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Dartmouth president defends handling of allegations

Jim Cole/Associated Press/file 2012

Students walked across the Dartmouth College campus green in Hanover, N.H.

By Globe Staff 

Dartmouth College students and New Hampshire law enforcement authorities learned that three psychology professors were under investigation for sexual misconduct only after a seven-sentence article appeared in the college newspaper last month, drawing criticism that the Ivy League school had mishandled the case.

On Friday, Dartmouth president Phil Hanlon defended the college’s response and reason for keeping the matter confidential.

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In an e-mail to the Dartmouth community, Hanlon said college officials encourage anyone making allegations of sexual misconduct to notify law enforcement. But if they opt against going to the police, the college must respect their confidentiality, unless there is an imminent danger, Hanlon said.

“If they decline to pursue that option, we take very seriously our legal and ethical obligation to respect their wishes,” Hanlon said. “We are deeply troubled by these allegations. We take these investigations seriously.”

Dartmouth brain scientists Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and Bill Kelley are at the center of a criminal probe launched two weeks ago by the New Hampshire attorney general’s office. New Hampshire authorities opened the investigation after reading a story about the allegations of “serious misconduct” against the professors in the college newspaper, The Dartmouth. Law enforcement officials at the time said since the allegations involved potentially criminal behavior, they needed to get involved.

On Friday, Jane Young, New Hampshire associate attorney general, declined to comment on whether Dartmouth should have informed authorities earlier of the allegations.

So far, neither law enforcement officials nor the college has specified what the allegations against the professors are.

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New Hampshire law requires that sexual assault or abuse of children under 18 years of age and the elderly be reported to the appropriate social service agencies. However, there are no state laws requiring the reporting of the allegations of sexual assault against those over 18 years old.

All three professors worked at Dartmouth’s Psychological and Brain Sciences Department and co-wrote research papers together.

The college has placed Whalen and Kelley on paid leave. Heatherton is on long-scheduled sabbatical. Dartmouth has restricted their access to campus. Whalen and Kelley are allowed to have contact with students by electronic means, although it is subject to oversight by college administrators, a Dartmouth spokeswoman said.

Heatherton has continued to work with and meet with his current graduate students.

Heatherton was spending his sabbatical as a visiting scholar at New York University, beginning in July. But the day after the story appeared in The Dartmouth, NYU and Heatherton “by mutual agreement,” ended the relationship, said John Beckman, a NYU spokesman.

Dartmouth officials have said that they have received multiple, separate allegations of sexual misconduct by the three professors but have released few details about its own investigation into the complaints.

But the lack of information has spurred rumors on and off campus.

On Friday, Hanlon said that while the professors were in the same department and collaborated on their research, there is no indication that they violated legal requirements or ethical standards in their treatment of human study subjects. Among the research the professors did were studies on the failure of self-control and its links to impulsive sexual behavior.

Hanlon said that the college has hired an outside investigator to conduct its own review of the allegations. Dartmouth officials declined to name the independent investigator it had hired.

“We are determined to complete these investigations, wherever they may lead, and the entire process as quickly as possible,” Hanlon said. “But we will not sacrifice fairness or rigor for speed.”


Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at deirdre.fernandes@ globe.com.