Standing Together Against Sexual Violence at Dartmouth

Interview With Dartmouth Feminists

July 27, 2020

In early July, a federal court judge signed off on a $14.4 million class-action settlement between Dartmouth College and more than seventy women who, over sixteen years, were subjected to sexual harassment and assault by three celebrated—and well-funded—neuroscience professors. This #ScienceToo case exposed the culture of gender harassment and sexual violence that thrives when academic advisors hold the power to make or break the careers of young researchers, and when higher-ed institutions permit an academic department to operate as, in the words of the lawsuit’s introduction, a “21st-century Animal House.”

Nancy Welch spoke with four of the plaintiffs—Sasha Brietzke, Vassiki Chauhan, Marissa Evans, and Kristina Rapuano—about the significance of their victory for academic gender justice plus the still necessary project of building movements from below to transform science and the academy.

Thank you for speaking with me, and thank you for holding Dartmouth accountable. Dartmouth was the inspiration for “Animal House,” an undisguised tribute to rape culture. Dartmouth is also ranked at or near the top among the Ivies for students graduating with the least debt and into the highest paying jobs. What connection do you see between these two facts: a college that normalizes rape culture and a college that grooms the next generation of corporate, governmental, and scientific elites?

Sasha: Greek life at Dartmouth is like a religion, and fraternity culture engenders rape culture. Traditionally, partying has been siloed in the fraternity houses, allowing them to control the distribution of alcohol. When national house rules don’t allow sororities to throw their own parties, of course members go to the fraternity houses. From ages eighteen to twenty-two—really vital years in brain development—men are made to feel like they can do anything with impunity. They developed very tight brotherhoods that then connect them to the one percent, getting jobs at prestigious firms without interviewing or having the appropriate credentials because they have the fraternal connection. So patriarchy and capitalism are tightly intertwined at Dartmouth. It’s not a surprise to me that Dartmouth was the last of the Ivies to become co-educational [1972] because those patriarchal roots run so very deep.

Kristina: When I got to campus, what struck me were all the white male undergraduates walking around like they owned the place and were entitled to whatever they want, including claiming ownership over women’s bodies. That sense of entitlement goes hand-in-hand with domestic violence and abuses of power.

Marissa: Actually, there has been a big push for sororities to create female-dominated spaces so we’re not dependent on men to provide alcohol and so women feel safer. And if we experienced mistreatment or sexism or didn’t feel safe in a fraternity’s house, we boycotted them. Yes, there is an Animal House culture that is enacted by these elitist, entitled males, but it’s the institution that tells them they can get away with it. The culture is maintained and perpetuated by the institution. Also, in the classroom, if you are a woman and especially if you are in the sciences, there’s a higher standard you need to meet to be viewed by faculty as the same as your male peers. If we’re not taken seriously in an academic setting, that translates into how we are treated on campus. It should be obvious to everyone, including professors, that we shouldn’t be treated as sex objects. But it isn’t.

At first glance, it appears that the #MeToo movement inspired your suit. Yet, it was months before the Harvey Weinstein story broke that women students collectively reported to Dartmouth’s Title IX office being harassed, degraded, assaulted, and raped as the price for being mentored by Professors Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley, and Paul Whalen. What relationship do you see between the national #MeToo movement and your struggle for a discrimination- and abuse-free academic environment?

Marissa: When you’re fighting an institution like Dartmouth, the odds are stacked against you. So, although #MeToo started after our Title IX investigation, it revived us. It gave us a stage where ears were open and people were listening.

Sasha: I entered graduate school in Fall 2016. Donald Trump was elected president, and I was being met with an overtly sexist lab environment where derogatory comments were made like it was nothing while the president was posting about sexually assaulting women. Then came the Women’s March, the largest turnout of women congregating together and talking about things that hadn’t been talked about before: how women had been held back in their careers because of their gender, violence that you didn’t think to code as violence. All of that was simmering when a lot of us started talking about our collective experience at Dartmouth. I came in with an unusually large female cohort, and so I would say to them, “I’m being asked to go to a meeting at a bar late at night. Is that a normal way to get academic attention?” Having so many new people in the department to say, “No, this isn’t normal,” was also a part of our deciding to band together and start a Title IX investigation.

