Dalhousie president Richard Florizone first learned about his university’s investigation into misogynistic and sexually violent Facebook posts the same day as most Canadians – Dec. 15, 2014, when the investigation was first made public by the media.
And just like most people following the situation, Florizone has only seen a handful of screenshots showing posts from the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen Facebook group. The 13 male fourth-year students at Dalhousie’s school of dentistry who were members of this private group which has since close have had their dental clinic privileges suspended, but may possibly return to classes as soon as Monday, Jan. 12.
While it’s possible Dalhousie administration made an effort to identify and consult with most women Dalhousie students who were sometimes targeted by the misogynistic and sexually violent posts in Dalhousie’s possession, neither Florizone nor Brian Leadbetter, Dalhousie’s Director of Communications, are immediately able to confirm this is the case.
There is no plan yet for how the men in the fourth year of the dentistry program who weren’t part of the Gentlemen group will be able to have the same opportunities for success as they would have had before this scandal became public.
These are only a few angles to consider when trying to understand the massively complex situation that has unfolded surrounding Dalhousie’s school of dentistry in the last month.
Since mid-December, the Dalhousie Gazette has closely followed the narratives emerging out of Dalhousie University’s response to screenshots of a misogynistic group consisting of students in Dal’s school of dentistry becoming public.
We found it was impossible to write accurate, straightforward stories about what was happening because of vagueness and contradictions present in the information on the situation that was publicly available. Instead of relying on this information to write straightforward stories on new developments, we published lists of questions.
In late December the Gazette was invited to speak with president Florizone for an interview to address some of the questions we had published. We spoke with Florizone for 40 minutes in his office on the morning of Tuesday, Jan. 6.
Florizone has only seen excerpts of the offending posts
According to Florizone, Dalhousie was first made aware of the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen group on Dec. 8, 2014 when a student came forward to the university with a complaint.
This is when the university gained possession of a series of screen captures of the offensive posts within the group, some of which have been leaked to the media and only broadcast to the public with names and faces censored.
On Dec. 15, one week later, Florizone became aware of the situation.
When asked if he was made aware of the situation on or before the CBC published their first report on Dal’s investigation, Florizone said, “I’d have to go back and check the time when the CBC story came out. My recollection is it’s before it became public, but we’d have to check.”
It’s typical that a week passed without Florizone being made privy of the university’s investigation into the Gentlemen group because of how harassment complaints are handled at Dalhousie.
“When they come forward they’re usually directed with the professional help in our Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention Office,” says Florizone.
“Occasionally there are cases where I get involved, sometimes students will come to me in parallel. But otherwise, no, the issue would be dealt with first there.”
But while university administration had possession of screen captures of posts from the gentlemen group, which Florizone has called “offensive, degrading to women and completely unacceptable”, for 29 days, Florizone still had only seen “excerpts” of the material when he spoke with the Gazette on the morning of Jan. 6.
The Gazette asked Florizone when he was first able, personally, to review the material the university had.
“I’ve only seen excerpts of the material,” said Florizone.
Brian Leadbetter, Dalhousie’s Director of Communications, was present for the interview. After Florizone’s response, Leadbetter said, “From the media reports, I believe.”
“From media reports,” Florizone continued. “[…] so I’ve only seen excerpts of it.”
The Gazette asked, “How many of these screenshots, or pages of this group that are within the university’s possession, that are uncensored – contrary to the censored media ones we’ve seen – how many of these screenshots have you personally had the chance to review?”
“Only a handful, personally,” said Florizone.
When asked why he hadn’t reviewed more screenshots, Florizone said, “My focus has really been on a just process. So, for me, the most important principle here is we know – I’ve seen enough to know this is offensive behaviour.”
“We’ve seen that in the media. We all know there have to be significant consequences. So my focus is: how do we ensure, given all of the different voices out there, and a lot of the very strong reaction – which is warranted – how do we ensure a just process that, again, consistent with the law, consistent with the university policy and supports the rights of everyone involved, how do we put that together? And that’s really been my primary focus.”
The Gazette asked if it was possible that if he had the chance to review some of the screenshots that are in the university’s possession that he hasn’t yet reviewed, that he could find there was something more severe than had been reported through the media.
We asked if he could have found something that may have alerted him that he would want a different response to this situation than the university has pursued, since he has only reviewed some of the screenshots.
Florizone said that university administration have reviewed all of the material.
“And so I’ve been really focused on ensuring we put a just process in place to oversee that, and to determine the consequences of it,” he said.
The administrators who reviewed the contents of the screenshots are the same administrators involved in the ongoing restorative justice process.
It’s still unclear when or whether women Dalhousie students were informed they appeared in the group’s offensive postings
It’s possible that Dalhousie administration made an effort to identify all women in the fourth year of Dal’s DDS program and let them know as soon as they could that they appeared in the group, along with what context of their appearance.
But if this is the case, Florizone is either unaware or unable to say so.
