One of the Dartmouth College psychology professors at the center of a criminal investigation into sexual misconduct is accused of groping two women 15 years ago. In one case, college administrators were aware of the accusation, yet soon after gave him a teaching award and promoted him.
Dartmouth College officials and the New Hampshire Attorney General’s Office have said very little about the current allegations against professors Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and Bill Kelley. All three are popular and prolific scientists who have brought millions of dollars in research funding to the school. They have been on paid leave this semester, awaiting the outcome of the investigation.
But a former Dartmouth professor and a graduate student have in recent days recounted two separate allegations of inappropriate touching by Heatherton.
Jennifer Groh, a Duke professor who taught at Dartmouth for nearly a decade, on Wednesday shared a letter on Facebook that she sent college investigators about Heatherton.
In her letter, dated Oct. 14, Groh said a student came to her in 2002 and told her that during a recruiting event earlier that year, Heatherton had touched her breasts, “while stating that she was not doing very well in her work.”
Groh said she informed Dartmouth’s associate dean of faculty about the incident at the time. In her letter she said she never heard about the results of any investigation.
But later in 2002, Heatherton was awarded the Champion International Professorship, which recognizes “members of the Dartmouth faculty whose teaching is true to the highest standards of Dartmouth’s educational mission and whose scholarship has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in their chosen fields.”
Two years later, in 2004, Heatherton became the chairman of the college’s psychological and brain sciences department.
Heatherton could not be reached for comment Wednesday. But his attorney said that Dartmouth investigated the allegations at the time.
The college “determined it was accidental and totally unintentional — not a sexual touching at all, and therefore determined that there was no need for any disciplinary action,” said Julie Moore, an attorney with Employment Practices Group in Wellesley.
Groh said the student didn’t view the touch as accidental.
“The student conveyed to me that she was touched on both breasts with both hands,” Groh said in an e-mail on Wednesday. “She conveyed that she perceived it as inappropriate.”
At the time, the allegation and the school’s handling of the investigation concerned several professors, Groh said. In particular, they worried that with Heatherton’s promotion to department chairman, he would have the power to block promotions of professors who had complained about him. Some professors initiated a grievance process, Groh said in a letter.
Groh said in the letter to Dartmouth that the Heatherton incident was a contributing factor in her decision to leave the college for Duke in 2006.
“I am saddened at the possibility of additional victims subsequent to the 2002 event,” Groh wrote in the letter.
Groh said she decided to share her letter on Facebook after reading a similar allegation of groping by Heatherton from Simine Vazire, a tenured professor of psychology at the University of California Davis.
In an article that appeared earlier this week in the online magazine Slate.com, Vazire said that in 2002 at the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in Georgia, Heatherton reached his hand behind her, and squeezed her buttocks.
Vazire, then a 21-year-old graduate student, said she and Heatherton were standing in a circle with other students and faculty members, but hadn’t been introduced. Vazire didn’t complain to Dartmouth about Heatherton at the time; however, she reached out to the college in mid-October after hearing that it had launched a probe of the professor.
Vazire declined to comment for this story, but said the Slate article was accurate.
In the article, Heatherton said he couldn’t recall touching Vazire at the conference and that he only recently heard about the incident for the first time.
“If I touched her as she described, all I can say is that I am profoundly sorry,” Heatherton told Slate.
Both Vazire and Groh have spoken to the outside investigator Dartmouth has hired to look into the allegations against Heatherton, Whalen, and Kelley.
Dartmouth officials declined to comment on whether they are reviewing how the university handled past complaints against Heatherton.
“We are determined to complete thorough and comprehensive investigations,” said Diana Lawrence, a spokeswoman for the college. “We appreciate hearing from Professor Groh about her experience and encourage anyone with additional information about the allegations to reach out to us, the New Hampshire State Police, or the attorney general’s office.”
Groh said in her letter that she wants Dartmouth to widen the scope of its investigation to include previous allegations.
“I hope that the current investigation will consider not only the present case, but also whether a different approach in 2002 would have prevented it,” Groh wrote.
The following is a copy of the letter Jennifer Groh sent to Dartmouth, as forwarded to the Globe by Groh:
“October 14, 2017
To: Dr. Elizabeth Smith, Dean of Faculty
Dr. Evelynn Ellis, Vice President for Institutional Diversity Equity
RE: Heatherton investigation
Dear Drs Smith and Ellis,
I have recently learned that Todd Heatherton (PBS) is currently being investigated for misconduct. While I do not have knowledge regarding the current case, I would like to be sure you are aware of a previous case involving Heatherton. I have knowledge of this case because I was an assistant professor in PBS at the time.
In the winter/spring of 2002, at a recruiting event for prospective graduate students attended by current students and faculty, Heatherton touched the breasts of his current student [redacted] while stating that she was not doing very well in her work.
[Redacted] recounted this story to me directly, and I reported it to the associate dean (Richard Wright) at the time.
Despite this serious infraction, Heatherton was named the Champion International Professor later that year, and he was subsequently made chair of the PBS department. I was never informed of the results of the investigation, if any.
In the aftermath of these events, [redacting identifying details re: student]. Several faculty were alarmed at the promotion of Heatherton to the role of department chair, and initiated a grievance process led by Michelle Meyers in the Institutional Diversity and Equity office. Of particular concern were the obstacles to promotion raised for women faculty and the possibility that Heatherton could have been aware of the complaints raised against him. These were contributing factors in the departures of a number of faculty (including myself) for other institutions.
I am saddened at the possibility of additional victims subsequent to the 2002 event. I hope that the current investigation will consider not only the present case but also whether a different approach in 2002 would have prevented it. I would appreciate receiving a response at the appropriate time, indicating the outcome of both the present and the previous cases, as well as any others that may have occurred during the intervening years.
Jennifer M. Groh, Ph.D.”