Constance Backhouse says Dalhousie dentistry report shows need for change

This is a transcript of panel leader Constance Backhouse's comments are a press conference detailing the panel's findings about Dalhousie University's faculty of dentistry.

Professor who led probe into dentistry calls for widespread effort to fix misogynistic culture

Constance Backhouse led the panel's investigation. (CBC)

This is a transcript of panel leader Constance Backhouse's comments are a press conference detailing the task force's findings about misogynistic comments made by some members of Dalhousie University's faculty of dentistry.

Backhouse is a university professor and university research chair at the University of Ottawa. 

It's a pleasure to be here today and I thank all of you for having come and your interest in issues of equity in universities. It is something that a lot of us care a great deal about and you are helping us get there, so thank you for coming and your interest and your attention.

On behalf of the three members of our task force, Donald McRae, Nitya Iyer and myself, I want to thank the president and the members of the senate who set up this task force and gave us the opportunity to examine the events that followed the disclosure of the Dalhousie dental students' Facebook posts.

Our task was to inquire into specific equality issues inside the faculty of dentistry, university policies and processes and a broader social context. Our objective was to see what we can learn from this that will aid our efforts to dismantle discrimination and harassment in the future.

Other universities affected

I would like to start with several observations.

First, Dalhousie University and the faculty of dentistry do not stand in isolation. Our students, faculty and administrators go about their daily lives within a wider culture that increasingly glorifies sexual violence and exploitation.

We were told that other Facebook groups folded and many other Facebook posts came down quickly and quietly in the aftermath of the dentistry exposure. We heard repeatedly that other universities and faculties across the country were heaving sighs of relief that this scandal had not erupted in their backyards.

And I would emphasize that problems rarely surface in the most discriminatory environments. One, because there are not enough voices to protest. And because crises ignite in settings that are on the cusp of change.

The eruption comes from the courage and energy of the protestors and they complained because they think they might actually be heard.

No institution wants to find itself at the centre of the storm but we should remember that it also signals the potential for change. There is strength on the ground and those in charge are perceived as good people who can and might do something about it.

Consequences wide ranging

Secondly, the Facebook posts and the institutional responses that those events provoked caused harm and adverse consequences to a remarkably wide-ranging and diverse group of people.

Female and male dentistry students, faculty of dentistry administrators, professors and clinical instructors at the dental school, staff at the dental school, clinic patients, university administrators, the larger Dalhousie community, Dalhousie alumni, dentists and their professional associations and the wider public.

Thirdly, these are complex problems that cannot be resolved easily.

The people we spoke with disagreed about what caused the problem, how to characterize what happened, how to analyze it, and what strategies would provoke positive change.

Like other universities, Dal is very divided on equity-related issues. And progress will require respect across diverse perspectives and a commitment to working collaboratively across differences.

Fourth, there are no obvious right answers.

Wrong answers

But there are certainly some wrong answers.

So, minimizing what happened would be wrong. This was not an isolated incident. And the status quo is unacceptable. Furthermore, allowing the defensiveness that we all feel when challenged on sexism and heterosexism and racism to blunt our ability to change is counter productive.

We are very sensitive to the fact that the faculty of dentistry has been reeling from the public critique and from the intrusiveness of our task force and the overwhelming feeling that, surely, this must be something of an overreaction.

That's completely understandable and it misses the point.

The most prevalent forms of discrimination occur with no discriminatory intent and often no understanding whatsoever of the damage that is done.

But the impact is harmful just the same.

We are all part of a sexist, racist, heterosexist culture and at the very least that means, that at some level, we all participate. And our personal defensiveness is standing in the way of change.

Five themes of report

Fifthly, although our task force has been critical at some points in this report, our intention is to be constructive and to provide positive guidance for the faculty of dentistry, the university and the many other facilities and universities where such incidents will undoubtedly arise in the future.

OK. Our findings can be distilled into five main themes.

First, the culture in the faculty of dentistry.

We received reports of various incidents of sexism, misogyny, homophobia and racism that have occurred within the faculty of dentistry. And there was a huge disparity in how people characterized the size of the problem. Some people claimed never to have witnessed discrimination in the dental school. Others described isolated incidents. And still others told us that the discrimination was rampant.

What incidents were described? Well, several female professors reported sexist treatment from male colleagues. Female dental students recounted sexist comments and sexual harassment from their instructors.

Mostly female staff mistreated

We were able to confirm that one male professor was terminated for cause two years ago, because of sexual relationships with two female students. One professor showed a video of women in bikinis to his class, he was asked to apologize, which he later did.

And many reported that the predominantly racialized international students, who come to the dental school for qualifying years so that they can be licensed in Canada, were disadvantaged. And that the predominantly female dental hygiene faculty and students were also disadvantaged.

There were serious and widespread concerns about the disrespectful treatment of the overwhelming female staff.

A graffiti wall, off the student lounge in the room behind the bar known as the Cavity, was inscribed with sexist, homophobic and misogynistic images and offensive as the Facebook posts and yet it was allowed to flourish and fester for many years.

Most people told us that they were too afraid to complain because of the risk of retaliation. Then they added that there was no point in complaining in all but exceptional cases, nothing would be done.

Paternalistic culture

Some people tried to explain these incidents as anomalous events that did not reflect the dental school as a whole. But given the number, the duration and the range of people involved, this seems incorrect.

We think the culture in the dental school is paternalistic and that there has been a degree of obliviousness to changing morays and to the ways in which respect for women should be expressed and to what is no longer acceptable behaviour.

One alumni described the faculty of dentistry as suffering from a time warp.

So in order to move forward, the professors, the administrators, the staff and the students have to collectively come to the decision that the way they are doing things is not correct and they have to change.

