Dartmouth College agreed to pay $14 million (£12 million) to settle a lawsuit by nine women who alleged they were raped, sexually assaulted and harassed by three of their professors.
The Ivy League institution, while admitting no liability, also praised the perseverance of the women in pursuing their case, and agreed to implement and fund steps aimed at preventing such attacks in the future.
The $14 million payout represents one of the larger such figures in US higher education, which like much of US society is being forced to confront practices that have long persisted with tacit official sanction.
In the Dartmouth case, the professors allegedly groped and sent sexual text messages to the women, and pressured them to drink heavily, to talk about their bodies and sex lives, and to attend non-academic gatherings such as a hot tub party at the home of one professor.
The professors held out their academic and professional power over the women as a means of gaining compliance, the women said in their lawsuit, filed last November in federal court.
Dartmouth’s president, Philip Hanlon, announced the settlement with a statement of contrition. “Through this process,” he said, “we have learned lessons that we believe will enable us to root out this behaviour immediately if it ever threatens our campus community again.”
The $14 million settlement will be shared among a potentially larger group of women, beyond the nine who brought the case, who suffered similar treatment by the three professors. The nine women, in their statement on the settlement, said they were “encouraged by our humble contribution to bringing restorative justice to a body of Dartmouth students beyond the named plaintiffs”.
Others were less satisfied. One Dartmouth alumni group, according to The New York Times, rejected the college’s response as self-serving, and faulted it for creating the circumstances that enabled the assaults as far back as 2002, and for then taking steps – such as refusing three of the plaintiffs the right of anonymity – that hindered the investigation.
The three professors – Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen – worked in the department of psychological and brain sciences. Professor Heatherton retired, and Professors Kelley and Whalen resigned last year. Professor Hanlon has permanently banned all three from campus.
The settlement imposes no further penalties on the three men, though New Hampshire’s attorney general has initiated a criminal investigation of the professors.
The complaint described all nine plaintiffs as being deeply affected by their treatment, both professionally and personally, with at least two of them attempting suicide.
The settlement is subject to court approval, with its full terms to be publicly revealed. Those terms, according to Dartmouth, include a requirement that a committee, rather than a single adviser, oversee all theses and dissertations.
Other major sexual assault settlements in US higher education include a $215 million agreement last year by the University of Southern California involving a campus gynecologist and thousands of women, and last year’s $500 million settlement between Michigan State University and victims of Larry Nassar.
The Trump administration, meanwhile, is working to impose new requirements on students who raise allegations of sexual harassment and assault on their campuses, threatening stalemate in a broad attempt by Congress to update laws governing US higher education.