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Four faculty members of Halifax’s Dalhousie University say a complaint they filed two weeks ago about male students allegedly posting sexually hateful messages online about females has not been addressed by administration.Roger Hallett/The Globe and Mail

Dalhousie University was engulfed in controversy on Monday after it announced the suspension of 13 male dentistry students over misogynistic comments on Facebook that came to light almost a month ago.

The university announced on Monday morning that the men are suspended from clinical activities while an academic committee considers further penalties, such as academic suspension or expulsion.

Pressure on the institution is increasing: At least five internal processes related to the incident are taking place simultaneously, provincial regulatory bodies have warned they will consider the men's ability to demonstrate "good character" when they apply to practise, and there is an unverified threat that the hacker collective Anonymous will identify the men in the "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen" Facebook group.

University president Richard Florizone said Dalhousie decided on the suspension on Dec. 22, but waited to communicate it because it had reports some of the men were at "credible risk of potential self-harm." Now that the students are back on campus, they have access to university supports, he added.

As long as the students are suspended from clinical activities, they cannot graduate, Dr. Florizone said.

"The behaviour has called into question their professionalism … so they are suspended from clinical activity until this academic committee removes that suspension," he said.

Even if they graduate on time this spring, the students are likely to face heavy questioning when they apply for licenses. The Provincial Dental Board of Nova Scotia said in a statement it will consider the outcome of the inquiries at Dalhousie in any decision to allow the students to practise. And the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario, which regulates 9,000 dentists, has asked Dalhousie for the names of the 13 men.

Should the university not provide them, dentistry graduates from Dalhousie who apply for a license in Ontario will be asked if they have been the subject of a university complaint or inquiry, said Irwin Fefergrad, the college's registrar.

"As the regulatory body in Ontario, we need to make sure that the public is protected and that anybody we give a license to is safe to practice, and that the individual is of good moral fibre and has not done anything of this kind," Mr. Fefergrad said, adding each case would be judged individually. To gain permission to practise, the men could show they were rehabilitated.

"My members have been appalled and disgusted by the students. I've had more e-mails on this issue than I can remember on anything else," he said.

Outside the president's office building on Monday, hundreds of protesters demanded the students be expelled and that more be done to address sexism on campus.

"These students need to be expelled because people should feel safe when they go to get any medical work done," student Kortney Foley said. "Having people who have said these things be in a position of power isn't right."

Classes in the dentistry faculty resume on Jan. 12. A restorative justice process that was the university's first response to the incident was supposed to begin on Monday. The university did not comment on where that stands now. As part of that process, female students targeted by the comments were sent questionnaires on Dec. 19 asking what remedies they would recommend.

Many in the university community and outside feel restorative justice puts an undue burden on the victims. Last week, four faculty members made public a complaint they launched under the university's student code of conduct.

"We as faculty made this decision to go forward for two reasons: So that no student need feel pressured to come forward themselves, and that no student feel or bear any consequences for making a complaint," said Françoise Baylis, Canada Research Chair in Bioethics and Philosophy at Dalhousie. "We said we are going to shoulder that responsibility. We are not going to allow that burden to fall onto students."

Dr. Baylis said the group was concerned that not all students affected had wanted the informal process. A decision on the professors' complaint will be announced later this week, the university said on Monday.

Carol Pye, a clinical and forensic psychologist in Nova Scotia who has looked at restorative justice in sexual assault cases, said not enough research has been done on its impact. For example, women who have been assaulted may be harmed by bringing them together with the accused. "Looking at restorative justice from the perspective of a scientist, we are in the infancy of evaluating who is it good for," Dr. Pye said.

Dr. Florizone says the university is committed to a "just process" that respects the rights of all the parties involved, including the men.

The statements on the Facebook group belonging to the "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen" made threats of sexual assaults and harassment. On the group, members joked about chloroforming their female classmates to have sex with them and voted on which women they would most like to have "hate" sex with.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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