Vassiki: Something I think a lot about is that the people who have the access to checking in with each other also tend to come from certain identities and know what labs are like before getting into grad school. When you enter an arena where you don’t see yourself represented, you’re even more incentivized to not question how things are done and not feel that option of checking in. There’s a lot of research on how the most vulnerable populations of graduate students are most targeted for sexual harassment: students from religious minorities, international students, women of color, LGBTQIA+ individuals. For me, there was a two-month gap between when I was assaulted and when I made my Title IX complaint. One of those months was spent in denial that I was assaulted, and the second month was accepting it. I thought Kristina would understand and listen to me without judgment, and it turns out she had some similar experiences. That two people who were current graduate students in the same department could have experienced something this outrageous was the final straw in deciding to report.

Kristina:  I was doing a research abroad program which gave me some physical distance and perspective. When I came back, I found a perfect storm: the cultural shift in the conversation because of Trump, women starting to talk, and then the #MeToo movement. Before I had felt like I was an isolated case and I needed to just keep my head down and do science. That’s what we’re told over and over. But then Vassiki talked to me and I was like, “Oh, this isn’t just me. This isn’t an isolated case.”

Marissa: I think it was intentional that we were made to feel isolated. When this started, I’d newly turned nineteen, so I had no experience previously working in a lab under a professor. I would tell my friends “He’s just very friendly” to hide that this was not the normal mentorship I was hoping it would be. I also knew that if an undergraduate comes forward against a tenured professor, I’m the one who would be discredited and whose career would be ruined. But then when I saw multiple graduate students coming forward, I realized it would not be just me. When you see someone above you coming forward—and graduate students are above undergraduates in the power hierarchy—it’s validating.

Vassiki: A lot of graduate students were engaged in a deep process a self-reflection. How did we miss what was happening? Why did it take so long to see it? But it makes me think of this commencement speech and essay by David Foster Wallace called “This Is Water.” The idea is that if you are steeped in a medium, you don’t even notice what you’re existing within.

When Dartmouth finally moved to dismiss these three professors, they thought, “case closed.” What was at stake in saying that’s not enough and in holding the institution culpable? And what was also at stake in pursuing a class-action suit against the college rather than criminal cases?

Vassiki: It is the culture that needs to be fixed. Anything else is like a surgical strike on sexual violence—pointed but not preventing future harm. We thought we needed to come up with an informed system-level critique rather than highlight our individual experiences. As scientists, when something goes wrong, we try to figure out why, and our mental model was to use our experience as an opportunity for learning—an opportunity for us and for Dartmouth and for all of the women who deserve the justice that Dartmouth would have denied.

Marissa: In the end, more than seventy women fell within the class definition—more than seventy women whose educations and careers were harmed. It wasn’t just one mistake, it wasn’t just one woman, and it wasn’t a harm that could be remedied by going after just one perpetrator. There’s a whole system that allowed this to happen and a whole systemic and cultural shift needed to prevent it from happening again.

Kristina: We heard one professor describe it as removing the cancer from your body, and once it’s gone, we’re good. I thought how can you be so oblivious when this is happening in parallel with other highly publicized cases of harassment and assault like the [T. Florian] Jaeger case [in the department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences] at Rochester. It’s not just Dartmouth, it’s not just these three professors, there’s something much more systemic. We tried first to push Dartmouth gently to do the right thing and then realized we would have to escalate if they were going to prevent sexual violence from happening in the future.

Sasha: I don’t want to speak for all of the plaintiffs, but I think the four of us are not in the tradition of carceral feminism. We don’t identify as victims. We don’t think justice comes from putting individuals away for life. We believe that justice for women, trans and cis, comes from taking power and creating working conditions that allow us to thrive. A lot of what we have sought has been about being able to be heard and not be silenced by a society that does not want to hear our truths.

You and other plaintiffs travelled a long, difficult road to reach this court victory—a road that included Dartmouth filing a suit that would have eliminated anonymity protections for sexual violence survivors nationwide and an appalling victim-blaming story in the New York Times. What are some of the features of this settlement that you are celebrating?

