By Julia Steiny
Our story takes place at top-ranked Dalhousie University in Canada. A bunch of bad-boy dentistry students, in their 4th and last year of training, used an invitation-only Facebook page as their online men’s locker room. Interspersed with aggressively vulgar and misogynistic posts, the men discussed their women colleagues by name. As in: Which woman would you most like to have “hate sex” with? (I had to look it up.)
Last December, one of them outed the page to one of the targeted female students. Then screen shots went viral. And though the page was deleted, damage was done. Immediately, the public was out for blood. A petition demanding the men’s expulsion from the school amassed 42,000 signatures in a week. Some faculty members similarly issued their own petition. Kick ‘em out; heads should roll; get them out of sight and out of mind. The media was having a field day, just as it has been with the recent rash of outed college misbehavior — drug dealing, racism, and rape.
Colleges knock themselves out to manage their students’ bad behavior privately. Their rankings and fundraising depend on maintaining the image of an institution with noble purpose. So, if the scandal does go public, lay the blame squarely on offenders and dispose of them. They were the root of the problem. They’re now expelled. Let’s put this behind us. End of story.
Dalhousie chooses a far tougher road: Restorative Justice.
All 13 men have been suspended from fulfilling their clinic hours, which means that they’ll likely not graduate on time, at a minimum. So far, that is the only apparent consequence – because all of Dalhousie’s misbehaving students are given a choice. They can lawyer up, as did the whistleblower, and take their chances in the conventional court system.
Or, if they accept responsibility for their actions, they can participate in a Restorative Justice process. Heads might still roll one day. But first, University facilitators work with offenders, victims and those most directly affected. They talk with the individuals and later bring them together as a group to understand what on earth happened. The group will determine what would set things right, including what consequences offenders should face.
In this case, 12 of the 13 offenders agreed to the process, as did the victims and classmates not directly involved. Almost the entire 2015 Dentistry class, 29 students total, opted to participate. If this sounds warm and fuzzy, imagine discussing such an ugly rift with people you once considered colleagues, if not friends. The hurt, the anger, the shame.
The Dalhousie site, dedicated to updating the public, explains:
The restorative process… requires those who have caused harm to accept responsibility and be accountable for the consequences of their actions… When wrongdoing occurs, justice requires attention to the needs of those who have been harmed… In this case this includes harm to those directly affected and more broadly to the public trust.
Restorative Justice (RJ) is not new to Dalhousie. Certain professors in their law school are passionate RJ advocates, including Jennifer Llewellyn, whom I’ve heard speak at international conferences. The Dalhousie RJ process has been tried, honed, and is now mature enough to weather the media onslaught currently vilifying the University’s choices.
Two remarkable things are happening.
First, the University is turning itself inside out, allowing the issues to be examined in their fullness. On a dedicated site, the University President regularly updates the public to the extent confidentiality allows him. He explains that the RJ evolves in its own time, so no, they do not know when it will be concluded. The University’s Committee for Academic Standards and professionalism is conducting an investigation of its own. And a task force has been convened to investigate “Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in the Faculty of Dentistry.”
This is not sweeping matters under the rug.
Second, all 29 participating students recently wrote an open letter to the public begging outsiders and the media to back off and quit trying to interfere with the process or to stop it. Published unedited, the impressive document concludes:
We believe that the education and perspective that we are gaining through our participation in the restorative justice process will allow us to be better healthcare providers, colleagues, and representatives of Dalhousie University. We ask, as a group, that our privacy and our right to pursue this restorative process off the public stage be respected. The constant public attention has been harmful and even sometimes threatening to us, our families and friends… We hope that through this process our voices and experiences will make significant contributions to the important public discussions about sexism, misogyny, inclusion, and professionalism.
In other words, let the process teach. Let the public learn from the participants. Bad-boy bad apples are the symptoms, not the cause. Kicking them out doesn’t help the University or anyone else get to the depth of cultural dysfunction that is erupting on campuses.
Tom Wolfe’s I Am Charlotte Simmons offers a readable, if brutal, window into the pervasiveness of sickening cultural norms at high-end colleges. Restorative justice can dig into those norms in the course of dealing with the offenders and the people they hurt. Dalhousie is exercising true accountability. As such, they are good teachers — and importantly, good learners.