IOIT: Dartmouth graduate student on day 16 of hunger strike over sexual harassment investigation

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In Other Ivory Towers, or IOIT, is a Record column covering events and news in institutions of higher education.

On July 14, Dartmouth College computer science graduate student Maha Hasan Alshawi began a hunger strike to bring attention to what she and local advocates say was the school’s mishandling of her Title IX complaint. 

Now 16 days in, Alshawi is continuing the strike with the goal of ensuring that Dartmouth gives her allegations proper consideration. She recently declined Dartmouth’s offer to have an external investigator review the allegations under stipulations that she said is denying her right as a student to a proper investigation.

“Everyday [that] passes now has a huge impact on my health and hence my life,” she wrote in her most recent update as of publication on July 29. “Dartmouth is negotiating with my life and they are still wasting time and refuse to unconditionally open a public and fair investigation on my case.” 

These demands come on the heels of alleged sexual harassment she faced from one of her professors and subsequent retaliation from a second professor, and Dartmouth’s recent settlement on a $14.4 million class-action lawsuit filed by 74 women who “experienced dignitary, emotional, educational and/or professional harm,” in some cases including sexual harassment and abuse, at the hands of three professors. Across the country, Title IX cases are gaining attention given recent changes to regulations that will strengthen the rights of the accused. 

According to a written statement Alshawi presented to the Dartmouth Title IX office, her supervisor, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Alberto Quattrini Li, sexually harassed her in November and December of 2019. Quattrini Li “overtly touched his genitals in my presence on several occasions, intentionally making me uncomfortable,” Alshawi wrote. 

Alshawi left Li’s lab and shared with him her intention to report the two incidents. Soon after, Chair of Computer Science Prasad Jayanti, whom Alshawi called a friend of Li, began treating Alshawi differently in class and withheld information and materials needed to successfully fulfill her duties as a teaching assistant for Jayanti’s course. Jayanti gave her a “low pass” mark on her teaching assistant work, which Alshawi said was unfair, noting that she never received complaints from Jayanti or any undergraduates for her performance during the semester. Alshawi also received a failing grade on her final exam in Jayanti’s class, which she said was unwarranted: She wrote that other students who performed worse on the exam still passed, and that her exam alone included a modified and unsolvable version of the question presented to the other students. 

The Dartmouth Title IX office responded to Alshawi in early February. She attested that representatives from the office told her that the two incidents of sexual harassment by Quattrini Li were not enough to warrant action by the institution because no other complaints had been filed against him. On May 26, Associate Dean for the Sciences Dan Rockmore informed her that “there is no indication that Professor Jayanti violated any professional obligation or any Dartmouth policy” and that “this decision on behalf of the Dean’s Office is final.” On June 2, Alshawi learned that her fellowship would be affected by the “low pass” from Jayanti’s course and that she would have to retake the final. 

Alshawi’s story of sexual harassment at Dartmouth is just one of many that have come to light in recent months. On July 10, a federal judge gave final approval to a $14.4 million class-action lawsuit settlement between Dartmouth and more than 80 women who, according to the complaint, were “leered at, groped, sexted, intoxicated and even raped” by three professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences: Todd Heatherton, William Kelley and Paul Whalen. The lawsuit, filed in 2018, claimed that Dartmouth facilitated the abuse by ignoring allegations and allowing for a culture of ongoing drinking, rape and sexual harassment in the department.

In early June, Alshawi made her allegations public, posting a statement to Facebook on June 9. According to a July 14 Facebook post written by Alshawi, she began the hunger strike because she felt her case was not given fair consideration by the Dartmouth Title IX office. “I started this hunger strike to stop this injustice and because I want to be treated equally,” she wrote. 

In the time since she began the strike, Alshawi’s story has been shared across the internet and social media, notably in a Change.org petition that calls on Dartmouth to reopen the investigation. The petition has garnered more than 17,500 signatures as of July 28.  

Alshawi’s story was shared multiple times on the prominent Instagram account @dearPWI, which shares the experiences of BIPOC students at predominantly white institutions and has amassed nearly 30,000 followers. There are also Instagram and Twitter accounts dedicated to demanding justice on her behalf that share consistent updates.

Local organizers including Dartmouth students have orchestrated events to demonstrate support for Alshawi on the Dartmouth campus, including a July 16 walkout at Parkhurst Hall, the building that houses the Office of the President. On July 17, activists protested outside President Philip Hanlon’s house, and the next day, they marched down Hanover’s Main St. 

Dartmouth released a statement about Alshawi’s hunger strike on July 16, in which Dartmouth encouraged her to seek medical attention and said they stand by the decision of the Title IX office. By July 20, a second statement requested that she seek medical attention and prove that she is no longer in danger. Only then, the statement said, would Dartmouth “engag[e] an external investigator to conduct another review of her allegations, to advance our shared interest in a public and transparent determination of the allegations.” 

