Statement from President Florizone on next steps to address offensive social media comments

- December 17, 2014

The last several days have been very difficult for many, particularly for our female students in the fourth-year Dentistry class who were the subject of deeply offensive comments made in a Facebook group by fellow students.

On behalf of the entire university community, I reiterate and emphasize that these types of degrading and misogynistic comments are entirely unacceptable. The comments have caused harm broadly — most importantly, to the women who were impacted by these posts, and women in general, but also to our Faculty of Dentistry, to the university and to the dental profession. This incident is particularly saddening because it shows how much more work we have to do, as an institution and a society, to create an environment free from harassment, discrimination and sexualized violence. Each of us has a responsibility to ensure Dalhousie is a safe space for all members of our community.

This matter was first brought to the university’s attention on Monday, December 8 from an affected student, who was referred to and met with the university’s Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention office (HREHP).

Specific allegations of this nature are always confidential. Following media reports on Monday, December 15 that made material associated with the issue public and raised justified concerns among our communities, I committed to communicating steps for addressing the allegations within the next 48 hours, while maintaining the confidentiality of the individuals involved. Since then, many of the women who were the subject of the comments, as well as members of the Facebook group, have come forward. Options under university policy were then explored.

Our approach

Our focus is on those most directly harmed, on understanding and repairing the harm caused, on holding individuals accountable, and on reinforcing a safe and respectful environment. We are committed to these principles; our immediate concern is to address this particular situation.

The women who have come forward have done so under the university’s Sexual Harassment Policy, which provides two options to proceed: an informal resolution procedure and a formal complaint procedure.

A number of the women in this case have elected to proceed with a restorative justice process under the policy’s informal resolution procedure, and this process is already underway. The restorative justice process is collaborative and inclusive of the parties involved, with a view to developing outcomes that ensure accountability. The process is confidential so that a safe space can be created for the parties to explore the impacts, to address accountability and to forge constructive, meaningful outcomes. Those outcomes may become public if it is the wishes of those involved. The university will be a dedicated partner in this process, which is predicated on the good-faith participation and meaningful engagement of all parties.

More information: Restorative justice

If, at any time, the participants do not meet this standard, or do not demonstrate an appropriate commitment, the formal complaint procedure will be engaged.

The formal complaint procedure would involve a university investigator being assigned following a formal complaint. If the investigator determines a violation has occurred, the Vice-Provost Student Affairs could then refer the case to the Senate Discipline Committee under the Code of Student Conduct for consideration of appropriate disciplinary action. There is also the possibility that other women affected may pursue the formal complaint procedure from the outset, although we have not yet received a formal complaint to proceed under this model.

Respecting the wishes of all parties involved, I ask for our communities to give our students and university administrators the time to complete their work through the restorative justice process and forge meaningful, responsible outcomes. The university and I will do everything we can to support them.

Looking ahead

That is where we currently stand in addressing the direct impact of this deeply regrettable situation. Our immediate response to this incident, however, is only part of the story.  Our overall response must also address cultures of sexism, misogyny and sexualized violence. We must ensure an inclusive community that offers a healthy and safe learning and working environment for all.

When Dal Professor Wayne MacKay published his President’s Council report in support of cultural change at Saint Mary’s University, we were encouraged that many of the recommendations he made were already in place at Dalhousie. Our work on improving our campus culture has continued. Yet this incident shows that we need to do something different to live up to our values.

This conversation belongs to our community as a whole. Over the last few days I’ve heard from faculty, staff, students, experts, colleagues from across Nova Scotia and across the country. As president, I am committed to nurturing an inclusive and respectful community at Dalhousie. In the coming weeks, I will form a presidential task force to work with me in helping shape and lead that conversation.

Thank you to everyone who has written, commented or otherwise shared concerns with us over this troubling situation. We expect to come back to our community with an update by the end of January. As we approach the holiday season, our thoughts are with our faculty, staff, students, alumni of the Faculty of Dentistry and their families.

President Richard Florizone