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.