Kristina: We demanded a seat at the table and got to communicate with the provost to try to improve the conditions. So that was rewarding. But something I feel especially proud of is that the judge approved an unprecedentedly high service award—$75,000—to compensate us for the labor of pursuing the suit. It is work and should be acknowledged as such. So I’m really proud that our labor was recognized in that way.

Sasha: I’m personally most proud that we settled as a class. Not just that the nine of us put our stories out there so publicly but that we were able to get justice—and money—for many women whose harassment and abuse may have deterred them from continuing in scientific fields. The fact that we stood together as a class at the hearing the other day was deeply moving to me. It affirmed that these three professors had created a culture that negatively impacted dozens of women.

Marissa: I was particularly happy to see Dartmouth required to pay $1.5 million both to a local organization that provides resources for sexual assault survivors and also to improve campus diversity. If there are more women, more people of color, more gender-queer people—more people who look like you—then you are going to feel safer talking to them.

Vassiki: There wasn’t really a precedent for asking for programmatic relief in class-action sexual harassment lawsuits. The fact that we were able to sit across the table from the provost to negotiate the vision we had for a more equitable Dartmouth, including issues we care about outside of gender-based harassment like representation of marginalized identities—those were modest wins but symbolically powerful in setting the precedent that these are things you can ask for. At the same time it is taxing for any human being to work within the courts. You have to put your healing on pause. If I had a family with children who needed my attention, would I have had that privilege of asking for justice? If I was a queer Black woman who was a first-generation academic and if I had a single complaint of egregious rape, would the civil justice system pay attention to me? While we think it is important to set a precedent, we don’t want to suggest that sexual harassment only matters when you settle as a class. Sexual harassment matters every single time it happens—period.

Title IX rule changes championed by Betsy DeVos have just gone into effect that will make it much harder for survivors of sexual harassment and gender discrimination to hold a college or university accountable. There’s also the 2018 report from the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine that found Title IX offices have favored proceduralism and compliance over changing the culture and so have allowed sexual harassment in STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] to flourish. And almost immediately after the federal judge okayed your settlement with Dartmouth, another federal judge rejected the Weinstein class action settlement on grounds that the women harassed and abused did not form a class and must each go it alone in the courts. When it comes to ridding higher education and our society of gender discrimination and sexual violence, how do we insist that existing institutions defend us and what do we do when Title IX offices and the courts can’t—or won’t—deliver?

Vassiki: The proposed Title IX rule changes came out the day after we filed the lawsuit, so this is something we have been keeping an eye on as a collective group. We wrote as plaintiffs a comment and response to the proposed changes, and I have been speaking with organizers from the National Academy of Science, Engineering and Medicine who are identifying institutions whose Title IX coordinators are creative about how they interpret the law and who go beyond what constitutes mere legal compliance.

Marissa: The rule changes just made it ten times harder to do what I’d like to see happen: academic institutions embracing the responsibility to create a safe learning environment. The rule changes shift the concern away from the victim to the potential assaulter. And there’s no appreciation for why there has been a lower standard of proof for a Title IX investigation because the consequence is a reprimand, suspension, or expulsion—not jail. But even before these rule changes, there were problems. I made a report of a student sexual assault, and even though I came forward the next morning with a description and with the time frame, the Title IX office’s response was “Are you sure it wasn’t a dream?” and they didn’t even check who had scanned into my building between four and six a.m. They also told me that I was required to report it to the police and therefore my name would get out. They didn’t tell me I was entitled to a rape kit, to a toxicology screening, to transportation to the hospital. And they didn’t tell me I had the right to anonymity—which matters on a campus where any dent to your academic persona can knock you off your career path.

Sasha: Hopefully now that more and more women are speaking up, it can become less excruciating to come forward. At the same time, there’s other work that’s about changing the power structures of academia in a very radical way. I don’t see that happening through the courts. I also don’t think institutions are going to organically change on their own. I think that change will come from a lot of grassroots activism—people chipping away at the power structures from below instead of just having legislation come down from above. Both are important, but beyond moving the needle, transformative change is going to come from the bottom up.

With those ideas in mind—rescuing Title IX from a narrow compliance focus, the reluctance of institutions to change on their own, and your hopes for the grassroots—can you talk about the case of Maha Hasan Alshawi, the Dartmouth computer science doctoral student who, as we speak, is nearing the end of the second week of a hunger strike to protest the administration’s refusal to investigate her report of sexual harassment and retaliation? What does this case, including how STEM students have rallied in Maha’s defense, suggest about what has and has not changed at Dartmouth?

