Three days after Dalhousie University announced the suspension of 13 male students for sexist comments on a Facebook group, and eight hours after news broke of an inappropriate student/teacher relationship at Mount Saint Vincent University, a panel of five professors from five Halifax universities convened at a hastily organized event last Thursday evening to discuss how schools should address sexual violence on campus.
It’s been a recurring topic of conversation for well over a year in Halifax, and across North America. In September 2013, Saint Mary’s University students came under fire for a frosh week chant about underage non-consensual sex. In March 2014, The Atlantic published a yearlong investigation into the dark side of American frat culture, including its habit of attracting rape allegations. And a week before Christmas, CBC broke the news that Dalhousie was investigating a Facebook group in which male dentistry students had voted on the female classmates they would most like to “hate fuck,” and joked about drugging women with chloroform and nitrous oxide.
On Dec. 21, four Dalhousie professors filed a formal complaint and requested an investigation of the incident under the school’s code of conduct, in part to prevent vulnerable students from having to sign their names to a formal complaint. Panelist Françoise Baylis, one of the professors who signed the complaint, argued at Thursday’s event that the lack of anonymity in the complaint process was one of Dalhousie’s many flubs in dealing with the Facebook group.
“One of the problems with our sexual assault policy at Dalhousie, which we will have to address, is that it requires a complainant to come forward and be identified, and the question we are asking is: when you have evidence, why should anyone have to attach themself to the complaint?” Her comment garnered applause from the full house of 300 people in attendance at the event, which was organized by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs.
Since news of the Facebook group broke on Dec. 15, Dalhousie has faced scrutiny and protests over its handling of the case—including an open letter from women in the dentistry program who said the university administration had pressured them into accepting a restorative justice process. The administration also received support from some quarters, including an editorial in the Globe and Mail. As well, on Friday Dalhousie’s board of governors backed the university’s handling of the scandal.
Also on Friday, the university announced an investigation into the Facebook group – a presidential task force led by the University of Ottawa’s Constance Backhouse that will look into the culture of Dalhousie’s dental school – and said the 13 students who were members of the group have been forbidden from attending classes in-person and suspended from clinical activities. Over the weekend came another announcement: Dalhousie had rejected the Code of Conduct investigation request from the four professors.
Posts in the Dalhousie Dentistry student Facebook group referred to sexual harassment by faculty members, and reports have emerged of a professor showing the class a video of women in bikinis to “wake up” the male students. Saint Mary’s University professor Rylan Higgins suggested during Thursday’s panel that feminist education for administrators and faculty could be valuable. “It could go across all non-student people at the university — that might be a good place to start feminist education,” he said. “Feminist education for our administrators, for our staff, for our faculty.”
In response to a couple of questions from the audience about whether preventive measures or punitive sanctions are best in dealing with sexist behaviour on campus, Mount St. Vincent University professor Marnina Gonick questioned whether the public calls for expulsion in the Dalhousie case revealed a lack of trust in the university’s approach to the case.
“Institutions have to be accountable and demonstrate that they’re seriously working towards prevention, and that when something happens that they are addressing it in a serious way,” she said. “I think the calls for aggressive consequences are partially about a distrust that institutions are serious about dealing with these issues.”
Last year, faculty at NSCAD University asked the university administration for an audit of its sexual harassment policy to ensure it was working properly, NSCAD professor Jayne Wark said. “It’s not enough to have a policy, you have to make sure your policy works. And that means you have to test your policy.”
It’s unclear what the outcome of the restorative justice process and external investigation at Dalhousie will be, but Dr. Wark encouraged universities to not only question their policies but also to continue discussions about sexual violence and misogyny on campus.
“We may see the outcome of some current events resulting in policies being written up and put on websites and then that somehow being perceived as the end of the story, and the solution has been attained,” she continued. “This is ongoing. We’re talking about misogyny—it’s something we’ve been talking about for decades now, and so it’s not going to be enough to come up with those kinds of answers I don’t think.”
Watch a video of the entire event: