Student Reactions to Final Investigation of PhD Student’s Sexual Harassment Allegation

By Maanasi Shyno


This article covers the results of the Final Investigation Report and a discussion about campus reactions. This discussion digs into what these reactions may say about Dartmouth undergraduate attitudes towards feminism and sexual assault and harassment.



On April 30, 2021, Dartmouth College released the Executive Summary of the Final Investigation Report on the sexual harassment allegation put forward by Dartmouth PhD student Maha Hasan Alshawi. Both the initial allegation, made public in June, and the subsequent findings of this report sparked emotional, heated reactions from the Dartmouth Student Body.


On June 9, 2020, Alshawi alleged that her department chair, Prasad Jayanti, had unfairly failed her on an COSC 31 exam and mistreated her. She alleged that Jayanti was acting in retaliation after she had reported Dartmouth Computer Science professor Alberto Quattrini Li for sexual harassment.


Following the allegation, Dartmouth conducted an investigation and did not find that Professor Jayanti violated “any professional obligation or any Dartmouth policy.” The final report for the investigation was sent to Alshawi on June 28th, but she denied its findings. On July 14th, she began a hunger strike demanding that Dartmouth open an investigation into her case and change her ‘low pass’ in COSC 31. After much back and forth with Dartmouth and the campaign, Justice for Maha Hasan, Alshawi ended her 25-day strike once she was contacted by attorney Maureen Holland, the external investigator Dartmouth appointed for her case. More details can be found on the timeline published by The Dartmouth last August.


At first, many Dartmouth students were buzzing with support for Alshawi. A few began organizing for her cause through an Instagram account (@justice4mahahasan). Her supporters circulated a petition that received 23,614 signatures, organized a walkout, hosted a sit-in in front of President Phil Hanlon’s residence, held protests, and set up phone banking campaigns. Many of her supporters were already disillusioned with the College’s previous response’s to sexual harassment and assault, especially with the then-recent settlement of the sexual abuse lawsuit involving nine women and three professors.


But as the strike went on, other students began to doubt whether Alshawi was being fully transparent about the College’s responses and the incident. While many supported her cause, others became confused when Alshawi began to focus more on getting her grade changed rather than a re-investigation. Others expressed uncertainty that she was fasting for so long, especially when she requested the investigation to occur unconditionally. Students were also suspicious that she did a thirst strike for over three days. At this point, many pleaded with her to seek care for her mental health and to end the strike.


Amidst this doubt, a main concern was that Alshawi’s supporters were too aggressive when Dartmouth’s first investigation had found no wrongdoings and the public did not have all the information. Students expressing this concern worried that their peers too readily believed Alshawi and were too quick to attack the College, the Title IX office, and the accused. Alshawi’s most avid supporters allegedly harassed Jayanti and Li online or called the Computer Science department demanding their termination, but it is difficult to find evidence for anything but strong pushes for her demands.


Final Investigation Results


On April 30th, Dartmouth released the Executive Summary of the Final Investigation Report which looked into seven allegations:


  1. Respondent (Li) grabbed his genitals while making eye contact with the Complainant (Alshawi) in a challenging manner

  2. Respondent used his master key to unlock the door to Complainant’s office and allowed another graduate student into the office without the Complainant’s permission

  3. Respondent told the Complainant in an “aggressive” manner, “I could dismiss you at any time from the lab if I want.”

  4. Respondent grabbed his genitals while making eye contact with the Complainant in a challenging manner and then stood up so she could witness the act

  5. Respondent excluded her from an underwater robotics research trip to Barbados during the 2019-2020 winter break when 1) she was the only graduate student working in underwater robotics under Respondent’s supervision excluded 2) Respondent extended additional invitations to students who were not working in underwater robotics under other professors and 3) the work performed during the trip “resulted in published research”

  6. Complainant told the Respondent she was planning to file a complaint with the Title IX Office and the Respondent responded “I could come with you to report.”

