Dartmouth’s Todd Heatherton allegedly groped his graduate student in 2002.

Todd Heatherton’s Career Ascended After Dartmouth Learned He’d Allegedly Groped His Grad Student

Todd Heatherton’s Career Ascended After Dartmouth Learned He’d Allegedly Groped His Grad Student

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Nov. 16 2017 5:02 PM

An Allegation, Then a Prestigious Professorship

In 2002, Dartmouth was told that psychology professor Todd Heatherton had allegedly groped his graduate student. Afterward, Heatherton’s career ascended.

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The Dartmouth campus

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On Monday, I reported that Todd Heatherton, an expert on the psychology of self-control and one of three Dartmouth neuroscientists now under criminal investigation for sexual misconduct, allegedly groped a 21-year-old graduate student at an academic conference in February 2002. On Wednesday, a former colleague of Heatherton’s—Jennifer Groh, now a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University—posted details of a separate alleged groping incident from the same winter. Groh says she reported that incident to Dartmouth’s associate dean of social sciences a few days after it happened. A few months later, the school provided Heatherton with a prestigious named professorship.

Daniel Engber Daniel Engber

Daniel Engber is a columnist for Slate.

Groh summarized this episode in an Oct. 14 email to Dartmouth’s dean of faculty and the school’s vice president for institutional diversity and equity. She sent that email after learning that Heatherton—along with colleagues Bill Kelley and Paul Whalen—had come under scrutiny this year for what the school has variously described in statements as “sexual misconduct” and “serious misconduct.” Groh says that after sending that email, she subsequently shared her story with both Dartmouth’s investigator and representatives of local law enforcement. On Wednesday, she posted a copy of her email to a private Facebook page. The Valley News of West Lebanon, New Hampshire, first reported on this posting Wednesday evening.

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The alleged incident that Groh described happened during a graduate recruiting event for the Department of Psychological and Behavioral Sciences in 2002. Multiple former students and faculty members who spent time at PBS have told me these events were occasions for excessive drinking. One professor remembers bottles of whiskey being passed around, and his colleagues doing shots with grad school applicants. A former student in the department recalls a recruit getting “blasted out of his mind” and vomiting. “They were applauding it,” this student said. “They were like, ‘This guy’s definitely coming.’ ”

Groh was not present at the recruiting event in 2002; she says she first heard stories about the incident from other members of the faculty. The alleged victim met with her in private a few days later, Groh says, for a “very solemn” conversation. According to Groh, this graduate student told her that Heatherton had placed his hands on both her breasts at the event, while at the same time criticizing her performance in the lab. “ ‘You’re really not doing very well,’ ” Groh remembers the student saying, quoting the words Heatherton had allegedly said to her.

A few days after speaking with the graduate student, Groh says, she described the alleged incident to the associate dean for social sciences, Richard Wright. She doesn’t remember the details of their conversation but says she got the sense that she “was not the first person to tell him about it,” and that “he felt the behavior was inappropriate.” She did not hear anything further on the matter, and she was not aware of any formal response from the administration. (Wright declined to comment.)

Another former member of the faculty in Dartmouth’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences says he was aware in 2002 of the allegation that Heatherton had groped a graduate student, and that he was also aware that Groh had reported it. “I knew that story, and was familiar with that story, before [Groh] posted it [on Wednesday],” he told me. “Her story is consistent with my recollection.”

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On Wednesday, Dartblog published a statement from one of Heatherton’s attorneys. It read, in full:

Dartmouth was aware of this incident 15 years ago, investigated it, and determined it was accidental and totally unintentional—not a sexual touching at all. Therefore, the College determined that there was no need for any disciplinary action.
There is absolutely nothing in Todd’s personnel file about this.

Heatherton’s attorneys provided Slate with the same statement, adding that “neither [Heatherton] nor his attorneys are going to answer other questions.”

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Groh’s response to the statement: “The student conveyed to me that she was touched on both breasts with both hands. She conveyed that she perceived it as inappropriate.”

Within a few months of the alleged incident, Heatherton received the school’s Champion International Professorship—an honor that is “intended to recognize and reward members of the Dartmouth faculty whose teaching is true to the highest standards of Dartmouth’s educational mission and whose scholarship has contributed to the advancement of knowledge in their chosen fields.” The title comes with a “modest research stipend,” a Dartmouth representative said on Thursday.

Groh was upset to learn of this appointment. “I was immensely frustrated and disappointed,” she told me.

The alleged incident between Heatherton and the graduate student would come up again in 2005, when Groh was up for tenure. Heatherton had taken over as chairman of the department, and Groh—who asserts that she’d been very successful at securing grant funding—felt her promotion was being unfairly delayed. In the meantime, Bill Kelley, who had arrived at Dartmouth three years after she did, was given tenure. “I felt that was fishy,” she says. It occurred to her that her reporting of the alleged incident from 2002 might have been one of several factors in her tenure being delayed. She filed a complaint with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity, and, according to Groh, a formal investigation was launched. Groh doesn’t remember if she brought up the 2002 report specifically in her complaint. The woman who Groh says led this investigation, Michelle Meyers, has since died. The director of Dartmouth’s Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity at the time of this complaint did not respond to an interview request. A Dartmouth representative said the school “cannot comment on the details of a personnel matter” and that the tenure process is confidential.

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Groh says her tenure case went very smoothly after she filed that complaint with the Office of Institutional Diversity and Equity. Heatherton stepped down from his role as department chairman in October 2005, after just one-and-a-half years in the position. Associate Dean for Social Sciences Michael Mastanduno announced that move in an email to PBS faculty. (Groh provided me with this email.) Mastanduno’s message did not mention the complaint against Heatherton. In light of “an extraordinarily complex set of opportunities” for the department, the email said, Heatherton agreed that “it is best that he step down as Chair prior to the end of his expected term so that he can focus on [a multi-laboratory neuroscience grant], his own research, and the social brain sciences initiative.” Mastanduno also asked the faculty “to join [him] in thanking Todd [Heatherton] for his outstanding efforts on behalf of the department.” Heatherton remained the school’s Champion International professor until 2010, at which point he was named the Lincoln Filene professor of human relations, a title he holds today.

Groh left Dartmouth in 2006. “It wasn’t a good fit for me professionally, and it wasn’t a culture that I wanted to be a part of,” she told me.

Update, Nov. 18, 6:55 p.m.: Todd Heatherton’s name has been removed from web pages relating to the two psychology textbooks he co-authored for W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Psychological Science, written with Michael Gazzaniga and Diane Halpern, first came out in 2003, with a sixth edition due out next year. Psychology in Your Life, written with Gazzaniga and Sarah Grison, was first published in 2015 and is now in its second edition. Heatherton is no longer listed among the authors of these books at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, or WWNorton.com, though his name appears on the covers of those books, and can be found on cached versions of some bookseller web pages. Meanwhile, Heatherton’s author page on the W. W. Norton website now lists only the defunct Canadian edition of Psychological Science. A cached version of that page from earlier this month includes the American editions of both books. Neither W. W. Norton nor Heatherton has responded to a request for comment.

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