’re doing,” said Evans, who left a graduate program at University of Southern California in order to commit more fully to pursuing the lawsuit. “If we have one ounce of self doubt or apathy, things are not gonna change.”
Allegations of sexual misconduct within Dartmouth’s Department of Psychology and Brain Sciences first arose as early as 2002, when two sexual misconduct complaints about Heatherton were reported to Dartmouth’s administration, according to the lawsuit. Nonetheless, Heatherton was promoted shortly thereafter. Another complaint was made in 2005, naming both Heatherton and Kelley, but neither professor was disciplined, according to the lawsuit.
“I really knew that I was doing the right thing for sure when I saw all the stories woven together in a first draft,” said Sasha Brietzke, another graduate student and researcher who alleges in the lawsuit Heatherton once groped her butt and that Kelly frequently made “inappropriate and objectifying” comments about her looks.
“When you look at it kind from a bird eye’s view, it becomes very crystal clear,” Brietzke said. “It’s just really clear that the culture was completely toxic, that we were embedded in this completely this boys’ club, toxic masculinity-infused culture that was it felt inescapable at times for many women.”
In a statement, Dartmouth said that it had taken “unprecedented steps” in revoking the professors’ tenure, ending their employment, and banning them from all Dartmouth events. Whalen and Kelley have resigned, and Heatherton retired.
“We applaud the courage displayed by members of our community within the department who brought the misconduct allegations to Dartmouth's attention last year. And we remain open to a fair resolution of the students' claims through an alternative to the court process,” the university’s statement continued. “However, we respectfully, but strongly, disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth's actions in the complaint and will respond through our own court filings.”
Kristina Rapuano, a Ph.D. student and teaching assistant, first contacted a provost at Dartmouth in January 2017 to complain about sexual harassment at the school, according to the lawsuit. When nothing happened, Rapuano and a group of other students banded together to file a Title IX complaint against three three professors. Once again, they say, Dartmouth failed to act quickly enough.
A few weeks after the complaint was filed, the lawsuit says, Whalen pressured Chauhan, who was then working as his teaching assistant, into drinking several drinks before suggesting she go home with him. Each time Chauhan tried to leave, Whalen stopped her and, eventually, sexually assaulted her, the lawsuit alleges. When Chauhan asked Whalen to at least use protection, Whalen allegedly laughed and said, “That is one thing I am not going to do.”
Chauhan later got medical tests performed, according to the lawsuit, and she says Whalen asked her if she wanted to get drinks to “celebrate” the results coming back.
Of the three professors at the center of the lawsuit, Heatherton appears to be the only one who’s spoken publicly about the allegations. He denied to the New York Times that he’d helped create a “toxic environment” and apologized for any behavior that had been seen as sexual, which he said had been taken out of context. The Times could not reach Whalen and Kelley for comment, and a Dartmouth official told VICE News she did not know how to best contact them.
Chauhan, Evans, and Brietzke say they are all prepared to sacrifice years to pursuing the lawsuit, if necessary, and they likely will: News of the more recent allegations against Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen first broke in late 2017. Last October, the New Hampshire attorney general started investigating the allegations, according to the lawsuit.
“We still hold our convictions despite what the government might be saying, and despite Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court,” Chauhan said. “We still think it’s important to fight the fight.”
Cover image: Baker-Berry Library, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. (Photo by: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)