Harassment Probe Reveals Long-Standing Concerns in Dartmouth’s Psychology Department

Jul 2, 2018

In early 2002, Jennifer Groh, then a junior faculty member in Dartmouth's psychology department, had lunch with two of her female colleagues. They shared a disturbing story.

The weekend before, they told Groh, at a graduate student recruiting event at a local bar, a professor in their department had groped one of his students. 

Groh didn't quite know what to do. She'd heard the story only through the grapevine, after all, and was concerned about perpetuating a false rumor. 

Not having a personal relationship with the alleged victim, Groh approached one of her own students with a simple message: I’m available if anyone needs to talk.

Soon, she said, the student she’d heard about approached her privately. She recounted the incident in “solemn terms,” Groh said, and described how the professor had criticized her work while touching her breasts.

This professor was Todd Heatherton, a rising star in Dartmouth's pyschology department and in their field more broadly. Groh filed a report about the incident outside the department, with an associate dean at the college.

But then, to her surprise, she said she received no official follow-up, and no information on whether an investigation had taken place. Nothing seemed to change.

Moore Hall, home to Dartmouth's Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences
Credit Britta Greene / New Hampshire Public Radio

Instead, Heatherton was awarded an endowed chair shortly thereafter, a prestigious position recognizing a valued member of the Dartmouth faculty. The specific title he received, the Champion International Professorship, honors someone “whose teaching is true to the highest standards of Dartmouth's educational mission.”

A couple years later, in 2004, Heatherton was promoted to chair of the department, a position that allowed him to work more directly with higher administration and have greater power over department policy, teaching assignments and hiring decisions.

Heatherton is now gone from Dartmouth, forced out last month in the aftermath of investigations into his conduct. He's one of three professors named in discrimination complaints last year that triggered not just the school's investigations, but also a criminal probe by the state Attorney General's office.

Dartmouth has released few details on the recent complaints and the ultimate findings of its investigator. But incidents like Groh's have raised questions about how long school administrators knew about inappropriate, or even illegal, behavior and why more serious action wasn't taken to prevent future harm.

For Groh, the consequences of Heatherton's behavior -- and his subsequent promotions -- are clear. 

“Once a report has gone forward and everybody knows about it, and you then reward that faculty member, that’s a strong message to the community that nothing is going to be done,” she recounted recently. “You’d better shut up and just keep your head down and do your work.”

Groh left Dartmouth in 2006 for Duke University. She learned last fall of the more recent complaints, and noted that, this time, Dartmouth had hired an external investigator to look into the allegations. 

Groh spoke with that investigator, who corroborated her story of the 2002 incident with several other sources, documenting their accounts in a final report this spring. Sections of that report were reviewed by NHPR. 

“Not a Few Isolated Incidents”

When Heatherton was promoted to lead the psychology department, in 2004, the college’s then-Women’s Resource Center Director Giavanna Munafo was transitioning into a new role in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, which handles sexual discrimination complaints. In that role, she became aware of the incident Groh reported and other ongoing discrimination concerns in the psychology department, she said. 

“It’s very important to think about this not as a few isolated incidents,” Munafo said. “But rather, a whole climate and culture over time that people were aware of beyond Dartmouth. Students got warned about coming here and being in that program.”

Since the recent complaints first surfaced last fall, Dartmouth has taken steps to examine and improve its approach to harassment. The administration launched a new presidential steering committee in January charged with looking at the school's policies and prevention and response.

That committee has now submitted its recommendations to Dartmouth's senior leadership for review, said college spokeswoman Diana Lawrence in a statement. She writes, "We are committed to improving our culture as we seek a safe and inclusive environment for all members of our community."

Munafo, who left her position in the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity in the late 2000s, is one of the leaders of a new independent organization of Dartmouth faculty. She’s preparing a statement on behalf of that group on the school's approach to sexual harassment. 

“The individuals who engaged in these behaviors are the ones that need to suffer the consequences of their actions,” she said. “But we have to look at what allowed that to continue and go on.”

For Groh’s part, she said it’s encouraging that the college ultimately took decisive action. But she’d like Dartmouth to publically account for what she sees as earlier failures to respond, and to recognize the consequences of that history.