Debating the dentistry scandal

In light of the recent Dalhousie School of Dentistry scandal, a panel of Halifax professors discussed the origins of society’s problem of sexual violence.

The panel, called “Sexualized Violence on our Campuses” and put on by the Canadian Centre for Ethics in Public Affairs, consisted of five professors:

• Dr. Jayne Wark, professor of art history from NSCAD University;

• Dr. Jody Clarke, academic dean at the Atlantic School of Theology;

• Dr. Françoise Baylis, Canada research chair of philosophy and Dalhousie professor;

• Dr. Rylan Higgins, professor of anthropology from St. Mary’s University;

• Dr. Marnina Gonick, Canada research chair in gender, from Mount Saint Vincent University.

Dr. Susan Sherwin, another Dalhousie professor of philosophy and gender, moderated.

The discussion began by talking about how today’s society of sexual violence is partially caused by children being exposed to overtly sexual media too early, especially through porn.

“It’s amazing that anyone has a healthy sexuality, it seems to me,” said Higgins.

The panelists also discussed the importance of teaching young people about consent, social media’s encouragement of assault because of its anonymity and the pros and cons of restorative justice.

The latter two topics were related to the ongoing Dalhousie dentistry scandal, which was a theme throughout the panel. When 13 male students were caught sharing sexually explicit and violent things about female classmates on a Facebook page last month, it shocked and caught the attention of Canadians. That shock, and resulting desire to change the society that allowed such an incident to happen, seemed to drive the panel.

Comments addressing the dentistry scandal directly also drew the most reaction from the audience. Baylis, one of four professors who

came forward to pressure Dalhousie to suspend the 13 students at the beginning of the winter term, brought cheers and clapping from the crowd when she critiqued Dalhousie’s current policies for reporting sexual assault.

“When you have evidence, why should anyone have to attach themselves to the complaint?” Baylis said, referring to Dalhousie refusing to take anonymous reports of assault from the female dentistry students who say they were targeted by their male classmates, despite the university having the names of the male students from the Facebook page.

Baylis and her fellow professors’ complaint was rejected by the university, who said they would handle discipline internally within the faculty of dentistry.

Sherwin, the moderator, took questions from the 300 people packed into the Paul O’Regan Hall at the new Halifax Central Library, and electronically from more than 900 others watching online and in two packed overflow rooms. Though the questions came without pause, the panel didn’t have an answer for everything.

The first question posed by Sherwin – “how we should be conceptualizing the issue of sexualized violence on campus” – drew nothing but silence from the panelists.

“Would anyone like to respond to that? No? OK,” said Sherwin, shrugging to the audience and moving on.

Rachael Bethune, who volun- teered as an usher at the event, said the panelists’ occasional silences or refusals to answer a question didn’t bother her.

“I didn’t think it was the kind of talk where we would find any answers,” she said.

Bethune felt the panelists’ reac-

tions indicated a shared frustration at the issue on the whole, rather than a lack of knowledge.

“Especially on that very first question, they all kind of went blank and I was like, ‘I know, right?’”

Some critics on Facebook were disappointed with the lack of diver- sity in the panel.

“The sexism that I experience on campus is intertwined with racism,” wrote Rachelle McKay, an aboriginal student at Dalhousie, on a thread about the event. “I would like to see a person of colour on the panel.”

Bethune also questioned the make-up of the speakers.

“It would have been helpful to have some sort of university administrator … or one or two student leaders,” she said. “Someone with a different perspective.”

Regardless of criticisms, the panel seemed to touch on topics important to many Haligonians. The audience booed and yelled protests when Sherwin closed questions at the end of the hour and half.

“There are further conversations happening about this,” Sherwin assured the crowd.

A complete video of the event can be found at ccepa.ca.