Female students in Dartmouth College’s psychology department have filed a lawsuit alleging that officials of the New Hampshire school didn’t take appropriate measures to address sexual harassment, misconduct and sexual assault by three tenured professors.

The seven plaintiffs—most of whom were in the doctoral program—alleged in their class-action complaint that male professors hired lab assistants based on their looks and competed to have the “hottest lab.”

The plaintiffs also alleged that the professors held lab meetings at bars, invited students to “hot-tub parties” at their homes and encouraged students to use cocaine during classes on addiction to demonstrate the effects of the drug.

The plaintiffs said students who participated in these activities were afforded more opportunities for advancement and that refusing to participate could negatively impact their careers. They are seeking $70 million in damages

In a letter to the college community, Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon said school officials “applaud the courage displayed by members of [their] community … who brought the misconduct allegations to Dartmouth’s attention last year.” He said the school is open to “a fair resolution” of the claims through an alternative dispute-resolution process such as arbitration or mediation rather than through a lawsuit in court.

Policy Changes

The students want the school to make updates to institutional policies and procedures that will respect the reputations and careers of people who come forward with claims, said Vassiki Chauhan, a plaintiff in the case and a current Dartmouth Ph.D. student.

The plaintiffs “want to foster a community of support for individuals who come forward in the future and to ensure that reporting on sexual predators does not amount to detonation of one’s scientific career,” she said.

[SHRM members-only sample policy: Anti-Harassment Policy and Complaint Procedure]

The case was brought under Title IX of the of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibits sex discrimination in federally funded education programs. Although the professors were removed from their positions in 2017, the plaintiffs claim that college officials “willfully ignored more than a decade of widespread sexual harassment” and acted only after student activists brought media attention to the issue.

“This class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth puts the trustees on notice of their responsibility to implement significant, systematic reforms before other female students are … impacted,” said David Sanford, an attorney with Sanford Heisler Sharp, a law firm in New York City that represents the plaintiffs.

Support Services

Dartmouth “failed in its responsibility to protect its female students” when it didn’t adequately respond to the claims, said Nicole Wiitala, who is also an attorney with Sanford Heisler Sharp.

Hanlon disagreed. He noted in his letter that the professors were fired after the claims were investigated and the school concluded that they engaged in sexual misconduct. “We took unprecedented steps toward revoking their tenure and terminating their employment,” he said. Furthermore, the professors are banned from visiting the campus or attending any Dartmouth-sponsored events.

He said the school’s leadership team is dedicated to maintaining a safe and inclusive campus for all members of its community. The school offers support services to its students and employees, which include a crisis hotline, a counseling center and an employee assistance program.
Dartmouth also established a committee to review policies and procedures on sexual-misconduct response, prevention, education and accountability, according to Hanlon.The school plans to roll out a comprehensive training program.

“At Dartmouth, we remain committed to improving our culture as we work to make our community the best it can be,” he said.

[Visit SHRM’s resource page on workplace harassment.]

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