Dartmouth professor Todd Heatherton accused of groping a woman in 2002.

Dartmouth’s Todd Heatherton, Under Investigation for “Sexual Misconduct,” Allegedly Groped Woman in 2002

Dartmouth’s Todd Heatherton, Under Investigation for “Sexual Misconduct,” Allegedly Groped Woman in 2002

The state of the universe.
Nov. 13 2017 6:27 PM

Three Dartmouth Psychology Professors Are Under Investigation for “Sexual Misconduct”

Simine Vazire says one of those men, Todd Heatherton, groped her at a conference in 2002.

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The Dartmouth campus.

Kane5197/Wikimedia Commons

Three tenured professors from the psychological and brain sciences department at Dartmouth College—Todd Heatherton, Bill Kelley, and Paul Whalen—are targets of a criminal investigation, according to official statements from Dartmouth’s president and the New Hampshire attorney general on Oct. 31. The school, which has variously described the allegations as referring to “serious misconduct” and “sexual misconduct,” had already launched its own internal investigation of the three men. Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen are all on paid leave with restricted campus access, according to the statement from Dartmouth’s president. Heatherton also lost his affiliation at New York University, where he had been a visiting scholar since July.

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Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate

Attorneys for Heatherton responded that their client “has engaged in no sexual relations with any student” and that he “is confident that he has not violated any written policy of Dartmouth, including policies relating to sexual misconduct and sexual harassment.” They also claim that the investigations into Heatherton are limited to an unspecified “out-of-state matter” and unrelated to the conduct of the other two professors. Kelley and Whalen have not issued any statements and did not respond to interview requests for this story.

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A public accounting of the allegations has yet to emerge. (On Friday, Dartmouth’s president refuted the idea that they involved the unethical treatment of research subjects.) But Simine Vazire, a tenured professor of psychology at the University of California–Davis (and one-time Slate contributor), says that several weeks before news of the criminal investigation broke, she learned from a colleague that Dartmouth was seeking information about potential sexual misconduct by its faculty. She reached out to the chair of the psychological and brain sciences department and was connected with an external investigator. On Oct. 17, she told that investigator about an episode from early 2002, in which she alleges Heatherton groped her at an academic conference.

That incident occurred at a waterfront hotel in Savannah, Georgia, she says, where more than 1,300 people had gathered for the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology. Vazire, who was then a 21-year-old graduate student, was attending one of her first major conferences. Standing in a circle of students and faculty members outside a banquet hall, she found herself beside Heatherton, then in his early 40s and a full professor at Dartmouth. The two had not been introduced. Without saying a word, Vazire says, Heatherton reached his hand behind her, out of view of the others, and squeezed her butt. Erik Noftle, a psychology professor who dated Vazire in the early 2000s, confirms that she described the incident to him a year after it allegedly occurred, in 2003.

Vazire says she wasn’t that upset by the encounter. “This one ass-grabbing, it was just kind of a blip on the radar,” she told me. In sharing her experience, Vazire wanted to make it very clear that she didn’t consider her story of being groped at an academic conference on par with more grievous forms of sexual harassment, nor did she want it to overshadow the pending results of the investigations by Dartmouth and the New Hampshire attorney general. Still, she says the memory has stuck with her, as a first experience of the rampant, casual harassment that pervades the field of psychology and academic science as a whole.

“I do not remember touching her in any way at a conference 15 years ago,” Heatherton said via email. “I have just recently heard of this for the first time, but, if I touched her as she described, all I can say is that I am profoundly sorry.”

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Heatherton added that he first remembers meeting Vazire in 2011 and that they have had “a collegial, but distant relationship.” He noted that Vazire emailed him in 2011 to recommend one of her female honors students “who is going to be applying to graduate school with you.” This student confirmed to me that Vazire wrote the email on her behalf but says Vazire also informed her about what had allegedly occurred between her and Heatherton in 2002. The student did not end up attending Dartmouth.

