HALIFAX – The misogynistic comments posted on Facebook earlier this year by male dentistry students at Dalhousie University represent but one example of a broader, systemic problem at the school and in society in general, says a report released Monday from a task force appointed by the university.
The 100-page report says the faculty of dentistry has long permitted sexism, homophobia and racism through a culture that appears caught in a “time warp.”
Constance Backhouse, a law professor at the University of Ottawa who led the investigation, said she and two other panel members spoke to 150 students, faculty members and staff, who relayed many reports of sexism, misogyny, homophobia and racism at the school in Halifax.
“We think the culture in the dental school is paternalistic and that there has been a degree of obliviousness to changing mores and to the ways in which respect for women should be expressed,” she told a news conference.
“This was not an isolated incident and the status quo is unacceptable.”
The report says the dentistry school does not have a formal complaint process, which has left many students, staff and members of faculty “afraid to complain for fear of retaliation.”
Backhouse said she also found there was a level of distrust and suspicion about the university’s responses to discrimination.
Some female students had complained in the past about some professors’ behaviour in class and were never told what action the faculty or the university took, if any, the report says.
“‘Swept under the rug’ was a phrase we heard over and over again,” the report says.
The panel issued 39 recommendations and said the complaint system should be changed to ensure they are handled promptly, fairly and transparently — and that the outcome is shared with the complainant.
The task force also suggested the university set up an ombudsman’s office, similar to those found at other universities.
The investigation was announced in January after 13 dentistry students were alleged to be members of a private Facebook page that contained sexually violent content.
The report does not assign blame or make findings of fact, but it concluded that what happened at Dalhousie cannot be dismissed as an isolated incident.
“One alumnus said that the dentistry (school) lived in a ‘time warp,’ oblivious to social progress that has rendered some behaviour unacceptable,” the report says.
Dalhousie president Richard Florizone launched the probe to look into the culture, practices and policies in the dentistry faculty and the university as a whole.
On Monday, he said he accepted the report’s recommendations, adding that it will take about two years to implement them.
Florizone said the coming changes will help make Dalhousie more diverse and inclusive, but he said the issues discussed in the document go beyond the walls of the university.
“These are systemic issues,” Florizone said. “These are issues that we know other universities face. These are issues that are going to require all of us working together.”
The initial reports of the offensive Facebook posts last December and the university’s response prompted rallies and calls for expulsion.
Members of the Facebook page voted on which woman they’d like to have “hate” sex with and joked about using chloroform on women.
To prevent a recurrence of what happened in the dentistry school, the report calls for so-called spot audits, “chilly climate” reports and anonymous surveys among students, faculty and staff.
Letitia Meynell, a philosophy professor and a member of the university’s senate, said she was pleased with the report because it offers a level of detail that has been absent until now.
Meynell, one of several professors who have spoken out about the university’s approach to misogyny, said she supported the recommendation to create an ombudsman’s office, but budget cuts could make that difficult.
“Universities across Canada … are all failing in adequately protecting and supporting our students when it comes to these matters,” she said, adding that the problem may seem huge but it is not insurmountable.
“If we are really committed to an equal society, it behooves every single one of us to look at our daily choices, judgments and interactions and see what we are doing that might be contributing to injustice and inequality. That’s hard and painful. … We’re embedded in this culture, but we can change.”
The university announced last month that it would allow students who posted the Facebook comments to graduate.
An earlier report that resulted from a restorative justice process says the climate at the school helped shape the development of the Facebook page.
It cited a student lounge at the school called “the Cavity,” which was scrawled wall-to-wall with racist, homophobic and sexist graffiti dating back to the 1990s. The walls have been painted over.