Dalhousie University has been embroiled in controversy since last December when the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen Facebook page came to light. The page, which saw male dental students participate in misogynistic sexual conversations about their female classmates, has provoked a national debate about the difference between rape culture and locker room talk—and how society ought to deal with their intersection.
The university’s handling of the incident, including its decision to pursue a restorative justice plan—a process in which victims, community members and perpetrators discuss the ramifications of the crime and determine suitable amends—has also prompted internal debate within the school itself.
At the end of December, four professors at Dal, including Francoise Baylis, professor and Canada Research Chair in bioethics and philosophy, lodged a complaint under the Code of Student Conduct—and want to use the case as a focal point for systemic change when it comes to sexual violence on campus. (The complaint was later denied on a technicality.)
Baylis talks to FLARE about the scandal, how the petition was dealt with and why we should push back against the idea that this Facebook page is simply locker room talk gone wild.
When were you made aware of the page and its content? At six p.m. on Monday December 15… I was listening to the radio and that’s the first time that I heard any of it. I was in shock.
How did the university respond, in your opinion, at first? My first understanding of the university’s response was a statement by the president [Richard Florizone] that he needed 48 hours to reflect. My original response was, That’s great, actually. We’re not making any hasty decisions or judgments. You’re going to take 48 hours to understand the situation, map out options and presumably start making some decisions around those options.
Later on, I learned along with everyone else that he had made a final commitment to a response that would be grounded in restorative justice. At that point, I began to have a number of concerns along with some colleagues who are amongst those who issued the public statement that’s up on the Impact Ethics web page and [then] went beyond that to register a formal complaint.
Why lodge a complaint? We had credible evidence that while some people might wish to pursue this option of restorative justice, there were a number of other students who wanted a formal process. In that context, we tried to initiate a formal process.
How was your request addressed? The formal complaint was denied on January 10. We submitted it on December 21, having given the president notice on December 19 that we were going to do so.
The thing for the public to know is that the Faculty of Dentistry had those documents on December 12. It had done nothing by December 19, when we told the president we were going to submit a complaint. On December 21 we submitted a complaint, on December 22 we hand-delivered it, and on January 5 we were told that it had been determined on December 22 that another initiative was being undertaken, which basically invalidated our complaint.
It sounds like your early warning acted as more of a tip-off for them… Yeah, well, unfortunately you never know. I don’t want to impugn anyone’s character. I just want to point out really clearly the timeline based on what we know and part of the reason for us laying out that timeline really clearly is because we did not want the public or anyone else to believe that we were just troublemakers in the background trying to get attention…when we submitted the complaint we had every reason to believe that it was a valid process. There was no indication that any other initiative was being undertaken. [On January 9, the university announced that it would be launching an external investigation in addition to the restorative justice process.]
There’s some conflict in how this Facebook group has been perceived publicly. On one side there are those who argue that this is just sophomoric locker room talk, on the other are people who say these are potentially violent, predatory males. What is your thinking on those extremes? I think neither is appropriate. We have never called for the expulsion for all of the students because we don’t have all the facts. It’s not clear what behaviours were engaged in and whether they warrant expulsion. It’s possible some behaviours warrant expulsion for some men and not for others. Maybe none of it warrants expulsion, maybe all of it warrants a suspension of one month, maybe a suspension of a year.
We’ve never called for a specific outcome; we’ve called for due process. Due process begins with a proper investigation to get access to the facts and begin to sort out what happened, who did what, and thereafter to figure out what’s an appropriate response.
At the other extreme, the sort of Margaret Wente perspective of ‘boys will be boys’… First of all, they’re not boys. They are young men who are training in a professional school. These are professionals who actually are making jokes about using the tools of their trade to assault people, and in that context we need to pay attention to the fact that they are people in a professional school and once we give them a degree and they go off to get their licensing they are legitimately and legally in a position to work with vulnerable patients. We should be confident as a university that we’re certifying that these people are capable of the job, and part of the capacity there is the ability to show respect for all people who might end up in your chair as a patient.
I think this is much more serious in that context and I think we do need to understand that this kind of behaviour doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s not like you’re living and working in an environment where people are treating everybody else respectfully and then there’s this anomalous behaviour on a Facebook page. I think that’s the other thing that we’ve always been very consistent about that we’re not only concerned about this example but obviously a culture in which some behaviours like this could even take place.
The only thing that resonated for me in the Wente essay was a pushback against the idea that women are powerless victims against this kind of behaviour. Seeing the university president crying [in a press conference], it didn’t give me a lot of confidence in his maturity in facing this kind of crisis. Do you feel that there is this sense that woman are being infantilized a little bit by that kind of response? I don’t think so at all. But what I do think is that if you have a particular kind of culture that says this kind of behaviour is to be tolerated—C’mon lady, it’s a joke—it becomes very difficult to stand up in a context where you know there’s not necessarily going to be public support when you say, I don’t think it’s funny.
I don’t think it’s funny. I think it’s sophomoric and offensive but I think you can be an adult about condemning it. Perhaps that’s why I found it strange to see Richard Florizone crying. I don’t know what motivated the tears. When I first saw that I was a bit surprised and I went back and looked I couldn’t understand what was the trigger. I really don’t know the answer to that. One of the things that I can tell you is that when I heard some of the [Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen] statements on the radio—and then when I actually read about them—some are so offensive that your heart sinks.
I sat there thinking, Who are you that you could actually say these things? Where are you coming from? With respect to the issue, something that I also think is very telling is that the anonymous women who wrote their public letter say that they do not want to come forward because they’re afraid they could lose their year. [Four anonymous women from the DDS class of 2015 wrote to the university president to say that they do not support the restorative justice process but also do not feel comfortable putting forward a formal complaint in their own names.] That’s not about terror. That’s not about infantilizing women. That’s about women sitting there and looking at their options and saying, This is not a real option for me.
This story is part of #Project97 — a year-long conversation about sexual assault, abuse and harassment. Visit Project97.ca for more details on this collaborative project by Rogers-owned media outlets, and join us on Twitter with the hashtag #Project97.