  7. Respondent displayed “anger” and “aggression” when Complainant interacted with peers and discouraged her from doing so


Li was found “not responsible” for all charges. In regards to Allegation 2, the office was a shared space with another graduate student who needed to retrieve a robot that they’d been working on with Alshawi. As for Allegation 5, the College deemed that exclusion from the trip did not constitute Retaliation and/or Sexual or Gender Based Harassment. Li also denied the specifics of her allegation, mentioning that Alshawi was not far enough in her work for the trip to be useful (it was for conducting field experiments) and only four students whose projects needed field trials were invited.


Interestingly, it also came forward that Alshawi told Li about an experience of sexual harassment she had had with a professor in Cairo who “touch[ed] his private area inappropriately” in a way that mirrored her allegation against Li. The investigation marked this as “reflect[ing] negatively upon the credibility and reliability of her report.” This was brought up in regards to Allegation 6, in response to which Li claimed she never told him she was going to file a complaint, but he had encouraged her to “access appropriate on-campus resources and to continue to see him as an available resource and source of support” in regards to the incident in Cairo.


For all other allegations, the College found that there was insufficient information to support each one. The investigation found that Li was encouraging and positive towards Alshawi on communication platforms like Slack and email from the start of their interactions in June 2019 to February 9, 2020. This evidence was considered to be consistent with Li's accounts and from these interactions, the College also found Li not responsible for allegations 1, 3, 4, and 7. For Allegation 1 in particular, it was found that Li was not at Dartmouth, but in Washington, DC, and then Macau, China for professorial conferences during the timeframe of the alleged incident. Acknowledging that in some cases the official conclusions may differ from reality, for this article, we will consider these conclusions accurate, based on the content of the report and that this investigation was secondary and conducted by an external investigator.


Student Reactions


Students posting anonymously on Librex are demanding that student organizations, such as the Dartmouth Student Union, formally apologize for supporting Alshawi. Others are demanding apologies from ‘fanatics’ who allegedly harassed Li and ridiculing those who believed or supported Alshawi without sufficient evidence behind her allegations.


Other students are expressing sympathy for Li and Jayanti, who have been put under pressure for a year and a half while this situation has played out. They hope The Dartmouth and national publications will publish articles highlighting their innocence and the outcomes of the final investigation, especially those that picked up the original story. These students are worried about the damage done to Li and Jayanti’s reputations and the effects of the investigation on their mental health.


A few students questioned whether it was right to villainize Alshawi, claiming that a second look at her social media shows signs of mental health problems such as bi-polar disorder or borderline personality disorder. These students refer to a few paranoid posts about surveillance, but it is difficult to substantiate the claim that she was mentally struggling without professional guidance. To these students, it seems unlikely that a person would go to such great lengths over academic marks if in a sane and stable state of mind. These "Maha sympathizers'' are being chastised for lacking concern for the accused. In contrast, those criticising “Maha Sympathizers'' claim that it doesn’t matter that Alshawi might suffer from mental illness since she still carried out a prolonged lie with harmful repercussions. These students have assumed that she had ulterior motives— potentially having her grades changed or retaliating against Li— but currently there is no concrete evidence for or against this. Additionally, it’s unclear whether different outcomes to the investigation would have resulted in Alshawi’s grades being changed anyways. Regardless, these students want Alshawi to be held accountable for her actions, if she had ulterior motives.


Others are frustrated because each false accusation contributes to the stigmatization of coming forward. Especially given the number of strongly anti-feminist posts on Librex, this is not an unfounded fear for Dartmouth in particular. Of course, opinions on Librex aren’t generalizable to the larger student population, but its anonymous format allows for a variety of opinions to be voiced without repercussions. As a result, students are more likely to be honest about their thoughts.


Discussion


This discussion is not about whether the allegation is true or false, but campus reactions in particular and what this may say about Dartmouth undergraduate attitudes towards feminism and sexual assault and harassment.


