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Dalhousie turns down formal faculty complaint against Facebook ‘Gentlemen’

The Dalhousie University dentistry building.


Half of the male students in the graduating dentistry class at Dalhousie University will be missing from the classroom on Monday when the faculty resumes courses for the winter term.

On Friday, the university announced that 13 members of the class who made misogynistic comments on Facebook will be separated from their classmates, and that a third-party task force will look at the environment in the dentistry faculty.

"There may be cases where they attend remotely or meet on campus as a group," president Richard Florizone explained in a news conference on Friday.

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Questions are already being raised about how the new measures address the concerns of women who did not agree to a restorative justice process that was arranged to deal with the controversy.

"Steps must be taken by the institution … to ensure that consent of all participants [to restorative justice] is free and informed," said a statement from four faculty members who had launched a complaint under the student code of conduct asking the university to investigate the comments.

On Saturday, the university turned down the professors' complaint. In a letter,  Anne Forestall, the acting vice-provost for student affairs, wrote that the student code could not apply to student behaviour that could be considered a failure of standards of professional conduct. An academic committee in the faculty of dentistry is considering whether the Facebook comments violate professionalism requirements, she stated.

In their response to the decision the faculty question whether an internal academic committee in the Dentistry faculty is sufficient, and thank the four women in the graduating dentistry class who wrote an open letter to the university's president in support. "This took tremendous courage," they say in a statement.

For much of the past week, the university had remained silent in the face of nationwide scrutiny of its handling of a crisis that began when the posts on the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen Facebook group became public on Dec. 15. The students were suspended from clinical activities on Monday and cannot graduate unless the suspension is lifted. That will depend on whether the dentistry committee finds that the students can still meet professionalism requirements.

Meanwhile, the process of restorative justice, in which victims and perpetrators talk about the harms inflicted is continuing, Dr. Florizone said. A majority of 26 students in total have agreed to participate: 14 women and 12 of 13 Facebook group members. The graduating class has 47 students: 21 women and 26 men.

It was not clear what options were open to those who chose neither avenue.

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Dr. Florizone defended the university's handling of the scandal.

"I know there are people who want us to rush to judgment. … We are not strong as an institution unless we are respectful," he said, reiterating the importance of a just process for all parties.

Pulling 13 students out of the larger class runs the risk of revealing their identities to classmates and the community. Some on campus, such as South House, the university's sexual and gender resource centre, want the names made public.

"It's important that the men's names are released because it's a public health concern to have men who are joking about rape using sedatives to actually have access to sedatives," said Alexandra Killham, one of the board members of the centre.

The Ontario and Alberta dental colleges have asked for the men's names to be provided to their registrars, but the university cited privacy concerns in declining Ontario's request. Transcripts of the Facebook posts read by The Globe and Mail make it clear that some men contributed more frequently to the group than others.

The external investigation into the environment at the faculty of dentistry will be chaired by Constance Backhouse, university research chair in law at the University of Ottawa, who has written many books on sexual assault law and racism.

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A presidential task force chaired by Kim Brooks, the dean of Dalhousie's law school, will look at diversity and inclusiveness on campus.

Pressure on the university is unlikely to let up. On Monday, the university's Senate will consider a motion asking Dr. Florizone for a third-party investigation of the entire university. And Nova Scotia's provincial government has said it is closely monitoring the situation.

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