A 2010 survey of female earth scientists found that more than half had experienced sexual harassment in the course of their careers. According to a 2014 study, more than one-quarter of female archaeologists said they’d experienced unwanted physical contact while conducting field research. And a much older study, published in 1986, noted that 31 percent of female graduate trainees in clinical psychology reported receiving sexual advances from at least one male teacher or supervisor; among those women, 71 percent viewed the advances as “coercive.” Several high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by prominent academic scientists have also come to light in recent years. At the University of California–Berkeley, astronomer Geoff Marcy resigned last year after the school found that he had violated sexual harassment policies repeatedly between 2001 and 2010. (Marcy apologized on his website.) In August, the University of Washington fired microbiologist Michael Katze after an investigator found that he had, among other things, created a quid pro quo sexual relationship with one employee and asked another to email escorts on his behalf. This fall, eight people filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against the University of Rochester for failing to act appropriately against computational linguist T. Florian Jaeger and alleging that Jaeger engaged in a “long pattern of predatory sexual behavior.” Jaeger, who is on administrative leave pending the results of a new investigation, has noted that the fact that he’s been placed on leave does not constitute an admission of guilt.

Even as a first-year grad student in 2002, Vazire knew Heatherton was an academic star with considerable prestige and power. “I was still young enough to have very idealistic images of famous people in the field,” she says. By that time, Heatherton had published almost 60 peer-reviewed papers, and as the chairman of SPSP Convention Committee, he’d helped establish the group’s annual conference. After the 2001 SPSP meeting, Heatherton crowed to colleagues about its lively and stimulating atmosphere and the ample sales recorded at the cash bar.

Heatherton made his name by studying feelings of guilt and self-control and by helping to devise a model of willpower as a muscle that can be exercised until exhaustion. In particular, he has studied how people restrain themselves from engaging in undesirable behavior. “Is self-regulation failure a matter of lazy self-indulgence … or is it a matter of being overcome by powerful, unstoppable forces?” he asked in a 1996 review of this research. He and his co-author ended that paper with a gloomy observation: “The norms and forces that currently dominate modern Western culture seem generally conducive to weakening self-control,” they wrote. “As long as this is the case, it seems likely that our society will continue to suffer from widespread and even epidemic problems that have self-regulatory failure as a common core.”

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Not long before his run-in with Vazire, Heatherton had co-written a book chapter with his graduate student Jennifer Tickle and colleague Mikki Hebl on the psychology of awkward moments. “Awkward moments have far-reaching consequences in the lives of both stigmatized and nonstigmatized individuals,” they wrote.

Starting in the early 2000s, Heatherton ventured into a booming subfield in his discipline, based around the use of magnetic-resonance imaging to capture changing blood flow in the brain. At Dartmouth, he became a leading member of a research group that applied this technique, fMRI, to the study of social psychology. In theory, he could now identify portions of the brain that would “activate” in response to temptation, guilt, awkwardness, or whatever else one might choose to study. On the basis of this research, the exercise of self-control would be construed, in his later work, as a struggle between rival brain areas.

Dartmouth made a huge investment in fMRI technology in September 1999, opening a four-story, $27 million building devoted to the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, or PBS. Dartmouth was the first liberal arts school in the country to have its own scanner dedicated to experimental brain research. A few years later, PBS helped bring in the largest peer-reviewed grant in the history of the institution: $21.8 million to establish a Center for Cognitive and Educational Neuroscience.

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Moore Hall, home of Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

PBS was a major power center on campus. By 2002, its most famous member—Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience—was serving as the dean of faculty at Dartmouth, having replaced another neuroscientist, Jamshed Bharucha, in that position.* Heatherton served as chair of the department in 2004 and 2005, and he worked closely with Gazzaniga, co-authoring a leading academic textbook, Psychological Science, in 2003. Kelley was recruited to the department in 2000; he and Heatherton became friends and regular scientific collaborators. Whalen arrived at PBS in 2005.

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As the department’s influence grew, tensions developed at the college. A report from the Student Assembly, based on input from 800 students and 30 faculty members and titled “The Soul of Dartmouth,” decried the school’s excessive focus on research, singling out PBS for special blame.

