Report into dentistry scandal calls for complaint system changes at Dalhousie

Dalhousie University should overhaul its culture and the way it handles complaints of sexism in the aftermath of misogynistic comments posted on Facebook by some male dentistry students, says a task force appointed by the school.

HALIFAX — Dalhousie University should overhaul its culture and the way it handles complaints of sexism in the aftermath of misogynistic comments posted on Facebook by some male dentistry students, says a task force appointed by the school.

Constance Backhouse, a professor at the University of Ottawa who led the investigation, said Monday that she and two other panel members received several 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 in Halifax, adding that one alumni described the school as being locked in a time warp.

“This was not an isolated incident and the status quo is unacceptable.”

Backhouse also found there was a level of distrust and suspicion about the university’s responses to discrimination. She said most people told them they were too afraid to complain about sexist or racist issues because of the risk of retaliation, or that little would be done to address perceived problems.

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 earlier this year after 13 dentistry students were alleged to be members of a Facebook page that contained sexually violent content.

The report does not assign blame or make findings of fact, but it says the culture within the faculty of dentistry “permits incidents of sexism and misogyny.”

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.

He accepted the report’s recommendations on Monday, saying they will help make Dalhousie more diverse and inclusive but 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.”

Members of the Facebook page voted on which woman they’d like to have “hate” sex with and joked about using chloroform on women.

Reports of the offensive posts and the university’s initial response prompted rallies, calls for expulsion and a demand by some faculty members for an independent inquiry into how the school handled the incident.

The university announced last month that it would allow students who posted the comments about their female classmates in the private Facebook group to graduate.

A separate report that resulted from a restorative justice process that was used by the school concluded that the dentistry students started the so-called Gentlemen’s Club in 2011 as a bonding exercise, but it became offensive.

The report released in May 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.

The report also found that female students were exposed to sexually inappropriate comments by faculty members and rarely spoke up because they feared being labelled “trouble makers.”

The women who participated in the restorative justice process accepted apologies from their male classmates.

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