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At Dartmouth, a student’s hunger strike over sexual harassment grows perilous

Students protested in front of the administration building at Dartmouth College recently in support of graduate student Maha Hasan Alshawi, who is on a hunger strike after alleging sexual misconduct by a professor.
Students protested in front of the administration building at Dartmouth College recently in support of graduate student Maha Hasan Alshawi, who is on a hunger strike after alleging sexual misconduct by a professor.Aileen M. Eagleton

HANOVER, N.H. — Maha Hasan Alshawi, a graduate student at Dartmouth, took to Facebook in June to describe her frustration with the way the university handled her allegation that a professor had sexually harassed her. By mid-July, she said, Dartmouth had so botched the case that, seeing no other way to compel a fair investigation, she would begin a hunger strike.

That announcement launched a public battle with the university that is now in its fourth week, playing out fiercely on social media, among some alumni, and in the streets of the mostly deserted campus. The stakes have mounted perilously, with Alshawi telling supporters this week that she is no longer drinking anything and is rapidly deteriorating.

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The campaign has forced Dartmouth’s hand, prompting it to abandon its careful protocols and agree to an external investigation it previously said was unnecessary. But perhaps even more significantly, it has revealed the profound distrust that some students and alumni continue to harbor over whether the university can fairly arbitrate allegations of sexual misconduct. Alshawi’s story has been raised by some of her supporters as a symbol of broader negligence.

“This experience of Maha’s is not uncommon at Dartmouth,” said Sirajum Sandhi, a rising senior at the college who served on the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault and is a core supporter.

Alshawi appears to be communicating with media and supporters primarily virtually: She declined to speak with the Globe in person or by phone, corresponding solely from her Dartmouth e-mail address. Both Dartmouth and the local police said she had not disclosed her whereabouts, and supporters said only a few trusted people knew her current location. She has not appeared at public rallies since beginning her strike, and no medical professionals seem to be tracking her. The uncertainty over her health has added to her supporters’ sense of urgency.

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“This is a medical emergency,” said Lisa Talmadge, 60, a retired nurse who joined a protest this week calling for Dartmouth to meet Alshawi’s demands. “They need to give her what she wants and work out the details later, because this kid is going to die.”

Talmadge said she attempted to check in on Alshawi Tuesday morning but was refused at the door. Sandhi described Alshawi as appearing “exhausted and tired and sunken” in a recent video call.

“I feel that I am starving and dying,” said an e-mail sent from Alshawi’s e-mail address to the Globe.

A Dartmouth spokesman said the college communicated with intermediaries and multiple public agencies Wednesday regarding Alshawi’s safety, and remained “deeply concerned.”

A first year PhD student in computer science, Alshawi has been focused on the investigation for months. She alleged that in the winter, a professor in the computer science department “overtly touched his genitals in my presence on several occasions,” according to a letter she wrote to the university, which she shared with the Globe. After telling her professor that she planned to report his harassment, she wrote, another professor retaliated, undermining her work with undergraduates, failing her on an exam, and giving her a “low pass” on her work as a teaching assistant. The university conducted a preliminary review but declined to investigate further.

Dartmouth initially said it had followed procedure when Alshawi brought her complaint forward. Then, in response to Alshawi’s increasingly startling Facebook posts about her health, the university said it would take “the extraordinary measure of engaging an external investigator to conduct another review of her allegations.”

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“The external investigator will contact Ms. Alshawi to explain the process and seek any information she would like to provide,” Dartmouth said in its most recent statement.

But Alshawi and some of her core supporters don’t trust that the investigation will really happen; she announced that until Dartmouth provides her with the name of the investigator and the date the investigation will begin, she will not consume any food or — as of Monday night — any liquid.

Her strike has quickly gained momentum. A petition on her behalf has garnered more than 21,000 signatures online, and supporters have made phone calls to a list of alumni donors. On Tuesday evening, a small group of activists demonstrated outside the home of Dartmouth’s provost, chanting “Date and time!”

“Our demands are still relevant,” said Emma Bippart-Butler, an activist who helped to organize Tuesday’s rally, after learning of Dartmouth’s external investigation. “They didn’t say when, so our mission hasn’t changed.”

Other supporters feel that Alshawi won, and that she could get seriously sick, or worse, if her protest continues.

“It felt like it reached a point where Maha could get the open external investigation she asked for,” said Jennifer Ditano, a Dartmouth graduate student and member of Dartmouth Community against Gender Harassment and Sexual Violence, which issued a statement in support of Alshawi. “To me, it’s disturbing and alarming that now we’ve pivoted and she’s undertaking this next phase” of a thirst strike.

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The case has resonated, students said, partly because of a multi-year class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth involving similar issues. A federal court this summer gave final approval to a $14 million settlement with a group of female students over allegations of sexual assault and harassment by three professors at Dartmouth. When some students read Alshawi’s allegations, they sounded all too familiar.

“I was angry,” said Attiya Khan, a 20-year-old undergraduate who became part of a core group of activists after reading Alshawi’s story on Facebook a few weeks ago. “They should have learned their lesson.”

Even as some students have looked to Alshawi as a defiant actor against a university that has misbehaved, they also fear their support might have caused her campaign to spiral out of control, forcing her to become a symbol at the cost of her well-being.

“It’s constantly in my mind,” said Dorothy Qu, a master’s degree student in the computer science program, who had Alshawi as a teaching assistant this year. Qu believes that Dartmouth should open an external investigation, but she also worries. “What is the most we can do and not still feel complicit in pushing Maha to become this figurehead,” she asked, “if she doesn’t want to be?”


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg. Nick Stoico can be reached at nick.stoico@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @NickStoico.