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Dalhousie needs a public investigation into its dentistry crisis

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Photo: Tom Flemming/flickr

After a brief holiday respite, Dalhousie University must try -- again -- to reset a raveled, roiling mess that may have initially focused on a secret Facebook group but has now morphed into broader, thornier and out-of-the-university's-control debates about restorative justice, public safety, crime, punishment, education, rape culture, life and who gets to decide how this will end.

It will not be easy.

Last month, news reports a group of fourth-year dental students had created a private Facebook group known as the "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen," and were posting comments promoting raping and drugging fellow female students exploded like a cluster bomb over the campus.

The university postponed fourth-year dentistry exams and delayed this week's reopening of a student-serviced dental clinic (though insisting there was "no public safety issue") while officials dealt with the crisis.

A tearful President Richard Florizone reported he had met with targeted women and they had agreed to participate in a restorative justice process with their male colleagues. "The process is confidential, so a safe space can be created for the parties to explore the impacts, to address accountability and to forge constructive, meaningful outcomes."

Worse hell…

  • A 300-strong on-campus protest (placards reading "Expel Misogyny" and "Don't Ask The Victims To Do Your Job");
  • trending #dalhousiehateswomen Twitter hashtag;
  • an online petition calling on the university to immediately expel the offending students (it had 47,127 signees as of Saturday morning);
  • an official campus code-of-conduct complaint by four professors;
  • alumni threats to cut funding;
  • even a threat by the oxymoronically named Anonymous to publicly name the male students if the university failed to do so by noon Monday.

On Monday morning, the university tried to regain control of an off-the-rails process by announcing it had suspended the 13 dental students involved from participating in clinical activities, though what that would mean for dental school classes, which begin next week, was not clear.

Although there are no simple solutions to what is far more complex than a tweet or a Facebook post, it is fair to say Dalhousie has not acquitted itself well.

While the university claimed it only learned about the Facebook group the week before it became public, other reports suggest there were complaints last summer. And it is clear Florizone did not talk to all the female students before announcing his restorative justice process.

That said, restorative justice may be a legitimate, healing way to deal with the personal damage and hurt this episode has caused.

But, by itself, it is not enough. Dalhousie needs to launch a parallel public investigation into what happened, who knew when and did what, and what the university intends to do now to respond to what is, in fairness, a larger societal issue.

A version of this article first appeared in Stephen Kimber's Halifax Metro column.

Photo: Tom Flemming/flickr

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