The department also had a reputation for rambunctiousness. Over the last week, I’ve reached out to dozens of current and former faculty members, postdocs, graduate students, research technicians, and lab fellows who spent time at PBS during this period or passed through for talks or summer sessions. Many ignored my requests or declined to be interviewed. Most of those who agreed to share their experiences would only do so on condition that their names would not be mentioned in connection with this story. But their stories generally converged on several major points. The culture at PBS was characterized by heavy drinking, multiple sources said, as well as an unusual degree of socializing between faculty and students. Several described a “good old boys” vibe that could be inhospitable to women. An undergraduate who worked in a PBS lab from 2002 to 2004 said “the culture of the department was always very masculine and competitive.”

Elise Temple, who was an assistant professor of education at Dartmouth from 2007 to 2010, with a joint appointment in the PBS department, said that Whalen and Kelley were very popular with graduate students and often partied with them. They would stay out late, Temple said, and encourage everyone to drink. “There was this juvenile attitude that was clearly just not professional,” explained Temple, who now directs the Consumer Neuroscience Group at the company Nielsen. “I remember, [the atmosphere] was like, ‘No, have another drink! Oh, come on, have another drink!’ Like a frat guy kind of thing.”

Temple acknowledged that it’s common for graduate students and faculty to have drinks together from time to time. But she said there was more of this behavior—drinking and socializing among mentors and trainees—at PBS than she’d seen at other institutions.

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One member of the faculty from the early 2000s did tell me there wasn’t an unusual degree of partying, and a graduate student who arrived a few years later said the culture was “positive and professional.” Most accounts I heard, though, were more or less consistent with Temple’s. One former student called the level of alcohol use “pretty shocking” and described it as being “like night and day” compared with other psychology departments. People went out drinking after work as a matter of routine, this student claimed, and stayed out very late. A former graduate student at PBS said “partying” might be too strong a word but that there was “a lot of drinking with the professors.” Students made frequent trips to a local restaurant called India Queen after work, the graduate student said, and Kelley would be there “more often than not.”

Multiple sources said Heatherton was less involved in the program’s drinking culture than Kelley and Whalen. Via email, Heatherton said he didn’t think it was accurate to say the PBS department was characterized by heavy drinking or frequent socializing between graduate students and faculty. “I do my best not to socialize with graduate students outside of the work setting, as the mentoring relationship should remain professional,” he wrote, noting that his “main social contact” with graduate students occurs on the annual “Apple Pie Day” he hosts with his wife. He added: “Self-reflection has caused me to recognize that, on occasion, at conferences with other academicians I have consumed too much alcohol. On this I was not alone, but that is no excuse, and I have apologized for my behavior.”

In the mid-2000s, three of the department’s most promising young female professors—Abigail Baird, Jennifer Groh, and Jennifer Richeson—departed for other schools. Richeson would earn a MacArthur “genius” grant the year after leaving; Baird was named a “Rising Star in Psychological Science” in 2008; and Groh received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. They now direct labs at Yale, Vassar, and Duke, respectively. Another more senior woman at Dartmouth, Laura-Ann Petitto, also left during this period. (None of these professors agreed to comment for this story.) By January 2007, the PBS website included just three women on its list of 16 faculty members. (The PBS website now lists eight women out of 28 faculty members.)

Heatherton notes that it’s not unusual for professors to switch institutions, adding that five male professors also left the department around the same time. One of those was Gazzaniga, who resigned his position as dean after a vote of no confidence from the Dartmouth faculty and then left for the University of California–Santa Barbara. Scott Grafton followed him to Santa Barbara shortly thereafter. A third departing scholar, Kevin Dunbar, was the partner of one of the women who left Dartmouth, Laura-Ann Petitto.

Since then, both Kelley and Whalen have been awarded tenure. Heatherton served as president of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology in 2011. Under his direction, the society created a “Responsible Research Task Force” to “discuss the promotion of responsible conduct in social and personality psychology.” In 2016, Dartblog called Heatherton “one of the most respected researchers at the college.”

*Correction, Nov. 14, 2017: This piece originally misidentified Jamshed Bharucha as a former provost of Dartmouth. He served as deputy provost and as dean of faculty. (Return.)

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