Secondly, the second big thing that we discovered, is that there is a level of distrust and suspicion about the university's responses to discrimination.

The dental faculty does not stand apart, entirely, from the wider university. We heard from a number of Dalhousie faculty, staff and students, that the university also suffers from sexism, homophobia, racism and other forms of discrimination. 

'Sweeping it under the rug'

Correctly or incorrectly, many people inside and outside the Dalhousie community complained that the institution has been remiss in attending to discrimination in the past. The phrase 'Sweeping it under the rug' was repeated over and over again.

This widespread perception generated suspicion and distrust, as well as heightened criticism of every step the university administrators took in the Facebook scandal.

Building the university's reputation as sensitive and responsive to equity issues can make a substantial difference in the way that observers will perceive their actions in the future. It's very hard to solve these problems when nobody trusts you.

Thirdly, we did, as we were asked, an assessment of the university's policies and processes and our overall conclusion is that they're pretty good, overall, with some cautionary notes. The university and the faculty administrators had to deal with the Facebook events while under intense public scrutiny and pressure for immediate response.

This was a complex situation with multiple interpretations, where reasonable people can differ.

Benefit of hindsight

By contrast, our task force had the benefit of hindsight and reflection and the opportunity to hear the observations of over 150 students, faculty, staff, administrators and members of the broader public, all of whom added enormous depth to our understanding.

So our report was not intended to assign blame or to suggest that anyone failed to act in good faith or to respond other than what they believed to be the best interests of the university and the students involved.

It would be contrary to the evidence we received to cast aspersions on the motives or intentions of any of the decision makers.

We concluded that overall, Dalhousie's policies relating to sexual harassment issues are as good, if not better, than those of other Canadian universities. We do not see a need for the university to redraft its policies.

We have just a few suggestions about making some of their policies more explicit, familiarizing the university community with their terms and looking at how to provide somewhat greater support and protection for whistleblowers and others who lodge complaints.

Explore appointing ombudsperson

We did recommend some changes in how cases such as the Facebook posts might be handled in the future. We believe the situation called for a fuller investigation at the outset.

We think that the university needs to ensure all of its policies and processes are explicit and that complainants and respondents know how these operate. We think that this was a situation in which the university could and should have acted on its own initiative, taking over carriage of the case itself. 

We think that Dalhousie should explore setting up an independent, institutionally funded ombudsperson, as many other Canadian universities have done, to deal with complaints on all aspects of university life. 

But our next point is that systemic approaches are preferable. We think that systemic approaches have much greater promise to solve this problem than individual, case by case complaints, which are so traumatic to all of the people concerned.

Bad apple theory

When events like the Facebook posts reach a crisis point, there is a tendency for everyone to search for an individualized culprit. Some people refer to this as a bad apple theory. And this was evident at almost every level.

People told us that the Facebook posters — 13 students and the female student who filed the complaint, the first complaint and the male student who disclosed the Facebook poll to her — were all bad apples. The whole fourth year class was described to us as a bad apple class.

The faculty members, whose alleged acts of discrimination attracted attention, were described as bad apple professors and instructors. The mismanagement at the staff level in the dental school was apparently caused by bad apple managers.

Some described the whole faculty of dentistry as a bad apple faculty. The outside faculty members who tried to intervene were bad apples for creating more controversy. Some of the senior administrators who failed to solve the problem to everyone's satisfaction were considered bad apples.

And of course, as the media, you're well aware that almost everybody thought the media was the really bad apple in this.

Importance of education

Now, the bad apple theory is never correct in the context of systemic problems that run deeply within the large institutions. It is also a strategy of minimal effectiveness. It is an illusion to think that ridding the university of bad apples will somehow leave us miraculously cleansed of inequality.

Systemic measures hold more promise. Other institutions have used wider, chilly climate reports, anonymous workplace surveys and spot audits to shift the focus from specific people and those mechanisms are not meant to target individuals or to result in punitive disciplinary outcomes.

Instead, a systemic approach allows us to access information that can be used to make structural changes and to nurture healthier norms. And we recommend exploration of all of these systemic tools within the faculty of dentistry and the university generally.

Fifth and lastly, it's perhaps proper that in a university community, we finish off with a recommendation about the importance of education and research.

Rape culture

The Facebook events took place within a wider society, where violent and exploitative porn is pervasive. Our sexual practices are often described as rape culture.

I am sure all of us in this room have experienced the incredible growth of internet pornography with imagery that is coercive, exploitative, demeaning. And it is feeding our notions of what is normal in sexuality. And it is also having terrible intergenerational effects.

The university is a centre for research and education and Dalhousie is particularly well suited to explore these problems because we need to develop innovative, world class research, teaching and activism to dismantle discrimination and harassment of all kinds: sex, race, ethnicity, religion, disability, LGBTQ and class.

It is true that there is very little agreement in the diagnosis and solutions for the problems epitomized by the Facebook posts. That's not surprising, this is not a simple problem, it's very complex.

Task force spoke with 150 people

But one of the most positive messages we took away from the more than 150 people who spoke with our task force, is that there is virtually unanimous agreement on goals and objectives. Everyone wants a safe campus, a non-discriminatory institution that provides a diverse community with an inclusive setting for education, employment and research.

And many told us that they would like to see Dalhousie become a recognized leader — an institution that positions itself in the forefront on equity issues.

Dalhousie has, within its own institution, outstanding expertise and many people with specific skills and knowledge about equality issues. We were left with the impression of enormous talent and capacity, a surfeit of goodwill and a collective desire to improve the equality performance of our universities.

It was Dalhousie that got put in the spotlight on this one but these are problems that universities across Canada share and we are all trying to learn from the experience that Dalhousie went through and to work in solidarity with Dalhousie as we move forward to try to come up with answers. Thank you.


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