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Questions Linger About Sexual Misconduct Investigation at Dartmouth

MattBritt00 via Flickr Creative Commons

Details of a criminal investigation into three professors at Dartmouth College remain unclear. The New Hampshire Attorney General's Office announced the investigation Tuesday after learning from Dartmouth that there had been allegations of sexual misconduct by the professors. The college had announced its own internal investigations last week, but didn't offer details of any allegations.

NHPR's Britta Greene has been following this story and she spoke with host Peter Biello.

So first, what do we know about these three professors?

Their names are Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen. They're all professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth. They study, broadly, how the brain works relative to how we behave, so things like fear and anxiety, self-esteem and addictive behavior. They've all collaborated in the past. Heatherton was briefly the chair of the department, and we know that they're all pretty well-known and respected in the field. Some of their research has involved looking at how the brain processes issues relating to sex and attraction. They've also been involved in projects that use smartphone data to track student behavior. But there's no indication at this point that their research is connected to this investigation. 

So walk me through the timeline here. What do we know about what happened and when? 

So we know very little. I have to say this all started becoming public last week after The Dartmouth, which is the student newspaper, saw posters that were put up in the psychology department that were asking things like 'Where is Professor Whalen?' or 'Where is Professor Kelley?' The newspaper then reached out to the college administration, which then confirmed that it had ongoing investigations into the three, and that it had limited their access to campus. The attorney general's office then said this week that it had seen those news reports and reach out to the college and learned that there were allegations of sexual misconduct. And then the AG's office decided to get involved, launching its own criminal investigation. 

And what have you heard from the professors themselves? 

We've only heard from one, that's Todd Heatherton, and he's spoken only through his attorneys. They're pushing back strongly against any allegations. They say he's never violated any sexual misconduct policies. He's never had sex with any students. They're trying to distance him from the other two names. They say that the college's investigation into him is separate from the other two and that it relates to an incident that happened off campus outside of New Hampshire, though we don't know what that incident is. Heatherton is on sabbatical this year but he says that he's still working with students with the college's approval. 

So it seems like there are still a lot of open questions. 

Right. If we zoom out a bit from the nuts and bolts, there's also this question of Dartmouth's handling of the case. What did or does the college know? When did it find these things out? What has it done so far? You know, we don't know whether the allegations involve a single incident or a pattern, and we don't know how each of these three professors is connected. I'll also say that in New Hampshire, colleges are not legally required to report any allegations involving sexual misconduct to law enforcement unless they involve minors or the elderly. So it's up to the victim to decide whether to go through law enforcement or keep it as an internal matter within the college.

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