Drilling the cav­ity

Cape Breton Post - - EDITORIAL -

“OK, Hous­ton, we’ve had a prob­lem here.” That’s the ac­tual, oft-mis­quoted sen­tence ut­tered by Apollo 13 astro­nauts when the space mis­sion suf­fered elec­tri­cal prob­lems in its oxy­gen sys­tem.

Per­haps, af­ter Mon­day’s re­lease of a re­port into mis­con­duct by Dal­housie den­tistry school stu­dents, we could add to that “Univer­sity pres­i­dents, we’ve had a prob­lem here,” too. Why? Be­cause the re­port points to a broad at­mos­phere of sex­ism and ho­mo­pho­bia, not only at the Dal­housie den­tistry school, but in other univer­si­ties as well.

“We heard re­peat­edly that other univer­si­ties and fac­ul­ties across this coun­try were heav­ing sighs of re­lief that this scan­dal had not erupted in their back­yards,” Con­stance Back­house, the chair of the com­mit­tee re­view­ing how the scan­dal was han­dled, told re­porters.

The scan­dal erupted when deroga­tory and abu­sive com­ments about fe­male den­tistry stu­dents – and other women – were leaked from a pri­vate Face­book page.

“We were told that other Face­book groups folded and many Face­book posts came down quickly and qui­etly in the af­ter­math of the den­tistry ex­po­sure.”

Back­house’s re­port went fur­ther: “We heard from a num­ber of fac­ulty mem­bers, staff and stu­dents that sex­ism, ho­mo­pho­bia, trans­pho­bia, racism and dis­abil­ity dis­crim­i­na­tion are all found at Dal­housie. …They de­scribed the univer­sity as a tra­di­tional hi­er­ar­chal in­sti­tu­tion with long-stand­ing pat­terns of in­er­tia and a rep­u­ta­tion for fail­ing to deal with com­plaints.”

Dal­housie’s pres­i­dent, Richard Flori­zone, plans to ac­cept the re­port’s rec­om­men­da­tions and im­ple­ment the rec­om­mended changes within two years.

But Dal­housie is far from the only hi­er­ar­chal, slow-mov­ing aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion in this coun­try. The star­tling thing about the sit­u­a­tion at Dal is that, if you raise the is­sue with for­mer stu­dents of a whole host of dif­fer­ent Cana­dian univer­si­ties – es­pe­cially for­mer fe­male stu­dents – you hear per­sonal sto­ries that are equally hair-rais­ing. Ha­rass­ment and mis­con­duct in­volv­ing pro­fes­sors and re­searchers in a po­si­tion of power over younger staff and stu­dents in other univer­si­ties are a reg­u­lar fea­ture in dis­cus­sions of what hap­pened at Dal.

The mes­sage? Dal­housie is built on an aca­demic and power struc­ture model that is sim­i­lar to many, if not most, Cana­dian univer­si­ties. What hap­pened at Dal could cer­tainly be hap­pen­ing at other aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions – in fact, it would be sur­pris­ing if other aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions, hav­ing de­vel­oped the same way, don’t also have is­sues that have yet to be prop­erly ad­dressed.

In­sti­tutes of higher learn­ing might want to be­come in­sti­tutes of bet­ter be­hav­iour as well.

And ev­ery univer­sity pres­i­dent in the coun­try should be get­ting a copy of the Bark­house re­port and read­ing it care­fully. It’s not a cau­tion­ary tale. Par­tic­u­larly for young, keen, fe­male stu­dents – now of­ten be­com­ing the ma­jor­ity of stu­dents in aca­demic pro­grams — it’s a tragedy.

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