A week after seven current and former psychology students filed a lawsuit alleging that Dartmouth College failed to protect them from a culture of sexual harassment and assault, the case has galvanized female scientists and sparked grass-roots activism.
More than 250 academics from Boston to Berlin have in the past week signed on to an effort to offer mentorship and professional advice to the Dartmouth women and any young scientists who feel they are working in toxic environments. People have donated to the recently established nonprofit MeTooSTEM, aimed at addressing sexual harassment in the math and science fields, in the name of the “Dartmouth7.” And on Twitter and Facebook, academics are discussing how to create safer environments for budding scientists on college campuses.
“It really shows the community won’t stand for that kind of behavior,” said Lauren Atlas, a tenure-track investigator at the National Institutes of Health.
Hours after the lawsuit was filed last week, Atlas reached out to her personal network and asked for volunteers in the scientific community to help the women in the Dartmouth case and others facing similar harassment from their professors and mentors. Professors at universities from Harvard to McGill in Montreal and data scientists at companies such as Uber Technologies and online retailer Wayfair Inc. have volunteered to give advice about graduate schools and job searches and offered to read manuscript drafts.
Atlas said she visited Dartmouth and had friends who went there for their doctoral studies and knew that students faced pressure to socialize with their advisers to get ahead.
“I kind of always felt that they had to navigate something beyond their science, and that didn’t feel fair to me,” Atlas said. “Success requires a network. That becomes really difficult when you’re in a toxic environment and your formal advisers can’t be relied upon.”
According to the class-action lawsuit, three former neuroscience professors at Dartmouth groped female students in plain sight, hosted drinking and hot tub parties with students, openly debated who had the “hottest lab,” and allegedly sexually assaulted the students they were supposed to be training.
“These professors leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated, and even raped female students,” the lawsuit alleges.
The professors, Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and William Kelley, were influential in Dartmouth’s brain science department for the past two decades and exercised tremendous control over their students’ academic careers, delaying exams, withholding advisory meetings, and threatening the research and funding of women who shunned their advances, according to the lawsuit and the six students named in court documents. One of the plaintiffs is listed as “Jane Doe.”
All three professors left Dartmouth earlier this year. Heatherton retired. Whalen and Kelley resigned.
The students allege that administrators at the Ivy League college in Hanover, N.H., should have done more to police this behavior and had received previous sexual harassment complaints against two of the three professors.
The students are seeking $70 million in damages.
Dartmouth has defended its handling of the case, which drew national attention last year when news reports surfaced that the college had launched an investigation into the three professors and that the New Hampshire attorney general had opened a criminal probe into their alleged behavior.
In a letter to the Dartmouth community last week, Dartmouth president Philip J. Hanlon said the college took “unprecedented” steps and was prepared to revoke the professors’ tenure.
“We conducted a rigorous, thorough, and fair review of the allegations,” Hanlon wrote in the letter that disputed the lawsuit’s characterization of Dartmouth’s response.
But in interviews last week, the women named in the suit said that Dartmouth has failed to address the broader culture at the college that allowed the alleged behavior to thrive.
Dartmouth isn’t alone, critics say. Academia in general has often been slow to address the problems of sexual harassment, said BethAnn McLaughlin, an assistant professor of neurology and pharmacology at Vanderbilt University who started MeTooStem earlier this year.
The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in a sweeping study found that sexual harassment was pervasive in the medical and engineering fields where undergraduate and graduate students are more likely to be exposed to inappropriate behavior from faculty or staff than their peers in non-STEM fields.
The University of Rochester’s president, Joel Seligman, resigned earlier this year over that school’s handling of sexual misconduct accusations against a science professor.
Last year, Boston University found evidence that a well-known geologist sexually harassed a graduate student almost two decades ago while on an isolated field expedition in Antarctica.
In October 2015, astronomer Geoff Marcy resigned from University of California Berkeley, after a story in BuzzFeed revealed that he had repeatedly violated the school’s sexual harassment policies without facing sanctions.
But the Dartmouth case has resonated with so many in the sciences because “this idea that we are not doing any better for the next generation is really powerful and really terrible,” McLaughlin said.
MeTooSTEM was formed about a month ago to advise scientists dealing with sexual harassment at their labs, schools, and workplaces. McLaughlin has also been pushing federal agencies and professional groups to revoke grants and awards from those found guilty of sexual misconduct.
The organization has raised more than $67,800 in the past month, mostly from donations of less than $100, McLaughlin said.
The organization got additional attention this past week, when several of the women suing Dartmouth encouraged supporters on social media to donate to the cause.
These grass-roots efforts are necessary because institutions, from colleges and universities to federal agencies that fund research, are falling short in protecting students, she said.
The Dartmouth lawsuit has highlighted the power that professors can have over their graduate students and the shortcomings of Title IX policies designed to address sexual harassment, scientists said.
For example, even after students complained to Dartmouth about the professors in April 2017, college administrators encouraged the students to work with these men to avoid retaliation. That meant the women had to continue to endure the same harassment they had complained about, according to the lawsuit.
The Dartmouth students “have made a change and it’s going to be long lasting,” McLaughlin said.Deirdre Fernandes can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fernandesglobe.