Dalhousie task force explores problems beyond Facebook posts

An independent task force says its report on Dalhousie’s DDS2015 scandal doesn’t mean to assign blame. But there’s plenty to go around

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A pedestrian walks by the Dalhousie Dentistry Building in Halifax on Friday, May 22, 2015. A report into sexist online posts by dentistry students at Dalhousie University has found that a Facebook page at the centre of the scandal began as a bonding exercise, but turned offensive. Despite the report's findings, the university says the academic standards class committee determined the men are eligible to graduate as long as they satisfy their clinical requirements. (Darren Pittman/CP)
A pedestrian walks by the Dalhousie Dentistry Building in Halifax on Friday, May 22, 2015. (Darren Pittman/CP)

“The status quo is unacceptable.” That’s the banner headline from the “Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in Dalhousie University’s Faculty of Dentistry” report issued today. At 100 pages, it’s a long read, but well worth it. The independent task force investigation, commissioned by Dalhousie administration in January after the scandal broke, drills into the scope of response on campus (and lack of it)—as well as the devastation the situation inflicted. It offers the most detailed anatomy of Dal’s Facebook scandal to date, one that provides nuanced reflection on a problem that’s systemic, complex, entrenched and extends far beyond Dalhousie.

By now, reports of rampant misogyny, sexism, homophobia and racism at Dal’s dental school are yesterday’s news; stories of harassment of female dentistry students, sexist comments from professors, and rumours of “inappropriate” faculty-student relationships punctuated the 70-page summary of the school’s restorative justice process released last month, one that can be seen as a warm-up act for today’s report.

Report: The ongoing wait for justice in Nova Scotia

“Our report was not intended to assign blame,” task force chair Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa and a respected expert on inequity issues, said in a press conference this morning. That may be, but Dalhousie emerges with plenty of it: The administration failed to treat female dentistry students targeted in misogynistic Facebook posts with fairness or transparency (a criticism that extends to the treatment of some male students); the restorative justice process, which has been upheld by the university as a role model, also comes under heavy criticism for its lack of “clarity” and “transparency,” among other problems.

Today’s report is the culmination of three months of interviews with 150 students, faculty staff, administrators and members, capped by 39 recommendations stressing education, awareness and new systems (17 related to dental school culture, 12 to university administration, and nine related to improving equity performance at the university). This morning, Dalhousie President Richard Florizone announced all had been accepted and would be implemented within two years.

The report captures the wide disparity in how the Dalhousie campus characterized the scope of the problem created by the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” Facebook page. Even the group itself was divided about the gravity of the posts when they knew they were about to be exposed, the report notes: “RED ALERT!!!!!RED F–KING ALERT!!!! We have to get rid of the evidence,” one student posted. Another was nonplussed: “Not like its (sic) anythign (sic) serious lol.” Another was hostile: “f–k an appology (sic),” he wrote, just before the page came down.

But there were constants—including a climate of hostility toward women, including harassment. The dentistry faculty lacked any formal complaint process, students expressed fear of retaliation and said complaints were “swept under the rug.” The report noted “an atmosphere of paternalism” prevailed. The “entrenched hierarchy of power within faculty,” in fact, was evident in the fact that “the male [Facebook] posters were the primary focus of concern and communication,” the report notes. The investigation also found a racist double standard at the school, where “attacks on professional women spark outrage” while “more egregious incidents of racism continue to be ignored.” (Dalhousie is a “ticking time bomb” where race is concerned, the report concludes.)

The task force also examines the “Cavity,” a space in the dental-faculty student lounge introduced in the restorative justice report: Before it was painted over weeks ago, its walls had been covered for decades with misogynistic, homophobic and racist scribblings. “To say that the scrawled images and captions (dating back more than a decade) disclosed a preoccupation with the size and use of male genitalia would be an understatement,” the task force report said dryly. It’s the Confederate Flag of Dalhousie campus—preserved for its “historical value,” even as students repeatedly called for it to be repainted. The task force noted the double standard: While the Facebook posters were suspended (from clinic) for unprofessional behaviour, “the graffiti seemed to enjoy iconic status.” In such a context, the Facebook group comes off as a dim, unoriginal bunch parroting the broader culture (Family Guy, Jian Ghomeshi, et al), the task force points out. While not downplaying the pernicious effects of the posts—which ranged from juvenile, to threatening, to raping patients and women in dentistry—the report noted that seeing the male students as the core problem ignores the bigger one. And that cannot be solved by “ridding the university of bad apples.”

“Overall, Dalhousie’s policies regarding sexual violence are as good, or better, than other universities,” the report concludes. That’s sobering news. The bigger problem, the report concludes, is how these policies were (and were not) deployed. This is apparent in the horrible treatment of “Student A,” the female fourth-year dentistry student who came forward in early December after a fellow student (known to be Ryan Millet but referred to as “Student B”) told her she was being targeted by the Facebook group. Administration steered her away from the Student Code of Conduct to the sexual harassment policy, which involves restorative justice—and comes with no penalties. The university “failed in its obligation to complete a proper adjudication under the Student Code of Conduct,” the report states, noting that that could have resulted in penalties, including expulsion. Bureaucratic bungling resulted in a victim in the situation being blamed. “Student A” was told that a no-contact order with other students wouldn’t be served until she signed it. Yet one was sent—without her signature or knowledge. She became increasingly isolated, writing her exams alone, “falsely accused of having leaked documents to the CBC, ostracized by her peers, and denied her right to pursue her education in an atmosphere free from intimidation.” Anger initially directed at the Facebook group refocused on Student A and Student B, the report states: “Both of them began to feel like the new scapegoats of the crisis.”

The report also takes aim at the five-month restorative justice (RJ) process that most of the class participated in. Though it refers to RJ as “a useful process that achieved significant results in this case,” and notes it “was nothing like the ‘Kumbaya sing-song’ its critics claimed it was,” the report expresses “reservations about how it was established, some aspects of its process, and its relationship to other processes.” A major concern is the RJ process’s lack of clarity and transparency. Some students felt they hadn’t received enough information; others felt pressure to participate.

Related: When restorative justice isn’t enough

Inequity also existed in how much information was given to the male and female students in the RJ process. The male students had all of the Facebook posts; female students only received shots of pages that “affected them”—even though, as the report points out, all the students considering whether to participate in RJ were affected, in various ways, by all the posts. The task force also took issue with the ongoing RJ process being used as a reason for why there could not be an independent investigation—one that would have determined who the primary actors were. It called for an independent external review of the RJ process to “answer some important questions,” of which it provided a long list, including: “Did the serious sanctions that would flow from failure to participate enhance its success?”

What the full fallout from the dentistry scandal remains to be seen, the task force report concludes. All the members of the Facebook group have graduated, but the fact that licensing bodies will be reviewing their applications very closely means their professional futures are uncertain. The report also draws attention to page 43 of the restorative justice report, which notes that membership in the Facebook group numbered as high as 16 during the three-plus years of its existence. Yet only 13 students were disciplined. “Why were those three exempted from scrutiny?” today’s report asks. It’s one of many unanswered questions. The fact that the task force didn’t have the information from the administration only reinforces the need for its recommendations to be implemented before the faculty of dentistry and Dal itself will be able to move ahead.