From her very first day as a graduate student at Dartmouth, Sasha Brietzke thought that things were "strange" in the school's psychology department. The 26-year-old recalled how the first question one of her mentors asked was if she had a boyfriend.
"I encountered a lot of demeaning and sexualizing comments, gendered harassment, throughout my first year," Brietzke said.
In March 2017, Brietzke attended an academic conference in Los Angeles. One night, a group of students and researchers went to a karaoke bar, where, she says, one of her professors showed up drunk.
"He sat down and summoned me over to talk to him,” she said. “I went over, and he groped me and put me in his lap in front of a roomful of people who I'd just met and who were instrumental for my career, so I felt extremely humiliated and angry."
This month, Brietzke and six other women filed a federal class action lawsuit in New Hampshire claiming three former tenured psychology professors groped and harassed them. One of the professors is accused of raping two students. They charged that Dartmouth administrators knew for years about the department's "Animal House" culture, but ignored several sexual misconduct complaints for more than a decade.
Dartmouth has denied the charges and, in a statement, strongly disagreed with the characterization of its response to the allegations. All three professors have either retired or resigned.
The lawsuit comes as the Trump administration has proposed new regulations on how colleges handle sexual misconduct claims. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has said the draft rules, released Nov. 6, enhance fairness by adding protections for the accused. Advocates for survivors have condemned the move as a step backwards because they narrow the definition of sexual harassment and require colleges like Dartmouth to act only if the alleged misconduct appears to be severe and also pervasive.
"What she's proposing is extremely dangerous and is going to present huge new risk to women on campus, because now campuses are going to be given this free reign to do nothing," said Wendy Murphy, a professor at New England Law-Boston who has also represented survivors of sexual assault in court.
While the proposed changes would affect how colleges handle sexual assault cases, Murphy said she doesn't think they will have any impact on the outcome of the Dartmouth case.
"You can't sue in court and win unless you show that the behavior was severe and pervasive and interfered with your access to education," Murphy said.
If finalized, the new rules would prohibit the use of a single investigator to resolve sexual misconduct complaints. Instead, colleges would be required to hold adversarial hearings.
Janet Halley, a Harvard Law School professor, has pushed for the Education Department to revise Obama-era guidelines on how colleges are to respond to sexual harassment and assault. In 2017, she and other Harvard law professors urged the department to rescind a letter that contained the guidelines.
"Students would be forced to be interviewed or show up to hearings with no notice of what the charges against them were,” said Halley, who welcomes the proposed changes that give greater protections to the accused.
"The fact that the Trump administration is proposing fairness is one of the great paradoxes of our time,” Halley said. “But fairness is fairness. Notice, opportunity to be heard, the use of a hearing so that both parties can hear the evidence in real-time from each other and from the witnesses. These are traditional advocacy points of the ACLU, of the left, of progressives."
Still, Halley called the proposed redefinition of sexual harassment too narrow.
“It requires that the unwelcome conduct be severe and pervasive and objectively offensive,” she said. “The vast majority of Supreme Court cases don’t use that formula. They say severe or pervasive.”
Brietzke said her harassment at Dartmouth was so pervasive that she felt overwhelmed and didn't file a formal complaint until nearly 30 other students reported sexual misconduct.
"It shouldn't take 27 people to have to come forward for some sort of meaningful action to take place,” Brietzke said. “The system isn't set up for individual complaints to be taken seriously.”
Brietzke, who worked in a research lab, said science is in trouble if colleges don't deal better with sexual harassment and assault.
"Women face so many kinds of headwinds in the STEM professions and they're being driven out at a systematic level from the field," she said.
At stake, Brietzke and her six co-plaintiffs argue, is scientific discovery.