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Dr. Constance Backhouse, the chair of the task force which produced a report on the way Dalhousie University responded to a scandal involving male dentistry students. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)
Dr. Constance Backhouse, the chair of the task force which produced a report on the way Dalhousie University responded to a scandal involving male dentistry students. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

Dalhousie made string of errors in dentistry probe, report finds Add to ...

Dalhousie University could have avoided months of public scrutiny if it had responded promptly to a complaint about misogynistic Facebook posts, an independent task force report released Monday suggests. Instead, the university made a series of mistakes – especially in its treatment of the female dentistry student who reported the posts.

The student, referred to in the new report as Student A, suffered enormous damage for speaking out. She was ostracized by her classmates and even by the university itself.

In the week that Student A decided to show senior administrators at Dalhousie a Facebook post written by her male classmates in the dentistry school, she had to write five exams. Still, she went in with a plan: Lodge a formal complaint against the students who had posted a misogynistic poll and draw attention to what she and others thought was an unprofessional culture in their faculty.

By the time her initial conversation made its way through the bureaucracy, five days had passed. Four administrators sat in a room with her. For five minutes they explained what would happen if she followed through with her plan. For an hour they talked about other ways the issue could be resolved – including restorative justice, the process that would eventually be used. They asked her if she had more evidence. She delivered 52 pages of Facebook posts, many filled with hateful and sexist jokes and comments.

When her class discovered she had sent the posts to the university administrators, long-time friends stopped talking to her. Her parents called the university, going all the way to the president’s office, wondering why their daughter was writing an exam in a room by herself. Why was she isolated? Why not the men?

For the next two months, the university was engulfed in a crisis, managing daily media coverage while figuring out what to do with the male dentistry students internally. Part of its response was to establish a series of commissions and inquiries.

“Everyone connected with this experienced damage and harm. That’s maybe the biggest lesson we took out of this: How little we appreciate the extent of the damage and the harm when discrimination occurs and when it erupts,” said Constance Backhouse, the chair of the task force and a law professor at the University of Ottawa.

Dalhousie, Dr. Backhouse says, has good policies in place to address sexual harassment and assault – some of the best among Canadian universities. And the report carefully states that it does not want to assign blame. Yet it also says those policies and the efforts of university leaders were not enough to prevent multiple failures in the handling of the incident – beginning with the first meeting with Student A.

“The reality at Dal is not different than any other institutions. What’s written on paper is fine. The problem is understanding how policies apply and how to respond to specific situations,” said Nitya Iyer, another task force member and a human-rights lawyer.

For the students who did participate in the restorative justice process, it was beneficial.

“It appears that they learned a lot. If I were the dental licensing people and I were asking them questions about what they learned, I would be probably very impressed with how transformed they have been,” Dr. Backhouse said.

Yet the report casts serious doubts on how the university came to embrace restorative justice as the way out of the crisis rather than pursuing a formal investigation. Such an investigation could have led to the expulsion of members of the Facebook group.

Questions about which path to take were complicated by the climate within the dentistry school. Staff said they dreaded going to work. A faculty member had been terminated for sexual relationships with two female students.

Over all, dentistry is defined by what the task force calls an “entrenched culture of white privilege,” with international students ignored in class and their assignments marked harder.

The task force report makes 39 policy recommendations, all of which the university has accepted.

Change could begin if other universities are brave enough to admit they have the same problems – similar Facebook posts and groups exist at other institutions, the report suggests.

“This is a problem facing all of us. It’s going to erupt again and again and again. … My greatest hopes would be that other Canadian universities would stand up and say it happens here too … and we commit to moving forward,” Dr. Backhouse said.

For Student A, the future is clear. She finished her clinical work in a separate room. Then, her work done, she asked to graduate early, without her class. She no longer lives in Canada.

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