Marissa: I really admire Maha’s strength and tenacity in insisting that she have a fair and thorough investigation. That is the most basic right, that you be entitled to have your claims investigated, and it’s sad that this still needs to be fought for with such extreme measures. I hope our case set a precedent that if an academic institution is reluctant to acknowledge sexual harassment and assault reports, you have power to go beyond to force them to listen. That graduate students in the sciences are demonstrating for Maha really warms my heart and gives me hope. I’ve seen students protesting student violence and students protesting the administration but never students calling out professors at Dartmouth for their behavior. There’s a lot at stake when you’re challenging someone who’s embedded in the academic institution and who is bringing in money or donations. The institution has to be made to sacrifice that donation because the safety of women and everyone across the gender spectrum is at stake.

Sasha: Maha’s courage and determination is an inspiration—and her struggle has lit a fire in others that has resulted in an aggressive social media campaign and demonstrations throughout Hanover. #Dartmouth Do Better was one of the hashtags, and it points specifically to the need for institutions to do better in supporting the people with the least amount of power: to believe each woman who is brave enough to issue a report, and protect her from retaliation when she does, which signals a change in culture that protects others from future harm. Cultures change when the people with the least amount of power are heard.

You’ve suggested that your challenge is not only to an academic institution like Dartmouth but also to the culture of science and research labs. Tell me more about the transformative changes needed in the sciences and how bottom-up they might be won.

Vassiki: Discrimination means dominance, and that is one of the key issues in STEM fields that creates inequity. We need greater representation—women, people with marginalized identities—at the top and at the bottom.

Kristina: I have been following Science for the People, and I think they are doing a lot of cool stuff in not separating the science from the scientist. I will be a lot more hopeful when scientists come around to combining the political climate with the science they are doing and enforce the overlap in our training.

Vassiki: We are trained to believe that the truths uncovered by what we study are somehow free from the truths about how we live. There is a lack of willingness to engage in the fact that science, and its funding, stem from societal interests. But I think that graduate students are quite aware at this point that science is political. Once you go down the political road, it’s hard to engage in the echo chamber of STEM fields and ignore societal realities. Still, sometimes I fear that science selects for people who dedicate the entirety of their time to the pursuit of science and to a commitment to abstract ideals.

Sasha: In the era of coronavirus, we’re seeing data suggesting that productivity is not equitable between the sexes in the sciences. Women are being drained by labor that they need to perform in the households. So coronavirus is putting a spotlight on a problem that has been happening for years: that women and people of color are asked to do invisible labor that doesn’t allow them to do the research that would get them tenure, so they are pushed out of the academy in that way.

Marissa: Neuroscience circles are small, and doing something so political, painting me as a troublemaker and a “man-hating” feminist, is a knock against my career. For instance, I have not been accepted into a graduate program. But I needed to go forward for the sake of all female and gender-queer students even if it meant I would lose my place in this field. And any cost is greatly outweighed when women contact us and say, “Because of your case, I feel as though I can report my case,” or who come to us for guidance in their Title IX reports or what to do next in the legal process. There’s a flame that’s been ignited. It’s worth it to know that this fight won’t end with us.

Vassiki: This experience for me has been about finding solidarity through trauma. It has allowed me to shift my value system from climbing more rungs of the neoliberal ladder to recognizing the extraordinary resilience of people living through trauma, people whose lives have been fractured and still keep going.

Kristina: There needs to be more of a focus on mental health in these conversations and the barriers to getting mental health care because of the cost in this country. Graduate students don’t make a lot of money, and we’re not afforded, not at Dartmouth, much in the way of campus mental health providers.

Sasha: That points to the need for graduate students to have bargaining power, to improve our material conditions so we can afford things like the dentist and mental healthcare. A union doesn’t solve all the problems, but it’s a step toward giving us the ability to take care of ourselves in a holistic way, through collective solidarity.

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Nancy Welch is Professor of English at the University of Vermont, where she is active in United Academics AFT/AAUP. Her essay “A Semester to Die For” also appeared in Spectre.

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