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Report on Dalhousie’s dentistry scandal applies veneers to major cavities

It’s self-congratulatory. The men seem to have learned nothing. Anne Kingston on how Dal’s new report on the DDS 2015 group is a failure


 
A pedestrian walks by the Dalhousie Dentistry Building in Halifax on Friday, May 22, 2015. A report into sexist online posts by dentistry students at Dalhousie University has found that a Facebook page at the centre of the scandal began as a bonding exercise, but turned offensive. Despite the report's findings, the university says the academic standards class committee determined the men are eligible to graduate as long as they satisfy their clinical requirements. (Darren Pittman/CP)

A pedestrian walks by the Dalhousie Dentistry Building in Halifax on Friday, May 22, 2015. A report into sexist online posts by dentistry students at Dalhousie University has found that a Facebook page at the centre of the scandal began as a bonding exercise, but turned offensive. Despite the report’s findings, the university says the academic standards class committee determined the men are eligible to graduate as long as they satisfy their clinical requirements. (Darren Pittman/CP)

On page 49 of the 70-page “Report from the Restorative Justice Process at the Dalhousie University Faculty of Dentistry” released Friday, readers learn about a campus hangout known as “The Cavity”—a six-by-18-foot space in the dentistry building in plain view from the student lounge. Until recently, the Cavity’s walls were covered with “misogynistic, racist, sexist, and homophobic” graffiti dating back to the early 1990s. Signing the wall “next to offensive materials” was “a rite of passage” for dentistry students, the report states, before it connects that tradition to the vile posts made on the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” Facebook page: “it was a private student space but not a secret one where students ‘one-upped’ previous class years with the shock value of the content.” The Cavity’s walls were painted over after review by an external investigation and consultation between faculty administration and restorative process to ensure “it would not cause further offence or harm.”

“The Cavity” serves up a handy metaphor for the deeper rot exposed in the report, which itself can be seen as a bid for cathartic cleansing and closure. The 12 men implicated in Facebook posts targeting female students have been “remediated”—a term never fully explained—and will graduate next week provided they meet their clinical requirements (the 13th known Facebook group member, Ryan Millet, the whistle-blower, will also graduate). Readers are walked through the five-month restorative justice process involving 29 (15 men and 14 women) of the 38-person DDS 2015 graduating class who invested some 150 hours each. Presided over by Jennifer Llewellyn, a professor at Dalhousie’s Schulich School of Law who specializes in the field, and two other Dalhousie staff, the process included workshops and seminars on “inclusion, diversity, sexism, misogyny, rape culture, homophobia and discrimination” to “understand the harms and impacts related to Facebook and culture and climate.” A “day of learning” at the end shared experiences with “80 stakeholders,” including members of an international restorative justice advisory committee.

The report, which arrives a month before an independent task force is scheduled to deliver its investigation of the dentistry faculty, attempts to tie a neat bow on a complex, contentious topic. Part of the controversy revolved around the decision early on to use restorative justice to resolve the sexual harassment charges made against the men in the Facebook group by female classmates per university policy even though the posts were never intended to be seen by the woman; employing the mediation technique meant the men would not face more severe penalties, including expulsion. Not all of the female students in the DDS 2015 class signed on, with four writing an anonymous letter to the president saying they didn’t want to participate. Even proponents of the mediation technique pointed out that the process is not effective in cases involving sexual harassment or where a power imbalance exists; in fact, Nova Scotia has a moratorium on its use in such cases. In Friday’s report, the female students involved defended their decision to allow it; they believed the conciliatory approach would be more “educative” for the men, they write, and “would matter” to the wider community more than expulsion. (The report defends its use in this case given that no criminal charges had been laid and no physical violence had taken place.)

Related: The ongoing wait for justice in Nova Scotia

Administration also heaped praise on the process at a press conference Friday; Dalhousie president Richard Florizone called it “intense and difficult” and “a success.” Florizone, who in December tweeted that there would be “significant consequences” for the members of the Facebook group, said on Friday that expelling the students would not have changed attitudes: “We are educators,” he said.

Yet, reading the report, it’s not clear exactly what the members of the Facebook group have actually learned. If anything, it’s the female students, not the Facebook group, who accept a more nuanced culpability for what happened. They write that they “assumed” that the material on the “Gentlemen’s” Facebook site was “likely by times [sic] sexist, unprofessional, and inappropriate” and were in error for not taking action until they found out they were being targeted: “This made us realize that we, as women, also contribute to the culture and climate that allows Facebook groups like the one at issue to persist and flourish,” they write. “We needed this restorative process because we had work to do ourselves.”

No similar light-bulb moment is seen among the former Facebook page members, who acknowledge that the posts made public were “unacceptable.” Their focus appears to be on repairing their reputations: ”The truth is, none of the Facebook group members are innocent but nor are we monsters,” they write, a comment echoed in an interview with some of the participants on Global TV last week. They write that they’ve been maligned by the press: “Despite how we have been portrayed in the media, we care deeply about our classmates, faculty, university, our patients and our communities.”

Ryan Millet, a Dalhousie University dentistry student, arrives for a disciplinary hearing in Halifax on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The last dentistry student to return to Dalhousie University in Halifax following a suspension over an inappropriate Facebook group says he will complete his ordered remediation process. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Ryan Millet, a Dalhousie University dentistry student, arrives for a disciplinary hearing in Halifax on Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2015. The last dentistry student to return to Dalhousie University in Halifax following a suspension over an inappropriate Facebook group says he will complete his ordered remediation process. (Andrew Vaughan/CP)

Insights, lessons and revelations are in short supply: “We see the world through a different lens now,” the men say, though how the view has changed is unclear, though they “recognize more clearly the prejudice and discrimination that exists inside and outside of dentistry.” They share one lesson: “Professionalism is not just about how you act when you don your white coat and treat patients; it extends into your private life as well.”

