Student goes on hunger strike over harassment claims

  • A Facebook page updates followers on Maha Hasan Alshawi's hunger strike. Alshawi is a computer science graduate student at Dartmouth College who says the college has not taken her allegation that she was sexually harassed by a professor seriously. Dartmouth has said it investigated the matter and that no other action is warranted.

Valley News
Published: 7/21/2020 2:21:09 PM

Dartmouth College on Monday said it would bring in an outside investigator to review a graduate student’s claims of sexual harassment and retaliation in the computer science department if she seeks medical attention and ends a week-long hunger strike.

Maha Hasan Alshawi started her protest last Tuesday after the school’s initial review could not substantiate her claims.

The fallout led to demonstrations on campus calling on the college to conduct a more thorough investigation, and Alshawi has created a social media account to document her plight.

The college on Monday called on Alshawi to end her hunger strike and provide certification that she has sought medical help.

“If that happens, Dartmouth is prepared to take the extraordinary measure of engaging an external investigator to conduct another review of her allegations, to advance our shared interest in a public and transparent determination of the allegations,” Dartmouth said in an email statement from spokeswoman Diana Lawrence.

The college said the results of the outside investigation would be made public.

Alshawi on Monday night did not have an immediate comment on the college’s offer.

The first-year Ph.D. student from Bahrain alleges that she was sexually harassed by a professor in the computer science department late last fall and subsequently received a “low-pass” grade this spring from another professor in the department as retaliation for her complaints.

Alshawi, who declined to give her age, said she fears the poor grade puts her fellowship and position at Dartmouth at risk.

“I would lose everything,” she said in a Monday phone interview. Alshawi said one of her demands for ending her hunger strike is to have her grade raised.

As of Monday afternoon, more than 7,100 people had signed an online petition that calls for further investigation into Alshawi’s claims.

The situation also has led to at least three public protests in Hanover. On Saturday, for example, about 20 people marched through downtown Hanover around lunchtime, with many of them chanting, “Maha is hungry too,” as they passed outdoor diners.

Dartmouth has defended the procedures used to address Alshawi’s complaint, and had also raised concerns about her well-being, even calling Lebanon public safety officials requesting a wellness check last Thursday.

“Our policies and processes lead us to consider all the information that community member provides; to speak with the individuals directly involved; to seek and speak to any witnesses; and to decline to take any disciplinary or other action when there is no evidence to support it,” Dartmouth’s said in a statement last Thursday. “We have confidence that those policies and processes were fair, reasonable, and thorough, and we communicated our decisions to Maha transparently and comprehensively.”

Alshawi said on Monday that a public statement from the college expressing concern about her mental health felt like an effort to undermine her credibility.

“This is a way to shut you up,” she said.

Alshawi has said her hunger strike is aimed at convincing Dartmouth administrators to change her grade or at least explain it, as well as to open an investigation into her allegations of sexual harassment and retaliation.

She alleges, in a June post on Facebook and in a letter last month to administrators, students and faculty, that a professor in the computer science department “overtly touched his genitals” in her presence twice in November and December of last year. She also alleges that he entered her locked office without her consent last November.

Alshawi reported her allegations of sexual harassment to the Title IX office in February. She alleges that another professor later withheld answers she needed to work as his teaching assistant and subsequently gave her a low mark on a test.

Alshawi said her health has deteriorated over the course of the hunger strike and that she’s lost weight. On Sunday she told her Facebook followers she developed back pain that could be related to a kidney infection. But she said on Monday she is not going to go to the hospital to have it checked out “until they listen to us.”

“I don’t have any other options,” she said. “I did everything that I could do. I’m not doing this for myself. I’m doing this for everyone.”

Fellow graduate student Georganna Benedetto, who helped organize the Thursday protest, said that if Alshawi suffers health complications, it will be on “Dartmouth’s conscience.”

“You think Dartmouth is here to protect its students, but it’s not,” she added.

The offer by Dartmouth late Monday comes as a federal judge earlier this month granted final approval to a $14 million settlement in a class-action lawsuit against Dartmouth relating to allegations of sexual misconduct by three professors in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences.

They left Dartmouth as the college was moving to revoke their tenure and fire them.

(News staff writer Anna Merriman contributed to this report. Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.)

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