Dartmouth College has agreed to pay $14 million to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit brought by current and former students who alleged that they were harassed and assaulted by their former professors — resolving a case that has shadowed the campus for two years and brought national attention to the barriers encountered by young female scientists.
The settlement is among the larger payouts by a higher education institution to deal with claims of sexual harassment and a hostile education environment, legal experts said.
“Fourteen million is starting to send a message,” said Christina Mancini, a criminal justice professor at the Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. “It does signal to other universities to take this seriously.”
The New Hampshire college has also agreed to make policy changes and address the obstacles that prevent female students from succeeding in the sciences and female professors from gaining tenure.
The nine women who brought the lawsuit said in a joint statement with Dartmouth that they were “satisfied” with the agreement. They were initially seeking $70 million in damages for what they alleged was a 21st-century “Animal House” at Dartmouth’s nationally recognized psychology and brain sciences department.
“We hope our case sets a precedent for future cases,” Sasha Brietzke, one of the students who filed the lawsuit, wrote in a Twitter message. “I can see my generation of scientists organizing and saying ‘ENOUGH.’ Workplace environments that were accepted in the recent past will not cut it anymore. Our field will thrive if we work to make our culture better for scientists who come after us.”
Dartmouth did not acknowledge any wrongdoing, but officials said the college has in the past two years launched — and now plans to expand — several programs to address sexual misconduct and potential problems that arise out of power imbalances between professors and graduate and undergraduate students.
Dartmouth president Philip Hanlon condemned the behavior of the former professors in a statement, and said they are banned from campus.
“We have learned lessons that we believe will enable us to root out this behavior immediately if it ever threatens our campus community again,” Hanlon said.
The three neuroscience professors, Todd Heatherton, Paul Whalen, and Bill Kelley, retired or resigned in 2018 after Dartmouth threatened to revoke their tenure.
The women said that they were preyed upon by the professors, who allegedly hosted drinking and hot-tub parties with women, openly debated who had the “hottest lab,” and sexually assaulted graduate students, according to the lawsuit.
The women alleged the college failed to protect them. The women, many of them graduate students, said they relied on the professors to advance their scientific and academic careers. Shunning the men’s advances meant losing mentors and research support, they said.
Heatherton has previously apologized for his behavior and said that he acted “unprofessionally while intoxicated.”
Whalen and Kelley have not publicly commented on this case, and previous attempts to reach their attorneys have been unsuccessful.
The professors were not personally named as defendants in the civil lawsuit.
The case resonated with many female scientists across the country who in private message boards and on social media shared their own experiences working as young academics with more established, male professors who created toxic environments.
Soon after the lawsuit was filed in November 2018, hundreds of female scientists volunteered to help the Dartmouth students and any other young scientists with professional advice and research mentorship.
The case also drew attention from New Hampshire’s attorney general, who launched a criminal investigation into the professors’ alleged behavior. The matter is still under review, officials with the attorney general’s office said.
More recently New Hampshire lawmakers and several Democratic presidential hopefuls also took stands in support of the women, some of whom wanted to remain anonymous as the case progressed.
For colleges and universities, the cost of such cases reaches beyond the settlement amount, said Mancini, the VCU professor.
They can suffer a loss of prestige and anger donors and alumni, Mancini said.
For aggrieved students, civil lawsuits are proving to be a valuable avenue to get resolution, even as the current US Department of Education moves to roll back the tough sexual harassment regulations adopted under the Obama administration, Mancini said.
It is difficult to calculate how much colleges generally spend to settle sexual harassment claims, because many agreements are done privately, legal experts said.
The Chronicle of Higher Education in 2017 estimated that colleges spent about $200,000 on average to settle sexual assault lawsuits.
In 2016, the University of Tennessee spent $2.48 million to settle claims with eight women.
More recent blockbuster lawsuits have upped the financial cost to universities.
In June, the University of Southern California agreed to a $215 million class-action settlement to resolve sexual abuse allegations against a former campus gynecologist. But that case potentially involved 17,000 women who could be eligible to receive between $2,500 and $250,000, according to news reports.
Last year, Michigan State University reached a $500 million settlement with sexual assault survivors of Larry Nassar, the former USA Gymnastics national team doctor. The university agreed to spend the money to pay 332 current victims and any future ones.
The Dartmouth settlement is smaller than these high-profile cases involving one serial abuser, said Scott Schneider,a Texas attorney who works on sexual harassment cases.
But Dartmouth’s settlement “is pretty sizable,” Schneider said.
The number of Dartmouth students who could qualify for a settlement remains unclear but is likely to be fewer than 50, according to legal experts.
The size of the individual settlements will be determined later.
Both sides will submit the complete settlement agreement in federal district court on Aug. 20 for the judge’s approval.