Higher Ed Headaches: Sexism, Racism, and Gag Orders

Higher Ed Headaches: Sexism, Racism, and Gag Orders


Hi! Welcome back to another Ten with Ken. I’m Ken Steele. College and university campuses are small,
self-contained communities with their own roads, parks, recreation facilities,
and often campus police. And if you work at one, you’re also quite aware they can be intensely political places, with loads of protest, controversy, and debate. This week, let’s review the biggest campus PR headaches of the past year. They have some common causes, and there are a few things we can learn. Let’s take ten, and take stock! [Music] You’ve probably heard Sayre’s Third Law of Politics: “academic politics are the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low.” Academia may well be the most challenging environment in which to manage messaging. You’re dealing with hundreds of intelligent, opinionated faculty, all of whom value academic freedom and free speech. You also likely have tens of thousands of students, active on social media and fearless in the controversial things they may say. What’s more, as public institutions with alumni, parents, and taxpayers in the community, the local mainstream media will pounce on every story opportunity your campus affords. Well, every controversy and scandal, that is. When you’re trying to pitch a positive human interest or research story, it’s another matter. Public perceptions of a college or university have a direct impact on rankings, government support, alumni donations, and student recruitment. Institutions must be vigilant about their brands and reputations. We’ve seen plenty of examples of students giving their institutions a reputational black eye. Often it’s unintentional, a consequence of poor decision making, youthful exuberance, and perhaps an excess of alcohol. But sometimes students deliberately seek headlines, like last spring, when a couple of Memorial University students tweeted photographs of unappetizing dining hall food. In previous episodes, we looked at the controversy over sexist orientation chants at UBC and St Mary’s, the sexually explicit “Dal Jungle” Instagram page, and a whole variety of o-week antics. But I have been saving one of the biggest headaches of 2015 for this round-up: the misogynist Facebook group at Dalhousie University. A group of 13 Dentistry students created a private Facebook group when they enrolled at Dal in 2011. Over the years, the group exchanged thousands of posts, almost all of them innocuous, and relevant to their studies. But by their fourth year, half a dozen posts appeared blatantly sexist or misogynist, even apparently threatening to rape fellow classmates using chloroform. One member of the group, a father of 3, helped expose the offensive posts. He was suspended, along with the other 12, at the beginning of 2015. His lawyer argued that he was being found guilty by association, that his only offensive act had been to click the “like” button on a suggestive photo from a comedy website. Editorial cartoonists had a field day, and even though the CBC could be accused of living in a glass house after the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, the comedians at “This Hour has 22 Minutes” just couldn’t resist… Announcer: “Consider a career in dentistry, at Dalhousie University. [Audience laughter immediately] We want to scrape the plaque off our image and fill the cavities of our student body… That sounded wrong. [Audience laughs throughout] At Dalhousie, we’re looking for girls! Well, we’re not looking for girls,
I mean we want young women… We want young women… We want WOMEN to enroll. Yeah… It’s not what you think.
We want women to apply to be dentists. And to learn things about teeth, and how much gas it takes to put someone under without killing them… I have no idea why I used that example.
I’m terrible at this! I don’t even like dentistry. I wanted to be an optometrist, but I didn’t have the grades. No wonder dentistry has the highest rate of suicide. So enroll today, at the Dalhousie School of Dentistry. Check our website, and like us on Facebook. Actually, no, NO, do NOT go on Facebook!” Second announcer: “Dalhousie School of Dentistry. Open Wide! I mean… oh, dammit!” Throughout 2015, Dalhousie and its dentistry school resurfaced in the media over and over. There were campus protests, an emergency board meeting, the formation of a Task Force on Sexism, Misogyny and Homophobia in the Faculty of Dentistry, and a restorative justice process. In August it was reported that the Dentistry school had spent almost $650,000 in the wake of the scandal. The underlying problem, rampant sexism in the School of Dentistry, had gone unaddressed for too long, and too many people were turning a blind eye. The damage to Dal’s reputation would have been far less, if the institution had been proactive years earlier. Students, or those posing as students, caused plenty of headaches at other schools, too. In September, the University of Toronto ramped up campus security in response to a series of anonymous online comments encouraging readers to “kill feminists” in the departments of Women’s Studies and Sociology. The real controversy was that similar threats were found to have been made in June 2014, and had never been disclosed to the campus community. We also saw the fallout from the sex assault scandal involving male hockey players at University of Ottawa. The coach was fired for failing to report the incident. The administration’s quick suspension of the team sparked a $6 million class-action lawsuit on behalf of the other players, who resented being found guilty by association. Last fall we saw a wave of posters and Facebook pages promoting so-called “white student unions” at a number of Ontario universities. Last year, several Montreal CEGEPs had to wrestle with the thorny issue of youth radicalization, when it was found that 6 young Quebecers had left Canada to join ISIS forces fighting in Syria. 2 CEGEPs promptly stopped renting space to an Islamic Studies school that was suspected of contributing to the radicalization. In June, 10 more CEGEP students were arrested at the Montréal airport, apparently leaving the country to join jihadist groups. Of course, students aren’t the only creative, intelligent, and outspoken people on your campus. Last year, we saw plenty of headaches caused by faculty members too. We’ve already talked about Nobel-prize-winning biochemist Tim Hunt, who demonstrated both his age and his ignorance by making a feeble joke about female scientists being a distraction in the lab. He actually made things far worse with his botched attempt at an apology. And we’ve talked about St Lawrence College business professor Rick Coupland, who was fired last July after posting violent, homophobic comments on Facebook. At Carleton University, a professor’s blog has been making headlines for months, and the administration’s response has led to talk of censure from the CAUT. Root Gorelick, biology professor at Carleton, also sits on the university’s board of governors – one of the largest in the country, with 33 members! Gorelick sees himself as elected by faculty and librarians to represent the interests of his constituents, and he has blogged extensively about discussions held in open session. The board and administration object to perceived inaccuracies in his blogs, which don’t always agree with official minutes, and to what they perceive as personal attacks on the integrity of fellow board members. The board drafted a new code of conduct that made it quite clear: board members could debate any matter while it was up for discussion, but once the board had reached a decision, they were not to criticize it. This argument is strikingly similar to one advanced at the University of Saskatchewan in 2014, when the administration argued that Dean Robert Buckingham was violating his responsibilities by criticizing the TransformUS process. Robert Buckingham: “I spoke out because I felt I was being muzzled.” We all know how THAT turned out! This month, 32 of the 33 Carleton board members signed off on the new code of conduct. But Gorelick still objects to what he calls a “gag order,” and 6 campus groups are concerned that he may be removed from the board as a result. We can probably expect a good deal more drama to come. When students or faculty behave badly, it’s pretty clear what an institution needs to do. Condemn the actions swiftly and unambiguously. Suspend the perpetrators. Call for a thorough investigation, and possibly a restorative justice process. Emphasize or improve campus security, harassment policies, or codes of conduct. Sometimes, as at Ottawa and Dalhousie, presidents will be accused of over-reacting. Bystanders may be found guilty by association. But it seems to be the more popular course of action. [Music] Once again, we’re out of time.
Thanks for taking ten with me. Next week, we’re going to take a look at some of the most serious higher ed headaches of all. And as the metaphor might suggest, they often start at the top, with presidents and board chairs. Meanwhile, you can check out dozens of previous episodes on iTunes or YouTube. And if you subscribe to my free weekly email, you’ll get access to future episodes a full WEEK
before the general public. I hope to see you next time – but before you go, let me share with you a clip from ASAP Science, an acapella parody of Taylor Swift’s hit song called “Science Style.” Just In Case You Missed It!

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