The announcement that 13 male Dalhousie University dentistry students would be suspended from clinical practices for a series of misogynistic messages sent shockwaves across Nova Scotia on Monday.
For some, the announcement came too late — delayed by two weeks over the holidays, and even then coming weeks after the school launched a touchy-feely restorative justice process.
For others, the suspensions are seen as a step too far; having a direct and significant impact on the students’ ability to graduate and raises serious questions about their ability to become accredited dentists in the future. Some of the accused are said to have hired legal counsel to fight the suspension.
Regardless of one’s take on the severity of the punishment announced on Monday, it is clear that more steps will be necessary.
And they are already underway. The restorative justice process was launched to address the sexual harassment behind the Facebook comments. The clinical suspensions were initiated in response to the apparent breach of professional standards.
The Dalhousie Faculty of Dentistry’s Academic Standards Class Committee could impose further sanctions — in order to more appropriately punish those responsible, protect the department’s reputation and protect other fourth-year students from harassment or feelings of insecurity.
"The suspension is necessary to ensure a safe and supportive environment for patients and classmates who participate in the clinics," Dalhousie president Richard Florizone said on Monday. "Additionally, it will allow the Faculty of Dentistry Academic Standards Class Committee to consider the matter from the perspective of professionalism requirements."
During their Monday press conference, Florizone and faculty dean Tom Boran said that expulsions are still a possibility. They also noted that once classes resume next week, it is possible some form of segregation will be put into place.
Boran said that segregating the classes “could be one of the options” the faculty considers going forward. It wasn’t immediately clear whether this was in reference to sex segregation within the Dalhousie dentistry school, or in regards to the possibility of segregating the 13 accused male students into a separate class.
Dalhousie media relations officials were contacted, but did not provide clarification before publication.
Regardless, it logistically boils down to about the same thing. With only 44 students in the graduating class, a subset of 13 male students is a significant portion of the student body. Giving them their own class may seem to solve the problem, but it really just avoids addressing them head-on.
The notion of gender segregation at a Canadian university is a delicate one. Last year, a University of Toronto student filed a human rights complaint after failing a course he declined to attend because all of his classmates were women.
The ruling found that the male student was wrong to treat attendance differently because of his belief that the class – a Women & Gender Studies course – was only for women.
Shortly before that, another question of gender segregation arose at York University, where a sociology professor denied a male student’s request to skip a class project that required him to interact with women.
Professor Paul Grayson said that while the student claimed “firm religious beliefs” as his reason for not wanting to work with female students, approving his request would marginalize and punish female classmates.
This case is far messier, and segregation of classes would presumably be done with the safety and security of the female students in mind, not the preference of the male students. But if that is the primary concern, is it not best to separate them more permanently, either in the form of permanent expulsion or more lengthy suspensions?
Giving the accused their own class appears to do little to protect students or the school’s reputation, while providing the accused with a private classroom, professor and more hands-on teaching.
Allowing them to proceed with the course study, and presumably allowing them to eventually return to the clinical work required for graduation, in a bubble separated from female colleagues would not resolve the issue the university is trying to take seriously.
The issue of sexual harassment is being addressed through mediation and conversations with those who the students have allegedly wronged. If there is faith that process will be successful, class segregation wouldn’t be necessary. If there isn’t faith that will be successful, then concerns about the students’ professional standards should be elevated to the point where ensuring them time to complete their studies isn’t a top-of-page concern.
Either way, class segregation doesn’t seem to have a place in this discussion. It is a Band-Aid solution that solves little in either the short or long term.