Seven women are suing Dartmouth College for sexual assault, harassment and discrimination they say they experienced from three prominent professors who, according to the suit, turned a human behavior research department “into a 21st-century Animal House.”
For over a decade, the professors — Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen — “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated and even raped female students,” according to the court papers, which were filed Thursday in federal court in New Hampshire.
The lawsuit, which seeks $70 million in damages, says this behavior went back as far as 2002, and accuses the college administration of looking the other way for more than 16 years.
Dartmouth, an Ivy League university in Hanover, N.H., announced in October 2017 that it was conducting a sexual misconduct investigation of the men, who were tenured professors in the school’s psychology and brain sciences department. That inquiry concluded that the professors should be stripped of their tenure and lose their jobs. All three were allowed to either resign or retire.
The college did not at the time provide details of the allegations or the findings of its investigation, so the lawsuit provides the first glimpse.
The women say that the professors used their power over their students’ academic careers and future jobs to coerce them into participating in an alcohol- and sex-saturated party culture and to discourage them from complaining.
Kristina Rapuano, one of the six named complainants (the seventh is identified only as Jane Doe), said in an interview on Wednesday that Professor Kelley began harassing her by enlisting her as his drinking buddy, and making his academic support conditional on her cooperation.
In March 2015, Ms. Rapuano said, Professor Kelley raped her during the annual conference of the Cognitive Neuroscience Society in San Francisco. She said that after Professor Kelley encouraged her to go out drinking, she woke up in a daze the next morning and did not remember what had happened. He told her that they had had sex, she said.
He then began pushing her to have sex and then threatening professional retribution when she resisted, the court papers say.
“The way that he operated was he pushed the limits on drinking, doing things that were starting to tear down these professional boundaries,” Ms. Rapuano, 30, said. “Once that boundary is taken down, it’s really hard to re-establish, or I would say impossible.”
Professor Kelley had power over her, she said, because she was working toward her Ph.D. and he could influence her professional future. “This is the person that will provide the academic advising that you need to have enough research under your belt so you can get a job, the person that will help you network to get that job,” Ms. Rapuano said.
In April 2017, Ms. Rapuano joined a group of students who reported sexual misconduct by the three professors to the college. Even after they complained, their lawsuit says, the college encouraged them to continue working with their harassers for four more months.
During that period, Professor Whalen sexually assaulted one of the seven women, Vassiki Chauhan, according to the complaint, filed by the law firms of Douglas, Leonard & Garvey in New Hampshire and Sanford Heisler Sharp in New York.
At least two sexual harassment complaints were made against Mr. Heatherton in 2002, the suit says, and instead of “responding appropriately,” Dartmouth promoted him.
“Kelley, Whalen, and Heatherton all prided themselves on having young and attractive females in their labs,” according to the complaint. “During a lab meeting, Heatherton announced that he found it socially rewarding when women smiled at him.”
None of the former professors could be reached for comment. The New Hampshire attorney general was also investigating misconduct allegations against the professors.
In response to the lawsuit, Justin Anderson, a spokesman for Dartmouth, said the college applauded the women’s courage in coming forward and remained open to resolving their complaints outside the courts.
“However, we respectfully but strongly disagree with the characterizations of Dartmouth’s actions in the complaint and will respond through our own court filings,” Mr. Anderson said in an emailed statement.
Ms. Rapuano said she had left the country for a while in 2016 to get away from Professor Kelley.
Months later, in March 2017, Professor Heatherton groped and sexually harassed another graduate student, Sasha Brietzke, at a conference, according to the complaint.
Hearing about that episode shook Ms. Rapuano. “Someone in the lab that I almost viewed as my academic sister was now also getting hurt,” she said. “I felt almost protective about wanting to end this pattern that was extending across generations. I realized it was going to continue.”
Katharine Q. Seelye contributed reporting.
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