Balancing the rights of the accused and victims while investigations are carried out is never an easy task. This is an especially thorny path to navigate when the accusations involve allegations of sexual misbehaviour.
But in the case of Dalhousie University’s faculty of dentistry, it seems clear that creating a safe culture of learning is the first responsibility the school owes to its students.
And on that score, so far it has failed.
The university announced on Monday it was only partially suspending 13 male dental students, nearly a month after women complained about the violent, misogynist comments posted by some of the members of the private Facebook page called “Class of DDS Gentlemen.”
Among the posts: “Who would you like to hate f—k?” — where they rated their choices. Other posts joked about using chloroform on women. In another post, a woman is shown in a bikini with a caption that says “Bang until stress is relieved or unconscious (girl).”
The partial suspension is serious. The 13 fourth-year students cannot work with patients or classmates in the school’s dental clinic, a requirement for graduation this spring.
But it does not ban them from the classroom while an investigation into the allegations is underway.
While we are mindful that an investigation may eventually clear some of the 13 — and that each must be treated as an individual — that is a mistake.
By the university’s own admission, the suspension from clinics “is necessary to ensure a safe and supportive environment for patients and classmates who participate in the clinics.”
So why would the university not think a “safe and supportive environment” for students in the classroom is equally important?
Should female students at the small faculty have to sit next to male students who had joked about “hate f—king” and chloroforming women as they try to buckle down for their final semester of studies?
Should their right to feel safe and secure in the classroom take second place to the right of the accused male students to carry on with their studies without interruption?
It’s a difficult decision. But in this particular case, the female students’ right to feel secure in the classroom, as well as in the clinics, on balance outweighs the male students’ rights to continue on with their education while this matter is investigated.
That does not mean the accused students should be denied a fair investigation to ensure that any innocent parties caught up in this scandal can return to their studies — and their chosen career — as quickly as possible. In fact, it makes it even more important.
This is not the United States, where the investigative procedures at many universities into allegations of sexual misconduct are being increasingly criticized as unfair. There, members of the Harvard Law School Faculty are questioning the school’s definition of sexual harassment and the procedures for disciplining students. Elsewhere, the University of Cincinnati is being sued for bias against students accused of sexual misconduct.
At Dalhousie, it is vital that the investigation be full and fair, with guarantees to those accused of wrong-doing that they be able to answer any charges and be properly represented.
To its credit, the university has reassured those being investigated, as well as those victimized by the Facebook posts. “This is a very complex matter and we must take the time necessary to gather information, follow a just process and to make informed decisions,” it says.
That investigative task has been assigned to the Faculty of Dentistry Academic Standards Class Committee. It has the power to recommend academic dismissal.
At the same time, the university has demonstrated its awareness of the trauma that even a partial suspension may cause for the accused. It did not announce its decision to partially suspend the 13 students when it made the decision in December because the students were not on campus. Instead, it weathered a storm of criticism over the holiday period to make the announcement when “students had appropriate in-person support when the suspension decision was delivered to them.”
So far, Dalhousie has gone a long way towards balancing the rights of the accused and those of potential victims. But it has fallen short on one important point: it should suspend the 13 men involved from classes as well as clinics.