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PBS Harassment Accuser Steps Forward

In a 2,358-word piece by journalist Daniel Engber in Slate, Three Dartmouth Psychology Professors Are Under Investigation for “Sexual Misconduct, a former graduate student, Simine Vazire, now a professor of psychology at UC-Davis, alleges that in 2002 PBS Professor Todd Heatherton inappropriately touched her:

Siminie Vazire.jpg

… 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.”

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.

The article goes on to describe a hard-partying, hard-drinking atmosphere in the Dartmouth PBS department, with the department having “a reputation for rambunctiousness” in social interactions between faculty and graduate students. However, according to witnesses cited by Engber, Heatherton seems to have played less of a role in these events than the other two College professors currently on paid leave, Bill Kelley and Paul 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.”

Not clear in the article is whether other incidents less or more serious than the one described by Vizire led to the suspensions of Heatherton, Kelley, and Whalen.

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