Saint Mary’s president fights the echoes of a sexist chant

HALIFAX — The Globe and Mail

President J. Colin Dodds on campus in Halifax September 6 , 2013. The University was under attack for a video showing students chanting inappropriate remarks. (Paul Darrow for The Globe and Mail)

The stands are full at Saint Mary’s Huskies Stadium for the season-opening game against the Acadia Axemen – and Colin Dodds is hoping for a win, anything to mitigate the most horrible week of his academic career and that of his university.

Dr. Dodds is president of Saint Mary’s, the small university in Halifax with a big international reputation, with nearly 30 per cent of its 6,400 full-time students coming from outside of Canada. But now the university is struggling against a reputation that it has a culture of violence against women, in the wake of a video showing student politicians leading a chant about underage, non-consensual sex, during an orientation week event.

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The chant’s phrasing, based on the word YOUNG, reads in part “Y is for your sister … U is for underage, N is for no consent … Saint Mary’s boys we like them young.”

The video of the incident, posted on Instagram, sparked a national controversy, a debate that is gaining intensity with revelations of a similar chant being performed by students at the University of British Columbia. On the Saint Mary’s campus, the incident has prompted an official investigation and task force, and provoked soul searching about why no one thought to put a stop to the chant.

Dr. Dodds says he feels let down and embarrassed by the incident; those sensitivities are evident when he declines to be photographed in the football stands for fear of sending the wrong kind of message. “It’s the worst,” he says about these past few days for the university. “I’ve had some bad incidents before … but this is the worst,” he says.

The Saint Mary’s president says he and his administration were blind-sided by the event, although it’s believed the chant has been used at frosh week since at least 2009.

His first reaction when he heard about it was “disbelief” and then shock. “I have been here for 31 years … what do you think this does to me,” says Dr. Dodds, who has been president since 2000. “I have given this my life, it’s my passion. What do you think I feel? I feel sick to my stomach.”

Dr. Dodds sprang into action just hours after finding out about the incident. He immediately issued a statement taking full responsibility for the event, apologizing “unreservedly.” He called the student leaders to a meeting, and asked them to account for their actions. The next day, student president Jared Perry, who admitted he participated in the chant, and his vice-president, Carrigan Desjardins, who is responsible for the frosh week, resigned.

And he struck a task force, the so-called President’s Council, led by bullying expert and Dalhousie University law professor Wayne MacKay. His group is to report by December with recommendations as to how to “foster a cultural change that prevents sexual violence …”

Two other student organizers, who are not being named, face disciplinary action. An investigation will determine whether they face a fine, suspension or expulsion.

At UBC, university and student officials also expressed their regrets about the performance of the chant, in that case, by business students on a bus during orientation week. An investigation is under way at the university.

Dr. Dodds readily acknowledges that SMU’s brand is severely bruised – the deluge of angry e-mails and calls coming into his office from parents, alumni and others are devastating.

Parents, he believes, will now think twice about sending their children, especially daughters, to his university.

Daren Miller, a Calgary businessman, is an irate alumnus. He’s already booked his flight to Halifax so that he can return his two degrees in person – and meet with Dr. Dodds.

SMU, says the graduate of the class of 1995, is a “huge foundation in my life.” But it’s “so tainted now I don’t want to be associated with it. … Five years of work vanished in five seconds.”

“I’m a father of two young girls. The thought of ever wanting to send them to Saint Mary’s disgusts me,” he says. “I would never do it now.”

Mr. Miller believes that Dr. Dodds should resign.

But the university president is focused on working hard to “get that brand back.”

“You can lose it like that,” he said, snapping his fingers. “But you don’t get it back like that.”

With files from Mark Hume in Vancouver