The Dalhousie University dentistry scandal has captured public attention in a way that I’ve rarely seen.

This is a story with staying power. We’re a month into it — which in politics is an eternity — and still every day brings fresh news. Website comments and letters to the editor abound. It’s the talk of the province, and indeed the country.

Amidst all the controversy, there have been calls for the Nova Scotia government to get involved, even though Dalhousie is a private institution.

When there’s a public outcry to “do something,” but the authority’s not clear, what’s a politician to do? 

How independent is Dalhousie?

The relationship of the provincial government to Dalhousie is complex. The government does not own Dalhousie, and has no legal power to issue orders to it.

Nevertheless, the provincial government is, by far, Dalhousie’s largest source of revenue. In 2013-14, Dalhousie’s revenue from all sources was $638.5 million. Just under one-third of that, $207.4 million, came from the province. (Tuition, the next highest revenue source, is only $144.8 million.)

Shouldn’t this amount of money let the government dictate what Dalhousie does?

Money brings influence, certainly, but only at a high level. Any attempt to use funding leverage to affect decisions touching on the conduct of individual faculty member or individual students would touch off a storm of controversy.

What about the board of governors? Dalhousie has a large board, about half of whom are appointed by the provincial government. Once the appointment goes through, though, the government doesn’t “control” those members, and has no mechanism to direct them what to do, even if it wanted to.

A government can put some of its friends on the board, and can quietly keep in touch with them about university affairs, but that’s a subtle and indirect way of exercising influence.

To make things even more complicated, student discipline is ultimately the responsibility of the Dalhousie Senate, not the Board of Governors. And the provincial government does not appoint anyone to the Dalhousie Senate.

Three very different ideas

Given the public outcry, yet the lack of real government authority, we saw three different ministers offer three very different ideas of what the government should do.

All three condemned the postings, but it’s what they said next that’s so interesting.

First up was Premier Stephen McNeil. He expressed “disbelief” that the students could think their discussions were appropriate. He called on “fathers and men” across Nova Scotia to talk with their sons about what is acceptable behaviour.

Here we see McNeil take on the role of politician as a values leader, a role at which McNeil excels. His focus is not on Dalhousie at all, but what it means for households across the province. 

Next up was Joanne Bernard, minister for the status of women. She spoke of the need for accountability, and added "I'm very confident that the president will look at this in all aspects and I'm really hoping for some strong punitive measures at the end of this.”

In contrast to McNeil, Bernard expressed a definite opinion about what the outcome should be for this particular group of students. Still, she acknowledged that it was in the university’s hands.

The third minister to make a public comment was Labour and Advanced Education Minister Kelly Regan, who was scrummed by reporters after last week’s Cabinet meeting. The minister’s message was that the government is “monitoring” the situation at Dalhousie.

When pressed by reporters, though, Regan couldn’t explain what the government could do if it didn’t like what it heard.

Finding the right note

Politicians want to do the right thing and be seen doing the right thing. In the case of the Dalhousie dentistry scandal, the degree of public attention is almost unprecedented. Saying nothing might be an option in another case, but not this one.

So what’s a politician to do? Stephen McNeil, Joanne Bernard and Kelly Regan are all in their different roles and in their different ways struggling to hit the right note in a drama in which they are, properly speaking, not even on the stage.