Alshawi’s case has revealed an unseen side of Dartmouth student opinion in response to the often confusing nature of sexual harassment and assault allegations. The truth is, it is difficult to definitively prescribe a ‘morally right’ response to Title IX allegations. On one hand, the 6th Amendment makes it so the accused are “innocent until proven guilty” to ensure fair trials in individual cases, and many strongly subscribe to this mantra. On the other hand, victims of sexual assault or harassment struggle across many social and legal barriers that make it difficult for their harms to be addressed at all. Although the #MeToo movement has made strides in improving the situation, 75% of sexual assault cases go unreported every year. It’s important to bolster what are generally silenced and marginalized voices if we consider ourselves as advocates for justice and fairness.


Where do we go from this? In the same direction as before. It’s still important to support those who come forward. In the maelstrom of tweets during the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, #BelieveAllWomen started trending because it was used, to a significant margin, by its detractors to criticize feminist pushes to “believe women” in general. It’s not particularly surprising that words and intentions could be twisted by the right to fit the narrative that feminists are hypocritical. #BelieveAllWomen is used in opposition to #BelieveWomen specifically because it dilutes the feminist approach to a purity test in which critics can use any instance of false accusation to call feminists blind. In reality, feminists rarely use generalizations beyond “all people are equal and deserve rights.” However, it’s important to note that #BelieveAllWomen is often misunderstood by supporters who subscribe to #BelieveWomen to be the same concept, just emphasizing that all marginalized people should be supported. Approaches and their verbiage can get complex.


Let’s set the record straight. ‘Believe women’ as a concept is meant to neutralize bias against women. In our society, there is a clear bias against women that characterizes us as generally vindictive and having ill-intent, especially when it comes to allegations. To understand this, you need to accept two truths: that this societal bias exists and that it prevents women from having their harms addressed. Why else are people so quick to worry about the accused’s reputation if the allegation was false over worrying about a woman who actually suffered abuse being unaddressed? There is a societal bias that women tend to lie about these things. ‘Believe women’ is not about taking an allegation at face value without knowing facts. It’s about, as Monica Hesse of The Washington Post puts it, “allow[ing] yourself to believe that women are just as trustworthy as men have been believed to be for decades.” It’s about balancing the scales, about making sure that women are treated equally by taking measures to address social biases against them.


The conservatives on Librex using the Final Investigation Report to twist this approach is gotcha conservatism at its finest. More disappointingly, it is a reminder that we’re too quick to dismiss each other. It doesn’t take much to see that feminists who urge the public to believe women are advocating for outcomes where women are taken seriously and have their rights upheld. There’s really no room to disagree that this is a valid goal. Furthermore, it’s reductive to highlight false allegations when discussing sexual assault and harassment allegations, as if they logically justify shutting down feminist pushes for supporting victims. If anything, giving proper attention and scrutiny to allegations only helps to clear the record more earnestly when the record is, in fact, clear. Put simply, Alshawi’s case (and other false allegation cases) are a minority and should not be used to disparage the feminist perspective or supporting women in coming forward.


Demanding apologies from organizations or students who advocated for an allegation to be revisited is also reductive. Statements thanking the college for facilitating the complete investigation and sympathizing with the effects this had on Li would be appropriate, but apologies are not, given student organizations were only trying to make sure the College was taking appropriate actions. We’ve all questioned whether Dartmouth was acting in the best interests of students at times, and openly questioning this has been important. The truth is, nobody really knew the truth about Alshawi’s case until the report was released. Additionally, we have yet to know if she really engaged in a hunger and thirst strike, and whether she did or not, it is valid for student organizations to have been concerned with the health of a fellow student. Accountability is extremely important. So calls for accountability should center around specific wrongdoings of student organizations, rather than condemning them for acting on the basis of the information we all had.


