Few Details Emerge in Sexual-Misconduct Investigation of 3 Dartmouth Professors

November 01, 2017

Jim Cole/AP Images
Students walk across the campus green at Dartmouth College, where three professors are under investigation for alleged but unspecified sexual misconduct. Amid feverish speculation but little solid information, a lawyer for one of the faculty members said the inquiry had nothing to do with her client’s research.
It began with a few posters, and quickly became a big story.

Last week posters appeared on the Dartmouth College campus asking what had happened to two psychology professors, Paul Whalen and William Kelley. They weren’t in their offices, and there was no explanation for their absence. Reporters for the student newspaper, The Dartmouth, asked the college’s administration what was going on. They were told that the professors were on paid leave due to "ongoing investigations into allegations of serious misconduct."

At first there was no hint about what kind of misconduct. But whatever it was, it was apparently worrisome enough that their access to the New Hampshire campus had been restricted.

And it wasn’t just Mr. Whalen and Mr. Kelley. A third psychology professor, Todd Heatherton, was added to the serious-misconduct list by the college. Mr. Heatherton, well known among psychologists for his research on self-regulation, has an endowed chair and directs the Center for Social Brain Sciences. He was already on sabbatical, so nobody thought his absence was strange.

In the days that followed, it would emerge that the investigation concerned alleged sexual misconduct. In a campuswide email sent on Tuesday, Dartmouth’s president, Philip J. Hanlon, wrote that an array of law-enforcement officials, including the New Hampshire attorney general’s office and the state police, were looking into the allegations.

"I want to say in the most emphatic way possible that sexual misconduct and harassment are unacceptable and have no place at Dartmouth," Mr. Hanlon wrote.

Any sex-related scandal involving professors at an Ivy League institution is likely to make headlines. But the vague allegations at Dartmouth have taken on extra significance as Hollywood, the news media, and other industries come to grips with their problem of powerful men and sexual misconduct. As the science blogger Neuroskeptic asked on Twitter in reference to Dartmouth: "Is this the start of psychology’s Weinstein scandal?"

It’s hard to say, in part because so little is known about the investigations at Dartmouth.

Because all three professors are psychologists, and all work in cognitive neuroscience — and have written papers together — it seemed possible that the misconduct was related to their research. The New York Times highlighted a 2012 study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, on which Mr. Heatherton and Mr. Kelley were authors.

That study looked at whether cues related to food and sex affect eating habits and sexual behavior. The subjects of an experiment described in the study were 58 freshman women at Dartmouth. In light of the allegations, the once-obscure paper suddenly seemed suspicious, and a number of people on Twitter made their concerns known. "Sickening!" one person commented. "An IRB approved this??" someone else chimed in.

(The Times article didn’t mention that the first author on the paper was Kathryn Demos, an assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at the Brown University Medical School.)

So far none of the three Dartmouth professors have granted interviews. (They did not respond to multiple requests for comment from The Chronicle.) And Dartmouth officials, along with the attorney general’s office, said they could not offer details about an investigation in progress.

The investigation is related to an 'incident that occurred outside of New Hampshire.'
But Mr. Heatherton’s lawyer, Julie Moore, put out a statement late Wednesday that said that the investigation has nothing to do with her client’s research, nor is it connected to Mr. Whalen or Mr. Kelley. It is instead related, the statement said, to an "incident that occurred outside of New Hampshire."

In an earlier statement through the lawyer, Mr. Heatherton denied having had "sexual relations" with any student or violating Dartmouth’s rules.

In response to the new statement, a spokeswoman for Dartmouth, Diana Lawrence, wrote that the college "is focused on completing its own internal investigations and coordinating with law-enforcement officials."

Tom Bartlett is a senior writer who covers science and other things. Follow him on Twitter @tebartl.