fb-pixel Skip to main content

After a hunger strike at Dartmouth, an external investigation clears a professor of wrongdoing

Dartmouth students protested in front of the Parkhurst Administration building in a "March for Maha" in support of graduate student Maha Hasan Alshawi last summer. Alshawi initiated a hunger strike against Dartmouth College for their assessments of Title IX sexual misconduct cases.
Dartmouth students protested in front of the Parkhurst Administration building in a "March for Maha" in support of graduate student Maha Hasan Alshawi last summer. Alshawi initiated a hunger strike against Dartmouth College for their assessments of Title IX sexual misconduct cases.Aileen M. Eagleton

A graduate student at Dartmouth, Maha Hasan Alshawi, announced she was going on a hunger strike last summer to pressure the school to investigate her allegation that a professor had sexually harassed her. After a nearly four-week strike, during which she said she had stopped eating and then drinking, the school agreed to launch an external investigation.

Now, attorneys at the law firm Cozen O’Connor have cleared Alberto Quattrini Li, a computer science professor, of wrongdoing, noting that he was out of state when Alshawi said one of the incidents occurred. The investigators, who were hired by Dartmouth, also questioned the “credibility and reliability” of Alshawi’s initial statements, pointing out that Alshawi made a similar allegation against a former professor at the American University in Cairo, but declined to disclose it on the record to investigators.

Advertisement



Dartmouth’s final report on the matter is nearly 100 pages long, with an additional 1,000 pages of evidence, including e-mails, Slack messages, and interview transcripts. The entire report, released April 30, is available to the public upon request. An executive summary said Alshawi participated in 27 hours of interviews, while Li participated in roughly 2.5 hours of interviews.

“By a preponderance of the evidence, the investigators found that Li did not engage in any conduct that would constitute sexual or gender-based harassment or retaliation,” Dartmouth said in a statement. The investigation also found that the university responded to Alshawi’s Title IX complaint appropriately at the time.

Alshawi, who is originally from Bahrain, is no longer a student at Dartmouth and wrote on her Facebook page that she was leaving the US in March. She did not reply to requests for comment from the Globe. Her attorney, Wendy Rogovin, said she could not get in touch with her client and therefore had no comment.

Advertisement



Alshawi had alleged that in the winter of 2019, Li “overtly touched his genitals in my presence on several occasions.” She also said he sought to intimidate her by letting himself into her office without her permission and excluding her from a robotics research trip. The report did not find sufficient evidence to support any of those allegations.

Li provided receipts showing he was out of state during one of the times that Alshawi said he touched his genitals in front of her. He also produced Slack and e-mail messages with Alshawi that “reflect consistently positive and supportive communications,” the report said.

In addition, Li provided a copy of an e-mail in which Alshawi made an allegation against a former professor that directly mirrored the one she made against him. In an e-mail from Alshawi to Li from December 2019 that is included in the report, Alshawi wrote that a former professor at the American University in Cairo had roped another professor into harassing her by “touching his private area inappropriately whenever I go to his office.” Alshawi said that professor “also started to send people after me wherever I go to harass me by touching me inappropriately.”

“We find that Complainant’s near-identical report against her former AUC professor, her decision not to disclose that report to us on the record, and her decision to withhold the email in which she disclosed that report...reflect negatively upon the credibility and reliability of her report,” the investigators wrote.

Advertisement



The investigators wrote that Alshawi and Li had both been offered a chance to read and give feedback on the findings at the end of March; Alshawi did not respond and also did not attend two scheduled Zoom meetings to discuss the final report.

Li also provided more context for some of Alshawi’s other claims. He said he had unlocked the door to Alshawi’s office, which she shared with another graduate student, in order to let her teammate retrieve a shared robot, and that he had not invited her on the research trip partly because she said she was considering leaving the Ph.D. program and wanted to take the winter break to consider her options.

But Alshawi’s hunger strike resonated across campus, particularly among students and alumni who saw her experience as an example of Dartmouth’s broader inability to fairly handle allegations of sexual misconduct.

Even today, some of Alshawi’s core supporters remain skeptical of the fairness of the external investigation, though they fought for it on Alshawi’s behalf.

“Reading this [executive] summary, even if I had not known Maha, it does not feel survivor-centered,” said Sirajum Sandhi, a senior at Dartmouth who served on the Student and Presidential Committee on Sexual Assault and was part of the campaign last summer. “It feels like [Li] already had more credibility coming into the process.”

Sandhi said they had not been in touch with Alshawi since last August. Although Sandhi said they supported Alshawi in her campaign to open an external investigation last summer, Sandhi personally did not ever believe justice would result from one.

Advertisement



Other students who had devoted themselves to Alshawi’s campaign agreed.

“The outcome wasn’t really surprising to me. Time and time again, you see these patterns where the survivor is shamed and blamed, and the man — it’s all about protecting his reputation,” said Aileen Eagleton, a fourth-year graduate student at Dartmouth who organized around Alshawi’s allegations last summer.

Eagleton said that because Dartmouth had chosen the law firm and paid its bills, the investigation was inherently biased. She also questioned why Alshawi had gone through so many more hours of interviews than Li.

She said she was no longer speaking on Alshawi’s behalf, because she had not been in touch with her for a few months.

“I think that she is just trying to move on and start a new life for herself,” Eagleton said, “after what happened here.”


Zoe Greenberg can be reached at zoe.greenberg@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @zoegberg.