Alshawi did not end her hunger strike after Dartmouth’s July 20 offer, and on July 23 shared a statement, writing that “every student at Dartmouth has the right to ask for a fair and transparent investigation without any preconditions.”

On July 24, Dartmouth released a third statement, emphasizing its concern for Alshawi’s wellbeing. The statement said that Alshawi’s complaints were already reviewed by the institution during the school year and that Alshawi’s legal rights to privacy prevent them from publicly releasing details of her complaint or the process by which they investigated her case. Alshawi responded in another Facebook post on July 25, writing that Dartmouth denied her right to an “unconditional, public, fair and transparent investigation.” 

She also wrote that Dartmouth asked her to let them review and approve social media posts before she shares them, as well as to publicly share kind words about the professors involved in her allegations and the institution as a whole.

On July 27, the fourteenth day of the strike, Alshawi posted again. She described her worsening medical condition, citing pain in her “internal organs, heart, chest and stomach,” as well as difficulty breathing and blurry vision. She once again articulated her frustration with Dartmouth’s insistence on preconditions before opening an investigation and their request for apologies to the professors involved.

On Aug. 1, Dartmouth released a statement confirming their continued concern for Alshawi’s health, clarifying that they did not request “that she provide us with her medical records, but have asked that she undergo a medical evaluation, take any steps the medical provider recommends, and provide us with documentation to show that she has done so” in order to ensure her safety. The statement noted their willingness to a public and transparent external investigation “for the sake of all our community members. We continue to be in touch with Ms. Alshawi, as well as with local public safety officials, out of concern for her well-being, and again ask her to end the hunger strike and seek medical attention.”

Title IX investigations like Alshawi’s are regular occurrences at institutions of higher education and have gained national attention in recent weeks in the wake of new Title IX regulations that strengthen the rights of the accused and limit the definition of sexual misconduct.

“As we’re seeing across the country, we’re at a real moment of reckoning with how the tools we’re given often fall short of creating healing or accountability in the face of harm,” wrote the Acting Director of Sexual Assault Prevention & Response at Williams, Hannah Lipstein in an email to the Record.

Lipstein spoke to the mindset toward Title IX investigations at Williams in particular, writing that “while we work hard to implement a fair investigative and adjudication policy at Williams, we also know that violence, once it happens, cannot be undone, and the effects ripple out into the community,” she said. “So our work is much larger than a straightforward policy question, especially as the federal regulatory landscape continues to shift.”

Toya Camacho, the College’s Title IX coordinator, wrote an email to the Record about the sexual misconduct reporting process at Williams. 

“I am unable to comment on a case at another institution,” Camacho wrote. “However, the College takes immediate action upon receiving a notice of sexual misconduct. When a student brings an allegation of sexual misconduct against an individual, the Title IX coordinator (me) or the deputy Title IX coordinator for students (Dean [of the College] Marlene Sandstrom) will hire an external investigator. The investigator(s) are specifically trained in sexual misconduct investigations and will conduct investigations in a prompt, impartial and thorough manner,” she wrote.

This is different from Dartmouth’s course of action: conducting an internal investigation and only offering to launch an external investigation into Alshawi’s complaint only after substantial public pressure.

Like Camacho, Lipstein was unable to directly address the specifics of Alshawi’s case or the culture of Dartmouth’s graduate programs in particular, but she said that “what does stand out is how Maha falls into a long line of student-activists who have used a range of tactics to make their voices heard and speak their experiences aloud.” 

“Maha’s activism — like that of Wagatwe Wanjuki at Tufts, Emma Sulkowicz at Columbia, Andrea Pino and Annie Clark at UNC Chapel Hill, and countless others — sits at the intersections and limitations of institutions and justice, and the many ways we try to make sense of experiences of harm within that space.”

“I am hopeful that Maha is able to come to a resolution with Dartmouth that brings her closure, and am hopeful too that her activism helps us deepen the conversations about what justice within institutions looks like for survivors,” Lipstein said.

As of publication, Alshawi has been striking for 16 days. “Opening an unconditional, fair and transparent investigation is our right and it is not an extraordinary measure as the school claimed,” Alshawi wrote

Correction: This article has been updated as of Saturday, Aug. 1, 6:37 p.m. to reflect that Dartmouth released a new statement clarifying their request that Alshawi “undergo a medical evaluation, take any steps the medical provider recommends, and provide us with documentation to show that she has done so.” The Record initially reported that Dartmouth sought access to Alshawi’s medical records, but this is not accurate.