Dalhousie University has opted for a restorative justice process to address a scandal in which a group of 13 male dentistry students posted misogynistic comments and photos about several of their female classmates in a Facebook group. The 13 men embroiled in the conflict are now back from suspension, but are being taught in separate classes. Dalhousie administrators have also rejected a formal complaint filed by four professors, which expressed their discontent that the disciplinary process will be handled inside the Faculty of Dentistry. The administration has decided to keep the disciplinary process as localized within the Faculty of Dentistry as possible, which has been met with criticism from both the media and the female students themselves.
Richard Florizone, president of Dalhousie University, has repeatedly asserted that the university is pursuing a “just process” that will serve the interests of all those involved. The most widely proposed alternative has been to forward the case to the police and take it out of the university’s hands. Unless the victims in question file formal criminal complaints, it should be the university’s job to handle incidents involving its students. Universities have the responsibility to provide a safe environment for their students and to handle incidents brought to the administration. Simply delegating the job to the Canadian justice system would disregard the responsibility that universities have in fostering a sense of safety and positive culture on their campuses.
The priority, especially for an educational institution, should be to teach wrongdoers about how their actions were oppressive and contributed to a culture of misogyny. More preventative programs focused on ethics and respect should be implemented within universities to dismantle the systemic sexism that is present not only on university campuses, but broadly throughout society. If this results in even a minor change in the existing culture, it will have been more effective than a purely punitive measure such as expulsion. The goal must be to prevent occurrences such as these from happening in the future, not simply giving a retroactive slap on the wrist and moving on without addressing the pervasive sexism that is at the root of scandals such as these.
The formal justice system does not seek to achieve the same rehabilitation as a restorative justice process does. Restorative justice gives a voice to those involved in the conflict, and requires wrongdoers to truly consider their actions and acknowledge their mistakes.
One legitimate critique of the restorative justice process is that it cannot be forcefully implemented, and one of the men involved in the scandal has in fact opted-out of participating. The administration’s inability to force all of the wrongdoers to cooperate in the restorative justice process undermines Dalhousie’s efforts to remedy the situation.
The main way in which Dalhousie University has floundered in its response to this scandal, however, was its failure to consult the victims and tailor a plan catered to their desires. Several of the female students whom the Facebook comments were about even wrote a letter to Florizone condemning the University’s decision to pursue a restorative justice process without first consulting them. Florizone himself, though, maintains that a restorative justice process was the path chosen by the women most involved in the Facebook scandal. Regardless of which specific women were involved in selecting the restorative justice process, it could result in uncomfortable situations in which female students involved in the incident could feel compelled to sit down and engage in discussions with classmates who made very explicit comments about them. Although the restorative justice system may have indeed been a means through which to address the situation, the administration’s unilateral decisions were too paternalistic. This only further reinforces the inherent discrimination that was already present, and perpetuates a culture that belittles and silences women. Although Florizone may have had been able to justify opting for a restorative justice system, the women affected by the Facebook posts should have been consulted in the decision to adopt restorative justice, and the final process that was selected should have gone farther to implement mandatory disciplinary measures that would provide greater accountability.
Universities should bear the ultimate responsibility in determining the proper method of handling incidents on campus. Promoting proactive changes that will address the underlying social issues is the main goal of university administrations facing campus conflicts. Nevertheless, this must be balanced with the need to respect the desires of the victims. In Dalhousie’s case, restorative justice may work well in theory, but the university ignored the many negative impacts that such a process could have on its students.