Bullying online and on campus: The Dalhousie University case

Dalhousie University Dental School Scandal

For those who do not know about the Dalhousie case, the controversy surrounds 13 dentistry students who participated in a misogynistic Facebook group. The group involved graphic comments about female classmates and, once uncovered, unleashed a media frenzy. Many pointed to this group, as well as Dalhousie’s somewhat delayed response in dealing with the controversy, as evidence of rape culture.

It is also relevant to point out that this may never have come to light had there not been a whistleblower.

A heated debate followed. At stake was the emotional well-being of the targets of these statements, the future of the male students (who were months away from becoming dentists), the reputation of a storied post-secondary institution and, perhaps most importantly, whether we as a society could learn and grow from this experience.

Justice is Needed

First and foremost I think everyone can agree that what this situation needs is justice for the targets of this online and sexual bullying as well as a fair trial for the accused – these two things are not always mutually exclusive but it’s no easy task.

In my personal study into bullying I have found that just under a quarter of cases would be considered sexual harassment that are covered by statutes. Much more sexual, sexist, and gender discrimination was reported that did not rise to the level of legally defined sexual harassment, however.

My area of expertise is workplace bullying, but this case is still very valuable to study as these students were about to graduate and enter the workforce –where their behaviour very well could have continued.  

You don’t automatically become a professional once you graduate, you learn how to be a professional throughout your education –and that means behaving how professionals are expected to behave.

Boys being boys is not acceptable

If we could view these students as professionals for a moment –which really isn’t so much of a stretch— this behaviour all of a sudden stops being “boys being boys” at school  and turns into a very real and credible threat towards female colleagues placed online and then liked by other collogues. This would, or at least should, be unacceptable in any workplace and –despite how we may like to infantilize university students—universities are workplaces.

Universities are workplaces for the faculty, the staff, the TAs, and yes they are workplaces for the students, too. They are institutions in which people need to collaborate and work together, where complex power dynamics are both created and abused and where members of both sexes need to be able to co-exist peacefully and without fear.

Universities should not be “Old Boys Clubs,” nor should they be a place where students are allowed to experiment with bullying before they become adults. These problems need to be addressed head-on so that they may contribute to a national, ongoing dialogue regarding campus safety, bullying in the social media age and, of course, the emotional and physical safety for everyone in the workplace.

Because if we don’t learn anything from this mess we will be doomed to repeat it.