When did UWaterloo dean become moral police?

Engineering dean didn’t need to weigh in on ’denigrating’ photo

University of Waterloo dean of engineering Adel Sedra was on course at first. When a racy photo of a bikini-clad woman standing next to a student-built race car emerged during preparation for a contest, the team responsible was immediately disqualified, and Sedra offered a valid, incontestable reason. “The suspension results from misuse of the Student Design Centre space for an unauthorized photo shoot involving the Formula SAE vehicle,” he wrote in a memo to engineering students. No sweat, right? No gender politics, no debate. Just, ‘You broke the rules, kiddos, so you’re out.’ If only he had stopped there. Unfortunately for admin, however, no one was there to kick Sedra under the table when he kept on talking.

In a subsequent interview with The Record, Sedra commented on the bikini pose, calling it a “setback” to efforts to improve gender relations in the engineering faculty at Waterloo. “I believe the incident that took place can be thought of as denigrating to women,” he said.

No, Sedra! No, stick with your old story and run!

Ah, it’s too late. With those few words, Sedra has ushered in an unnecessary moral judgment and thus undermined the conviction of his first explanation for punishment. Were the students really disqualified because they held an unauthorized photo shoot? Or because the faculty doesn’t approve of the “denigrating” photo?

The elephant in the room is the disproportionate male presence in the program (only about 17 per cent of engineering students at Waterloo are women), and the university’s efforts to balance the scales. And while it seems Sedra aimed his comment to say, “Hey, ladies, I’m on your side,” it has only served to stir the pot.

In fact, many women on one end of the feminist spectrum would argue that a photo that embraces female sexuality is anything but demeaning. Take the recent “Slut Walk” event that occurred in Toronto in response to a police officer’s suggestion that women can avoid sexual assault by not dressing like “sluts.” Women paraded around downtown Toronto wearing various amounts of clothing, rejecting the tendency for women to be “judged by [their] sexuality.” Wear what you want, was the message, and don’t let anyone judge you. I would assume some of those marching women would have a problem with Sedra asserting that a photo of a woman in a bikini, especially one taken with consent, is something worthy of censure.

The other obvious problem with Sedra’s comment is that it is made as moral judgment from a position of authority. Granted, the photo  (which can be seen on The Record’s website) is sultry and suggestive, but neither descriptor necessitates commentary from the faculty dean. Such a statement conveys more than just Sedra’s personal attitude, and could easily be inflated to reflect faculty opinion as a whole.

Mainstream conceptions of acceptable female representation are so fluid and complex anyway that Sedra’s one-off comment inevitably comes off as beyond the call of duty. Should this ever occur again, he should just get them on misuse of student space and make beeline for the exit.

Photo: By Like the Grand Canyon