HANOVER, N.H. — In Dartmouth College’s close-knit psychology department, the professors were known for their engaging teaching style and their prolific research, which drew attention from the press and millions of dollars from the federal government.
But now the three scientists are at the center of a criminal investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct that have unsettled the small Ivy League institution.
New Hampshire state authorities announced Tuesday that they had launched a criminal investigation into the matter involving the professors. No charges have been filed and it is unclear what the allegations are.
Dartmouth had earlier placed the professors on paid leave and barred them from accessing university property pending its own investigation. The three professors were identified by the college as Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and William Kelley.
Attorneys for Heatherton issued a statement saying he was cooperating with authorities.
“Dr. Heatherton is confident that he has not violated any written policy of Dartmouth, including policies relating to sexual misconduct and sexual harassment. He has engaged in no sexual relations with any student,” the statement said.
E-mails and phone calls to Whalen and Kelley seeking comment were not returned.
Officials from New Hampshire Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald’s office said they have spoken with Dartmouth officials, who promised to assist state investigators with the probe.
“We will go wherever the evidence takes us,” said Jane Young, New Hampshire associate attorney general. “We have no avenues that are off limits. . . . If there are, in fact, victims, they have options. The victims have support.”
The case has snowballed in the past week from a matter that the college was quietly handling internally to one that now involves local and state police. It also adds to the growing number of sexual misconduct and harassment accusations being brought against high-profile professors on college campuses across the country.
“It’s clear that it’s a cultural tipping point,” said David Sanford, a New York attorney who represents several women who have accused professors at Columbia University of sexual harassment and professional retaliation. “I don’t think people fully appreciated that there are serious problems in higher education. There has been a cone of silence. You’re dealing with famous professors, who bring fame to the universities, attract graduate students to the universities, and bring money to the universities.”
In a letter to the Dartmouth community, the college president said school officials continue to pursue their own investigation.
“I want to say in the most emphatic way possible that sexual misconduct and harassment are unacceptable and have no place at Dartmouth,” Philip J. Hanlon, the Dartmouth president, said. “Such acts harm us as individuals and as members of the community.”
Heatherton’s attorneys said the professor has been cooperating with Dartmouth’s inquiry and reached out to the New Hampshire attorney general’s office upon finding out about the criminal investigation through a press release Tuesday.
Heatherton has been away from Dartmouth since July 1 — before he learned of the college’s investigation — on a long-scheduled sabbatical, said Julie Moore, a Wellesley attorney, and Steven Gordon, an attorney in Concord, N.H., in a joint statement.
The attorneys warned against any rush to judgment about Heatherton. They acknowledged that Dartmouth officials previously questioned Heatherton about an “out-of-state incident.” But they said they are unsure whether Dartmouth’s current investigation is related to that inquiry.
Dartmouth has not responded to their questions about the scope of the investigation, Heatherton’s attorneys said. Nor has the college told him that he is considered a threat to campus safety, they said.
“With the College’s knowledge and approval, he has continued to work with, meet with, and mentor his current graduate students and advisees and is grateful for their support through the process,” the attorneys said in a statement.
Students said they learned about the trouble in the university’s psychology department from the school newspaper, on Facebook, or when some of them were suddenly left without a faculty adviser.
The story in the college newspaper, The Dartmouth, was prompted by several posters distributed around campus questioning “Where is Prof. Paul Whalen?” and “Where is Prof. Bill Kelley?”
Initially, the Dartmouth officials said the investigation was about “serious misconduct.”
“It’s really strange,” said Avery Feingold, 22, a Dartmouth senior. Administrative moves by Dartmouth officials often leave students in the dark, Feingold added, as he coached a freshman ultimate frisbee team on Dartmouth’s green on Monday. “It’s gotten to the point, where we get the drill.”
At Moore Hall, where the college’s psychology department is housed, students and faculty on Monday were reluctant to discuss the case. Oversize posters explaining the professors’ recent research was still displayed prominently in the hallways. And undergraduate students carry a psychology textbook written by Heatherton in their backpacks, a sign of his stature there.
The three professors are not only colleagues but have occasionally coauthored research papers together. Together they have received about $9 million in funding from the National Institutes of Health in the past five years, according to unofficial estimates from a database kept by the federal agency.
Heatherton’s research has focused on the failure of self-control and its links to obesity and impulsive sexual behavior. He conducted that study with Kelley. Heatherton has also studied the impact of tobacco and alcohol marketing on adolescents.
Whalen’s work on the amygdala, a set of neurons in the brain, and how it processes fear has drawn attention in the scientific and mainstream media.
And Kelley is known for using humor to enliven his psychology classes, including once using a Hannah Montana video game to teach cognition.
In fact, the Twitter handle for Dartmouth’s Brain Imaging Lab — which often posted photos of Whalen and news out of the college’s psychology department — @dartmouthBIL said it was “Investigating the neurobiology of sex, drugs, and cinnamon rolls.” The Twitter handle has been taken down.Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@
globe.com. John R. Ellement of the Globe staff contributed to this report.