Related: The creeping corporate takeover of our private lives

Yet the men’s written statement fails to communicate that they fully comprehend the ripple effect of their actions on the classmates they care about or “the public,” as they refer to it. “We know some feel that broader apologies are owed to ‘the public,’ ” they write. “Just as it is difficult, however, to believe our apologies, when they come without names and faces, it is equally hard to apologize to a general and unknown ‘public.’ ” Actually, apologizing is not difficult: Come forward. Show your face. Take responsibility. Express contrition. Done.

Dean of dentistry Tom Boran expressed pride in the Facebook group on Friday: “These men have taken ownership and responsibility for their actions,” he said. Similarly, the authors of the report defend the men as “good men.” “The restorative justice process was not tasked with transforming bad men into good ones,” it states. “Rather, it had to wrestle with how ‘good’ men could say these things–could ‘like’ these things.” The answer to this quandary, according to the report, is that these adult men were unduly influenced by the sexist climate within the faculty of dentistry as well as the pressures of social media to raise the shock threshold. The dentistry school comes under the most fire. The faculty is depicted as one where students were isolated by gender and race and infantilized by students and faculty as “boys and girls.” Female students at the dental school were routinely made “uncomfortable” by professors sharing sexually inappropriate jokes and spending unequal time supervising them in clinic. There were “inconsistent standards for professionalism,” “rumours” of “inappropriate relationships” between faculty and students and “sexist, misogynistic, racist and/or homophobic behaviours were at times perceived to be inadequately dealt with.”

Given the dysfunction and lack of professional boundaries within the dentistry faculty outlined in the report, it’s confounding then that the sign-off on “remediation,” along with written recommendations from the three restorative justice adjudicators, comes from the academic standards class committee within the dentistry faculty who determined that the men met professional standards for graduation. Llewellyn explains to Maclean’s that it was not a measure the restorative justice facilitators felt equipped to make: “The three of us are not dentists, so you do want some kind of expertise in terms of how professionalism is shaped or expressed within the profession,” she says. “These guys had to prove they would behave differently in a clinical setting.” She denies the suggestion that Dalhousie dentistry is a “hotbed” of bad behaviour. What went on in “The Cavity” was not unique to Dalhousie, she says. “If you asked lots of professional schools and universities where their space is where people put graffiti on the wall and had some record of I’m not sure you’d find things much dissimilar, no different than other universities. Less dentist oriented maybe, but not dissimilar.” The issue is a complex one, she notes: “[Dalhousie dentistry] is a good school with a lot going for it and it could be like this.”

In the report, the male students vow that once they’re dentists they’ll tell patients, colleagues and employees about their involvement in the Facebook posts, if asked, and have been doing so in clinic. They talk the talk: “Honesty and accountability are key to gaining and maintaining this public trust.” We’ll have to take their word for it; their identities remain shielded due to what they say that they and their families “experienced over the past five months.” On TV this week, the participants sat behind a scrim; the voices of the male students were distorted, though those of the women were not. That was their choice, says Llewellyn: “The men’s voices are more distinctive.”

The restorative justice report can also be read as a heroic narrative of “repair” at Dalhousie, one that prevailed despite a long list of “threats” to it. These included “error-filled press reports and aggressive media harassment of students” and “public denouncements of the process by non-faculty of dentistry professors and the Dalhousie Student Union” as well as allegations that professors on the Dalhousie University Senate tried to “to quash” the process. The report’s authors propose the technique be used as part of a weekly “check-in” within the dentistry faculty to provide “a safe place” for students to voice concerns. They also announce the recent case will be a model for the future: the university has committed to hosting an international conference in 2015-16 “to examine lessons learned from the Dalhousie dentistry restorative justice process” and its uses as a template “create a culture of respect and inclusion on campuses.”

Early response to the report suggests that might be premature. For one, several members of the Senate argue that the report is revising history. “No one on Senate ever argued that the restorative justice process should not go forward,” says Stephen Baur, an associate professor of musicology. “Several [senators] expressed concern that the restorative justice process alone could not ensure justice for all involved, nor could it assure the public that justice would be served.” Baur says there was also concern about remediation for the female students who chose not to participate: “The report does nothing to allay concerns that these female students have been treated unfairly. In fact, the report goes out of its way to discredit the letter that four female students wrote asking that the university accept the code of conduct complaint filed on their behalf by faculty members.”

Related: Emma Teitel on when restorative justice isn’t enough

Former senator Jacqueline Skiptunis expresses concern the report offers no benchmarks for the future, only a superficial gloss: “The report just sounds like Dal congratulating Dal, which is frustrating.” Brian Noble, a senator and associate professor at the school’s department of sociology and social anthropology, agrees: “It’s a very, very selective, carefully crafted report,” he says. “The sad thing about it is that it leaves out all of the context of the public concern for the situation—for the four women who didn’t want to participate, to all of these gaps.” Restorative justice had its place, he says. “But it became the wholesale approach, which raises the question about those missed from the process.” Wayne MacKay, a professor of law at Dalhousie who is an expert in online bullying and violence, questions whether anything will change: “A strong message needs to be sent … and I’m not sure this report sends that message,” he says. What this report does do, and very clearly, however, is point to a deeper cavity at Dalhousie, one that will require more than a paint job to remedy.

An earlier version of this article misstated that the report on the restorative justice process found that “inappropriate relationships” between faculty and students at the Dalhousie dental school abounded. The report stated “rumours” of “inappropriate relationships” between faculty and students. This article has also been amended to make it clear The Cavity’s walls were painted after a review. Jennifer Llewellyn’s comments about expertise and The Cavity have been expanded.


 

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