It’s easy to believe that life on college and university campuses is some sort of haven of mutual inquiry and shared values. From the glossy admissions catalogues filled with photographs of laughing students, to the collective cheers of cap-throwing graduates, academia often seems fairly idyllic. Campuses are advertised to be places where there can be heated debates, divergent political opinions, and fierce rivalries, but where students and faculty nevertheless gather — wrapped in their bold school colours, with Latin mottos about change and inspiration ringing in their ears — to learn how to make the world a better place together. 

This is, of course, an idealistic view of the university. Though there are perhaps a few who remain convinced of academia’s relative distance from the ills of society at large, and though there are parts of academia which seem capable of realizing the utopian dream of a life of the mind (when they are not drowning in budget reports), we all know full well that universities and colleges are rife with the same kinds of institutional and interpersonal issues as any other workplace or part of society.

As I’ve progressed through my many years of post-secondary education and swapped stories with students, staff members, and faculty alike, I see the ways in which the neoliberal culture of individualism and the corporatization of academia seems to encourage and/or protect those who do harm in the community. And the deeper you become embedded in the culture, the more injustices you begin to notice. People talk. As Emma Healey wrote over at The Hairpin, regarding abuse within literary communities, stories become passwords, ways of unlocking all that has been kept quiet. It’s not that abuses and injustices aren’t happening, it’s that they’ve sadly largely gone underground, passed on only as whispers when the cost of speaking out is far too high.

It should come as no surprise to anyone that academia — much like literary communities, activist circles, or even beloved national media outlets such as the CBC — can be potent breeding grounds for opportunism. The harms committed by fellow students, colleagues, or supervisors can involve more than mere egotism or a lack of collegiality. Abuse can take the form of intellectual theft, of psychological intimidation, of “casual” misogyny, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, or ableism, all the way to threats or acts of violence.

I learned this myself in the second year of my doctoral program, when a fellow student from my department (who had then just recently graduated) sexually assaulted me on campus. In the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t the most awful act of sexual violence that I’d ever experienced, and I managed to escape relatively unscathed. Not scarred, but definitely shaken. Not raped, but definitely rattled. As I escaped to the washroom to smooth out my shirt and get my boots back on, blinking away my tears, I thought: “How could this happen? This was the guy who took a feminist theory course.” I’d been under the assumption, however naïve, that those who spend their time learning about oppression (or those who spend their time protesting and organizing against it) are not the ones who will end up turning against their peers, their colleagues, or their comrades. Clearly, I was mistaken. In the end, I decided not to report it, neither to my department nor to the university at large. Instead, I confronted my assailant via email, told him never to contact me again, and that was the end of it.  

I was incredibly fortunate. Because he had just graduated, and had only returned to campus on a visit, I never had to return to a classroom and have to deal with the discomfort of sitting across the table from him. I never had to be in the position faced by students such as Columbia University’s Emma Sulkowicz, who, instead of counting down the months to graduation with excitement, are instead facing a countdown of how many more days they have to be on campus with the person who abused them. I never had to be in the position of the numerous female students in the fourth-year class at Dalhousie University’s School of Dentistry who, in the course of their remaining studies, will likely still have to face the 13 men who created a violent and misogynistic Facebook page, one dedicated not only to more generally misogynistic comments, but to polls asking which one of them their male colleagues would prefer to “hate-fuck.” 

As news of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” picked up steam in the Canadian media, and in the past couple of weeks, as Dalhousie community members, anti-violence activists — and most importantly, the women affected by the men’s hateful speech — have waited for decisive action from Dalhousie President Richard Florizone, I’ve been thinking a lot about the particular kind of betrayal involved in cases where individuals enact or threaten violence against their academic colleagues. 

What the Dalhousie case shows — albeit on a much more concentrated scale, given the small size of the class and the sheer length of time that these students spent together — is that when students enroll in a particular university, a specific program, or when they take part in campus life or politics, it’s reasonable to believe that they do so with hopes that the community they’re entering into will be filled with like-minded individuals who agree to uphold certain standards of conduct. When programs become highly specialized and focused, especially with regards to social change or healthcare, the sense of shared trust and a mutual interest in public service not only strengthens the relationships between students, but also strengthens the shared values of the students’ community. As such, when students engage in acts of misogyny or violence against their peers, it’s not only a betrayal of the relationships that students develop in the classroom, but a betrayal of the values that the victims had every right to believe would be protected and upheld. 

This twofold sense of betrayal is something we’ve seen before, in nearly every case of rape culture on Canadian university campuses that has been uncovered in the past few years. In the fall of 2013, when leaders at Saint Mary’s University and the University of British Columbia engaged in rape chants during orientation events, they not only made individual students feel unsafe, but undermined the notion that campus was a safe and welcoming place. Early in 2014, male student politicians at the University of Ottawa exchanged Facebook messages about how they wanted to sexually humiliate and punish Anne-Marie Roy, the female president of the undergraduate student union. In doing so, they not only caused injury to the target of their cruel misogyny, but to the institution of student leadership and politics on campus.

In Canada, as elsewhere, this isn’t limited to university spaces. We need only look at the massive class-action lawsuit being filed against the RCMP by more than 300 women who allege sexual assault and abuse within the ranks, or at cases like that of former CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi, who, despite his frequent interventions in feminist discussions or his promotion of feminist values, has nevertheless been charged with acts of physical and sexual violence against women both in his workplace and beyond. Abuse that takes place within organizations or communities which claim to uphold a specific set of ethical or political values is akin to the abuse that takes place within families: the betrayal runs deeper when violence or abuse is committed by those you are supposed to trust the most.

And then, of course, there’s the third kind of betrayal: the one which happens when universities or other organizations fail to adequately investigate or reprimand perpetrators, or fail to give victims and survivors the care and respect they deserve. Certainly, in all the aforementioned cases, these failures have been some of the most devastating forms of harm, because it leads victims to wonder if they can ever truly feel safe and supported by the institutions or the communities in which they live and work.

As I write this, much remains to be seen about how things will be handled at Dalhousie. As of January 5, the 13 male students involved in the Facebook group have been suspended from clinical duties, although they have not currently been suspended from attending classes when they resume. Hacktivist group Anonymous, who has been involved in this case for a number of weeks, maintains that they will release the names of the men involved and continue to put pressure on Dalhousie administrators. Similarly, the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario has demanded the names of the students, expressing zero-tolerance for their behaviour. 

Much attention has been paid to the men involved in this case — their actions, their excuses, the possible reprimands they will receive — but all I can do, in this moment of frustration and shared anger, is to think of the women involved. I wonder how they are doing. I hope they are receiving the support they deserve. I praise their strength in managing to balance the last few months of their dentistry degrees with the additional burden of dealing with virulent misogyny from their peers and drawn-out, exhausting bureaucratic processes which may or may not see justice served. 

There are good people in the academy. In fact, they far outnumber the (usually powerful) few who choose to bully, harass, or assault their peers or their colleagues. That’s reassuring, and I am far from hopeless about the possibility of safe and supportive campus communities. But all I know is this: once your faith in the system has been shattered, it can take a hell of a long time to get it back.