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Moving forward: Dalhousie Faculty of Dentistry works to lead culture change

Posted by Faculty of Dentistry on September 22, 2015 in News

The start of a new academic year is an opportunity to look back at the year that was and set fresh goals for the months ahead.  

While that’s true for everyone at Dal, it’s especially true for the Faculty of Dentistry, in light of the discovery of offensive Facebook posts last December that sent shockwaves through the Dal community and beyond. The events that followed included a restorative justice process (which addressed harms caused and the climate and culture within which it occurred) and an external task force review (which assessed the culture more broadly and the University’s policies and practices) – all of it pointing to a need for the Faculty to consider how such a situation could arise in the first place and to make changes to improve its working and learning environment.

“Without question, this was a profoundly challenging year for every one of us, students, staff, faculty, patients, and alumni,” says Dr. Tom Boran, dean of the Faculty of Dentistry. “However, we learned a lot about ourselves, and about the culture here in the Faculty and the impact of issues such as misogyny, sexism, and homophobia in society at large. We’re now doing our very best to create a positive and inclusive environment. It will take time, but we are enthusiastic and committed.”

Making positive changes

The Faculty of Dentistry began to create a roadmap for change even before the recommendations of the Restorative Justice Report and the Constance Backhouse-chaired External Task Force Report on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in the Faculty of Dentistry were completed. A Next Steps Committee was formed in February 2015 to explore new opportunities to make positive change, foster an atmosphere of inclusiveness and diversity, and to ensure that all faculty, staff, students, alumni, patients, and members of the wider campus community feel welcome and have access to the resources, information, and support they need. The committee has subsequently taken on the work of reviewing the recommendations of the two reports as they relate to the Faculty and assessing how those recommendations can be implemented.

Many important changes have already been made across several different aspects of the Faculty of Dentistry’s work. Key among these are greatly enhanced professionalism training, a new approach to Orientation Week and social events, and a wider range of health and wellness services for faculty, staff, and students. Meshing these initiatives together is a greater emphasis on communication within the Faculty.

A focus on professionalism and inclusivity

Professionalism training has always been an important part of the dentistry curriculum. This year, however, the topic is being introduced earlier in the year through mandatory professionalism and ethics seminars for all dentistry and dental hygiene students. All students received their first taste of this training during Orientation Week.

Dr. Ferne Kraglund, assistant dean of students in the Faculty of Dentistry, has taken the lead on these seminars. “What matters now is public trust,” she says. “Our students need to take responsibility for themselves as professionals in training, particularly with regard to social media and their behaviour in public.”

Students were brought together during Orientation Week for two-hour mixed group (dentistry and dental hygiene) seminars that were focused specifically on professionalism, both inside and outside the walls of the dentistry building.  The use of social media was covered in detail and students were reminded of privacy rules for both patients and colleagues. Dalhousie’s community safety officer and harassment prevention/conflict management advisor, both of whom had been involved in the restorative justice process, engaged students in a discussion about the outcomes of that process.

Dr. Ron Bannerman, assistant dean of academic affairs in the Faculty of Dentistry, says students took the sessions seriously and were attentive. “They want to be professional. They are aware that the reputation of our Faculty affects their reputation and their reputation affects the Faculty’s. It was clear from their active participation in these seminars that they want to be as conscientious as they can be.”

Also new this year is a designated Professionalism Day on October 1, with a half-day workshop on the same day as the annual White Coat Ceremony. That’s when first-year students recite the Oral Health Professional Oath, receive their white coats, and commit themselves to high standards of patient care and professionalism. Additionally, all first-year health professional students (including dentistry and dental hygiene) will attend an inter-professional learning event on September 22 – a lecture by Scott Jones, who was left paralyzed after a homophobic attack in New Glasgow in 2013. His lecture, “Don’t be Afraid,” will address the theme of diversity and inclusion. In the winter term, dentistry and dental hygiene students will also participate in an LGBTQ workshop facilitated by the Youth Project.

This focus on professionalism extends to staff and faculty. With support from Dalhousie’s Human Resources Department, everyone will participate in the ACHIEVE program, which is a system designed to support employee and organizational achievement. Offered across all Dalhousie faculties, the goal of ACHIEVE is to improve communication between and amongst Faculty and staff, and gives everyone the opportunity to review professional goals and work relationships, discuss the work environment, and set targets for professional development.

An inclusive and family-friendly Orientation Week

Building a culture of respect starts on day one, which is why changes to Orientation Week and the Faculty’s social events were high on the Faculty of Dentistry’s priority list.

The group of students studying dentistry and dental hygiene is diverse. Some come to Dalhousie from different countries or parts of the country and several bring their young families with them. The activities planned for Orientation Week this year reflected that diversity, with many organized by students.  The first event of Orientation Week was a family-friendly pizza party for all students, faculty, and staff. Organized by students, it was an opportunity to welcome the new incoming class, raise money for Sharing Smiles Day – a new student-led event aimed at helping children with special needs – and to bring all members of the Faculty together in a welcoming and inclusive way. Several other events were held during the week that were alcohol-free and aimed at introducing students from other cultures to their new life in Halifax.

Promoting health and wellness

There’s no question that dentistry and dental hygiene students work hard, balancing classes, projects and studying with long hours in the clinic. Maintaining overall health and reducing stress are essential for healthy and productive working and academic lives. To promote physical and mental wellness throughout the Faculty, a new Health and Wellness Committee has been formed to organize a number of health and wellness activities, such as flu shots, health screening, yoga classes, and back-care clinics, as well as promoting health and wellness activities happening elsewhere at Dalhousie.

Training in conflict resolution will be widely offered in the Faculty of Dentistry, with the help of an external educational counsellor, alongside other initiatives aimed at helping student, faculty, and staff deal with stressful situations and know what sources of support are available to them and who they can turn to for help.

Communicating every step of the way

One of the major issues flagged in both the Restorative Justice and External Task Force reports was the importance of communication within the Faculty of Dentistry. It is vital for letting members of the Faculty know what resources are available to them, to tell them what is happening, and to make them feel included.

“It’s the biggest thing,” says Dr. Debora Matthews, chair of the Next Steps Committee. “It is the best way to ensure that when problems arise in the workplace or learning environment, people know where to go and who to approach for help.”

Although information about the services and support Dal Student Services offers has always been available to the campus community, the Faculty website is being updated to provide information about the roles of the assistant deans and other faculty, and to signpost sources of help for students, staff, and faculty on topics such as health and safety, human rights, counselling, and the process for making a complaint.

Much has been accomplished over the last few months and there is much more in the pipeline. Under the direction of the Next Steps committee and fired with a determination to change the culture of the Faculty of Dentistry, the work will continue.