Plea bargains are unsatisfying to their vict…. wait, again?

June 14, 2018

There has been a case of sexual harassment, assault and/or workplace misconduct at Dartmouth College that has been in the news this past year.

In allegations that span multiple generations of graduate students, four students in Dartmouth’s department of psychological and brain sciences told The Dartmouth this week that three professors now under investigation by the College and state prosecutors created a hostile academic environment that they allege included excessive drinking, favoritism and behaviors that they considered to be sexual harassment.

It was always a little bit unusual because three Professors from the same department (Psychological and Brain Sciences) were seemingly under simultaneous investigation and the NH State AG launched an investigation at the same time. It is not all clear to me yet but it seems to be a situation in which the triggering behaviors are not necessarily linked.

The news of the day (via Valley News) is that one of the professors under investigation has retired, “effective immediately”.

Professor Todd Heatherton has retired, effective immediately, following a recommendation by the dean of the faculty of arts and sciences, Elizabeth Smith, that his tenure be revoked and that he be terminated, Hanlon said in the email.

“In light of the findings of the investigation and the dean’s recommendation, Heatherton will continue to be prohibited from entering campus property or from attending any Dartmouth-sponsored events, no matter where they are held,” Hanlon wrote.

This comes hard on the heels of Inder Verma retiring from the Salk Institute just before their institutional inquiry was set to conclude.

I understand the role of plea bargains in normal legal proceedings. I am not sure I understand the logic of the approach when it comes to busting sexual harasser/discriminater individuals in academia. I mean sure, it may avoid a protracted legal fight between the alleged perpetrator and the University or Institute as the former fights to retain a shred of dignity, membership in the NAS or perhaps retirement benefits. But for the University or Institute, in this day and age of highly public attention they just like they are, yet again, letting a perp off the hook*. So any fine statements they may have made about taking sexual discrimination seriously and having zero tolerance rings hollow. I am mindful that what we’ve seen in the past is that the Universities and Institutes are fully willing to deploy their administrative and legal apparatus to defend an accused perpetrator, often for years and in repeated incidents, when they think it in their interest to do so. So saving money can’t really be the reason. It really does seem to be further institutional protection- they cannot be accused of having admitted to defending and harboring the perp over the past years or decades of his harassing behavior.

It is all very sad for the victims. The victims are left with very little. There is no formal finding of guilt to support their allegations. There is often no obvious punishment for a guy who should probably have long since retired (Verma is 70) simply retiring. There is not even any indirect apology from the University or Institution. I wish we could do better.

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*At least in the Verma case, the news reporting made it very clear that the Salk Board of Trustees formally accepted Verma’s tender of resignation which apparently then halted any further consideration of the case. They could have chosen not to accept it, one presumes.

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