Sorry, Gandhi: Hunger Strikes Are Unethical, And Organizations Should Not Respond To Them

Maha Alshawi, a Dartmouth graduate student in the computer science department, accused computer science professor Alberto Quattrini Li of multiple incidents of sexual misconduct. She also accused science department chair Prasad Jayanti  of unfairly failing her on an exam and giving her a “low pass” as a teaching assistant as retaliation  after she raised concerns about Li. The student has called on Dartmouth to conduct a “clear and fair investigation” of the alleged harassment. The College, however, has stated that it has concluded evaluating the allegations through all applicable procedures.

On July 14, the first-year Ph.D. student began a  hunger strike , publicly posting on Facebook that she would not eat  “because the Title IX office conducted [an] unfair assessment” of her case. Seven days later,  Dartmouth announced that it would conduct another review of Alshawi’s claims if she agreed to end her protest and seek medical attention. She would not agree.

This week, on the 22nd day of Alshawi’s hunger strike, Dartmouth announced that it will launch an external investigation into her harassment allegations.  Alshawi says  she will not stop her hunger strike and will  begin a “thirst strike,” refusing to eat or drink until the external investigation has officially begun.

The College wrote in its statement that “in the interest of [Alshawi’s] safety and in keeping our commitment to Ms. Alshawi,” an external investigation would be opened “in addition to the extensive assessment and multiple reviews Dartmouth has previously undertaken.”

Dartmouth’s capitulation is irresponsible and incompetent.  The school has done nothing to jeopardize Alshawi’s safety. She is threatening herself. In fact, this “Blazing Saddles” scene comes to mind:

Nobody has a right to hijack a process using threats of violence to anyone else or  themselves. Hunger strikes are extortion. Schools and other organizations should set an iron-clad standard: we won’t alter our policies and procedures because someone threatens to harm themselves, and that includes hunger strikes. I don’t see any argument for not having such policies. If hunger strikes are allowed to force managers and administrators to give special consideration to those who employ threats to get their way, then they encourage similar unethical tactics by others.

The problem, of course, is that hunger strikes always spark emotional rather than rational responses by the public. This is what made Gandhi so effective. Nonetheless, that should not mean that emotion should drive events. In the face of a hunger strike or similar coercion, its target should announce, clearly and emphatically, that the organization does not capitulate to extortion or hostage situations, and that whatever harm befalls the protester is their choice. Not only are decision-makers unwise to submit to such tactics, they are obligated not to.


Sources: The Dartmouth 1, 2

14 thoughts on “Sorry, Gandhi: Hunger Strikes Are Unethical, And Organizations Should Not Respond To Them

  1. Hah. Colleges won’t even stand up to demands they say “Black Lives Matter” and immediately capitulate to whatever else BLM demands. Surely college administrators won’t give a second’s thought to standing up to hunger strikes, of which there will be hundreds this fall now that this woman has pulled this off in Hanover.

  2. “In the face of a hunger strike or similar coercion, its target should announce, clearly and emphatically, that the organization does not capitulate to extortion or hostage situations, and that whatever harm befalls the protester is their choice. Not only are decision-makers unwise to submit to such tactics, they are obligated not to.”

    I completely agree.

      • Steve, substitute “virtually every college and university in the country” for “Dartmouth.” I think many of these administrators and trustees think they can play rope-a-dope with all these crazies in their student bodies and faculties (and even lower level diversity administrators) and the whole thing will just blow over. I think they’re wrong.

  3. Any potential future employers of Dartmouth Computer Science Graduate Maha Alshawi please note that she has a history of threatening self harm in order to manipulate people.

    Someone should advise Mz Alshawi that EVERY potential employer on earth searches the internet before employing staff these days and that it is very unlikely that anyone finding this sort of behaviour would want to risk having her in their organisation.

    I would have thought that with cancel culture being such an issue, anyone who can’t see that going on a hunger strike, or threatening people in any similar manner, is …. uhhhm … counterproductive in the longer term, is not smart enough to employ anyway!

  4. Gandhi was a popular Indian icon and had a certain moral strength behind him. Gandhi used hunger strikes to pressure the British government to release India from its empire, as well as changes from other policies deemed oppressive and immoral. The media spectacle did force changes in Britain.

    This young lady is pissed she got a bad grade from a professor who accepted Dartmouth’s conclusion about her claims of sexual harassment by the professor and/or others in her department. Her hunger strike is not about forcing a change of some repressive policy; on the contrary, it is a narcissistic display of a tactic used by children all over the world: The Classic Tantrum. Perhaps the hunger strike was necessary because holding her breath didn’t have the desired effect. Sorry. Maha Alshawi, you are a selfish brat. Go to your room.


    • Certainly having human rights and basic fairness on your side is a big plus. Nevertheless.”Do what I want or I’ll kill myself” is an unethical tactic and a stupid one to fall for. It is like kids saying they are going to hold their breath until they turn blue.

    • Gandhi is an example of ethics incompleteness. Nations all over the world have resorted to civil wars for independence. Millions died. War is a coercive act that wreaks destruction. Hunger strikes are an extortive act that threaten harm to one person. Gandhi balanced risk to millions versus risk to himself to achieve peaceful transition to Indian independence. Britain could have resisted; like prisons it could have force-fed Gandhi – but that only highlights their oppressive nature.

      A hunger strike is really only acceptable as a last resort to an oppressed person with no options. The Dartmouth woman has plenty of options; media blitzing, Title 9 lawsuits, etc. She is not protesting to save millions of lives, or against gross prisoner mistreatment. She is using suicidal behavior to achieve a personal goal, with the veneer of standing up for “oppressed” women at the college.

      The correct response is to issue a stern reprimand to the student, place her on probation, and begin expulsion proceedings if she refuses to stop threatening self harm (with referral to protective services if necessary). This is abusive behavior that would not be tolerated by “Me Too” in a domestic relationship in theory, and capitulating to such threats destroys what little credibility the movement has in addressing sexual misconduct.

  5. Gandhi also went on a hunger strike when the Brits suggested the outcasts should have some say in India’s politics!

  6. What happens when the “Double Secret Investigation” ends with the same results? Will she then just deprive us of her existence and die from hunger? Of course not. Ms. Alshawi is mad like a little child that hasn’t gotten its way. Nothing short of Mr. Li being publically hung in the yard will return her to three square meals a day. The honesty and integrity of the investigation and the ultimate truth are not what Alshawi seeks. I wish Dartmouth would have allowed her stunt to play out until its logical conclusion instead of reinforcing her bad behavior.

  7. Am I the only one who suspects that Ms. Alshawi is probably still sneaking meals? The sort of person who childishly throws a tantrum over a bad grade and people not believing what were apparently false claims of harassment is generally not the kind of person who has the fortitude to endure voluntary starvation…

    I mean, it’s not as though she’s being monitored 24/7, so the temptation to have her cake and (literally) eat it too seems too great for an immature brat to resist.

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