Moving forward to foster respect, inclusion and community

- October 30, 2017

(File photo: Danny Abriel)
(File photo: Danny Abriel)

The past two weeks at Dalhousie University have sparked many conversations about respect, inclusion, community and freedom of expression — all of which the university is committed to — in the context of a complaint under the Code of Student Conduct by one student against another.

In a statement released last Wednesday, Arig al Shaibah, vice-provost student affairs, announced that, with the endorsement of the officers of Senate, she was withdrawing the complaint, explaining that the path forward in addressing this needed to reduce harms (to individuals and the community); improve and clarify processes for these kinds of issues; expand the circle of engagement and change; and create a clearer path to meet the priorities and goals set out in Dal’s Diversity and Inclusiveness Strategy.

“This incident has demonstrated the need for an open, thorough discussion on campus about the appropriate policies and processes to support freedom of expression, promote respectful dialogue by all including student leaders, and foster inclusive environments on campus where all feel that they belong,” said Dr. al Shaibah in her statement.

Senate statement on Code of Student Conduct

“I take very seriously the authority vested in my role to make decisions when administering the Code on behalf of the University,” says Dr. al Shaibah. “I am accountable to all students and, in my view, they all equally have the right to engage institutional policies and processes when they apply. Whenever the Senate Code of Student Conduct is engaged, I thoroughly review and seek extensive advice on all sections of the Code and the sufficiency of evidence supporting the complaint.”  

In her statement, Dr. al Shaibah indicated that one of the reasons for withdrawing the complaint related to reflecting on concerns that the Code of Student Conduct, as written, might not place and sufficiently reconcile core values of supporting freedom of speech, and ensuring access and inclusion by preventing demeaning/intimidating behavior, in sufficient and proper context in light of the evolving law.

“Institutions across the U.S. and Canada are now and increasingly  wrestling with matters of respect and inclusion set against freedom of expression, within its limitations,” says Dr. al Shaibah. “There are a variety of institutional models used to motivate and/or regulate behaviour. The Senate will approve a clarified statement about freedom of expression in the Code and determine whether and how it will continue to frame disrespectful, demeaning and intimidating behaviour, which does not break the law, within the context of a clarified disciplinary process or take a renewed approach separate and apart from the Code.”

The executive of the Dalhousie Senate has committed to supporting this process. In a statement, officers Kevin Hewitt (chair), Jeff Hoyle and Tanya Packer (vice-chairs) said they will bring the issue before Senate, which is responsible for the Code, and that Senate will “encourage ongoing constructive dialogue around these issues, and will seek creative ways to engage the University community in concert with its principles and values.”

Plans to review and revise the Code are well underway. In the fall of 2016, a small group of faculty, staff and students began discussions to develop principles to guide the review and revision of new and existing behavioural policies (e.g., human rights related policies, codes of conduct, etc.). With the completion of the stand-alone draft Sexual Violence Policy, which is heading to the first phase of approvals at the Senate Learning and Teaching Committee on November 1, Dr. al Shaibah will be reaching out to experts, internal and external as needed, within the next week to constitute the Code review advisory group.

Promoting respectful dialogue and supporting inclusive environments

One of Dr. al Shaibah’s commitments in her statement was to constitute a small team to consult broadly (internally and externally) on initiatives to improve campus climate and enhance intergroup relations.

The core team members:

  • Amina Abawajy, Dalhousie Student Union President
  • Aaron Prosper, student Senator, member of Dalhousie Indigenous Student Collective
  • Patti Doyle-Bedwell, professor (College of Continuing Education) & co-chair, Indigenous Strategy Steering Committee
  • Norma Williams, executive director, Diversity and Inclusiveness
  • Howard Ramos, professor, associate dean research, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

The team will also benefit from the wisdom of Canadian Senator Wanda Thomas-Bernard, who has also agreed to act as an advisor.

Dr. al Shaibah and others have started to map out several initiatives, aligned with the work already underway as part of the Diversity and Inclusiveness Strategy. While it is still early, here are a few tentative ideas the team is exploring:

  1. Facilitated “caucus” group sessions, throughout the month of November, for Indigenous students and for racialized students to discuss lived-experiences of racism on campus and strategies for meaningful action to improve climate and experience.
  2. Facilitated group sessions, by the beginning of December, for a diversity of interested student leaders (e.g., residence assistants, peer mentors, faculty society executives, student government members, student athletes, orientation leaders, etc.) to support skill-development in areas of leadership for diversity, controversial issues processes, and coalition building, among other topics, to improve capacity to foster inclusion.
  3. Closed facilitated group sessions for cohorts of interested students of diverse backgrounds to engage in critical reflection and dialogue across difference (dominant and non-dominant groups, notwithstanding intersectionality), proposed for the winter semester between January and March.  
  4. Campus keynote/panel discussion(s) on relevant topic(s). Suggestions for speakers, panelists and topics are welcome; some already having been received.

“Now more than ever,” said Dr. al Shaibah in her statement, “we need to create spaces where diverse perspectives can be heard, where we can develop skills for critical dialogue and coalition-building, and where we can become better social justice advocates and allies.”

Human Rights & Equity Services will act as a central coordinating and implementing unit for these ongoing educational efforts moving forward.

Update on additional student initiatives supporting diversity & inclusiveness

“This past week, faculty, staff and students have both offered suggestions and made calls to action,” says Dr. al Shaibah. “The engagement of our campus community advancing meaningful solutions is welcome.”

The 5.2 Strategic Priority Project Team, co-led by Jasmine Walsh (assistant vice-president Human Resources) and Michele Williams (professor in the Schulich School of Law and director of the  Indigenous Black and Mi’kmaq Initiative), has recently launched Dalhousie’s Diversity & Inclusiveness Strategy.

There are many completed, continuing and/or committed initiatives aligned with the strategy that focus on Dal’s student community. A summary can be found on the Culture of Respect website.

“I am confident that we will come through this as a stronger community,” says Dr. al Shaibah. “Let’s together come to understand and address systemic discrimination, while working to improve the broader climate and intergroup relations to enhance student inclusion, well-being and success for all students.”