As of August this year, Vanderbilt University neuroscientist David Sweatt has been on leave while the university looks into allegations that he drugged and sexually assaulted a student at a conference, according to documents obtained by Buzzfeed News and published in a report yesterday (October 31). The school initially became aware of the accusations nearly a year before, in September 2017, but determined there were no grounds for action at the time.
“Nauseous in my kitchen reading this. Vanderbilt knew for 11 months Sweatt was dangerous and did nothing,” climate scientist Sarah Myhre at the University of Washington writes in a tweet about the Buzzfeed article yesterday. “Students and trainees - like lambs to slaughter,” she continues.
It was a tweet by Myrhe from August describing the allegations that prompted Vanderbilt to suspend Sweatt, Buzzfeed reports.
On September 5, 2017, a graduate student at Oregon Health and Science University emailed Laura Stadum, the school’s Title IX coordinator, asking how to go about making sexual harassment complaints about a faculty member at another university, Buzzfeed reports. Stadum then met with the student, who told her that Sweatt had assaulted her at a scientific meeting in 2015.
In a September 13 email to the OSHU chief of campus police, Stadum asked for advice about the criminal reporting process and noted that the student had told her she had been “drugged and assaulted.” That same day, she contacted her counterpart at Vanderbilt, Anita Jenious, to let her know about the student’s allegations. Later that month, Vanderbilt’s Title IX office “emailed Stadum explaining its policies and how to file a complaint. This was forwarded to the student,” Buzzfeed reports. The student, who told Stadum that she wished to remain anonymous, did not further pursue the complaint.
“By June 25, 2018,” Buzzfeed reports, “Stadum of OHSU had been contacted again by Vanderbilt. She then wrote to the student once more, saying that the Title IX office at Vanderbilt wanted her feedback about approaching Sweatt ‘with information that there was a report made about an assault at a conference.’”
Vanderbilt, in a statement, tells Buzzfeed that employees began trying to confirm the information from OSHU as soon as they received it. They also said that since the student did not make a complaint to Vanderbilt, “they did not have a sufficient basis for conducting an investigation or taking any other immediate action.”
But Vanderbilt did take swift action against Sweatt two days after Myrhe’s tweet, which was prompted by a blog post that National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins published August 7 about Sweatt’s science-related artwork. After Collins tweeted the blog post (both tweet and blog post have been taken down), Myhre responded by tweeting, on August 8: “Hello NIH Director. Do you know that Dr. David Sweatt, the ‘gifted painter’ you are lauding here, has been accused of drugging and raping a student?” On August 10, the dean of basic sciences for Vanderbilt’s medical school informed colleagues that Sweatt was, as of that day, on leave.
“In August 2018, additional allegations were posted on social media,” Vanderbilt tells Buzzfeed in a statement, which provided “enough additional information to start an official investigation.”
“Providing a safe and welcoming environment is a priority, and we take seriously any complaints of misconduct,” a Vanderbilt spokesperson adds.