Drilling the cavity
“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.