Supposed wrongdoings of specific students, not organizations, include aggressiveness from her most ardent supporters toward Li and Jayanti. It seems that students believe these professors were personally attacked, but it’s difficult to find the exact comments from her supporters— if they existed at all. If these professors were attacked in such a manner, this would be considered an extreme action and distinctly not feminist. Feminist approaches to sexual assault and harassment allegations are centered at addressing harm, not creating more as would be done in the case of harassment. Harassment of the accused and providing support for people who come forward are mutually exclusive. It’s important not to lump more extreme followers with those who were aiming to support the marginalized.


It seems as though this case has been the perfect opportunity for some Dartmouth students to voice their opinions about sexual assault allegations and push against believing women until the accused is proven guilty. But this completely disregards the ways in which women have historically been blocked from legal redresses in court, especially prior to the #MeToo movement. There’s a difference between being outraged for Li and arguing that we should not support women who put forward allegations until proven truthful in court (where appropriate). There’s a clear double standard when we both pity alleged abusers and neglect to support victims, who often bear the emotional brunt of both trial and the alleged incident.


It’s worrisome that some Dartmouth students still look at sexual assault allegations and judge those quick to support victims, especially when it is so difficult to get to the legal stage after being harmed. It makes it seem as though these critiques of the feminist approach is less about what’s right and more about creating a “false allegation case study” to justify not believing those who come forward in future allegations. It’s alarming to think that the repercussions of Alshawi’s case could be that students may be quicker to discredit future allegations or be less likely to support fellow students in getting fair processes. Worse still, this could make perpetrators feel more secure in acting, as there is now a clear example of a false allegation at Dartmouth that none of us hope to see repeated.


Although this case has been frustrating and tiring, it’s still surprising how vehemently students are demonizing Alshawi when most undergraduate students are not personally connected to the situation. Many of these emotional reactions have sexist undertones, falling in-line with the social tradition of attacking women and feminism in general. Even though Alshawi did lie and should be subject to consequences, the reactions on Librex are extreme, wanting her to go to prison for life or die. These comments fall in line with the societal tradition of painting women as vindictive and deceitful (regardless of wrongdoing). These misconcpetions about sexual assault and harassment— and apparent subconscious bias against women in general— call into question how safe Dartmouth is for women and others.


I think there’s some (uncomfortable) relief for previous Alshawi supporters to find in the fact that Dartmouth College has a history of choosing to protect its image over supporting victims. At times, it’s difficult to believe that administrative decisions are made to benefit or protect students rather than the institution’s image. It’s not surprising that Dartmouth students were quick to support a student who claimed to be wronged by the College’s handling of their case. It’s hard to justify harshly criticizing students who believed Alshawi (with the exception of those who allegedly disparaged Li and Jayanti).


Many previous supporters of Alshawi are sure to be uncomfortably shifting under the outcomes of the investigation and what it means to have believed Alshawi in light of these findings. What is one to do when they believe in supporting people who put forth allegations and then run into a false allegation? We don’t discuss this enough. As previously stated, it’s simply not logical to resolve to stop believing women. Alshawi’s is one false allegation among countless others that are true. At the same time, Li was used by Alshawi, through no fault of his own, as the fall guy in a false accusation story and had to go through the harrowing investigation process knowing he was innocent. The accused have been hurt, and this should never be ignored.


I think something we have to ask ourselves as a student body is this: what does justice look like to us? We can’t simply ignore what’s taken place, especially given impassioned campus reactions. Punitive action against Alshawi would not do anything to address the harm caused to Li and Jayanti. One place to begin is asking what would and attempting to imagine a restorative solution rather than a punitive one. Another important point to note is that people, and women in particular, may be uncomfortable reporting their harm after seeing anti-feminist and sexist reactions to Alshawi’s case. It’s important to ensure that these people are supported through counseling and organizations like SAPA and WISE.


It’s valid to be upset and angry, but it’s also the easiest part of dealing with the outcomes of the investigation. The difficult part is deciding what the appropriate course of action is from here.