Media reports have been published since mid-December featuring women from the fourth-year DDS class speaking under anonymity, saying they discovered they appeared in the group but were not told by Dalhousie.
An anonymous letter sent to CBC Tuesday, allegedly written by four female fourth-year dentistry students, complains that women affected by the posts were not given copies of the posts that featured them.
In an effort to understand whether and when women Dalhousie students who appeared in offensive posts in the Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen group were alerted to this fact by Dalhousie, the Gazette asked Florizone questions on this topic. The following is an unedited interview transcript.
Gazette: I understand there was a questionnaire sent to every woman in the fourth-year class, and that there’s been a media report about every woman in the class being invited to a meeting. But has there been an effort to identify, from the screenshots, what women appear in these screenshots that are Dalhousie students?
Florizone: So that, I’d have to follow up on. What I do know is we have met with every fourth-year student in dentistry. We’re also committed to addressing the broader harm. But in terms of identification in the posts, maybe we could follow up and get back to you.
Gazette: Ok. Because, for example, there was a questionnaire that was sent to the women in the fourth-year class on December 19th. And among other questions, it asked, “How have you been impacted or harmed by the group? And I’m going by the CBC’s report when I say that. But if some women hadn’t yet been made aware that something was said about them in the group, or that a picture of them appeared next to a derogatory comment, we’ve seen evidence that this is happening in some of these screenshots – how could they have known and accurately answered how they have been impacted or harmed by the group, if they hadn’t yet been made aware of their appearance in it?
Florizone: So, that questionnaire was part of the restorative justice process. So, I’m not sure how –
Leadbetter: My understanding is that all women identified in the posts, we have reached out.
Florizone: We have reached out.
Leadbetter: We have reached out to all of them, correct.
Gazette: But have they been made aware of whether they appear in the group?
Leadbetter: I’m not aware of that, Jesse. That may be part of the restorative justice process as well.
Florizone: But everyone – yeah, so how do we say this.
Leadbetter: We can get back to you on that.
Florizone: Yeah, maybe we can get back to you on that. But we have reached out to every woman in the fourth-year dentistry class.
Gazette: Ok. At your December 17 press conference, and the next day when you spoke with Steve Murphy on CTV, you made it very clear that there still could be women who would come forward with, possibly, the intent of having a formal complaint under the sexual harassment policy. And you repeatedly stated that if anyone had knowledge of the group, or believed they may have been affected by it, that you would encourage them to come forward. Did any women contact you directly within the last weeks, asking if they had appeared in the group?
Florizone: Here’s what I can tell you. Right now, we have under consideration, we have a number of women who have come forward under the sexual harassment policy, and elected for the restorative justice process under the informal option. We also have, now, the formal complaint under the Student Code of Conduct. So those are the two that are currently under consideration in addition to the professional standards issue that we are handling in the faculty of dentistry. But in terms of complaints, under our policies, those are the two that are under consideration today.
Gazette: When you refer to the formal complaint, are you referring to the one filed by four Dalhousie faculty members?
Gazette: Ok. If a woman in the fourth-year dentistry class had been made aware of this situation from watching your press conference, and she was curious to see if she was in the group, because she didn’t know, and she had called or emailed you and was able to get in touch with you on December 18, and she asked you: “Dr. Florizone, I saw your conference, and I’m curious to know whether I was mentioned in that group.” Would Dalhousie have been able to inform that woman whether she appeared in the group, and what context she may have appeared in?
Florizone: I think I’ll have to get back to you on that.
Leadbetter: Yeah. My sense is, Richard, by the time the 48 hours had expired, we had spoken to all identified in the earlier posts. Or, we had spoken to all identified in most recent posts, and administrators continued to reach out over the holiday period as well for those identified in the earlier posts. But we’d have to get back to you on the specifics, Jesse. My sense is, that those who were identified in the most recent posts, by the time the 48 hours had expired, we had been contacted with those individuals.
Gazette: By the time what 48 hours had expired?
Leadbetter: So, the time that Dr. Florizone announced his initial statement on the 15th, and the second one on –
Florizone: So, we had contacted everyone in the most recent post at that point.
Gazette: The most recent post from the Facebook group?
Florizone: Indeed. Then –
Gazette: Wait. The most recent single post, or the most recent set of posts from a certain time period?
Leadbetter: I have to look at the timeline, I don’t have that specific information.
Florizone: But what we then did was to reach out to, try to reach out in that period, we tried to reach out to all the other women. That process was ongoing. But what we can say is as of today, we have connected with every woman in the fourth-year dentistry class.
Change of heart in public safety risk explained
At his Dec. 17 press conference, a reporter asked Florizone if having the 13 men return to Dal’s dental clinic was a “public safety issue”. Florizone replied, “I don’t believe so at this time, but I would rely on the professional association.”
On Jan. 5, Dalhousie released a statement saying their decision to suspend the clinical privileges of 13 male fourth-year dentistry students was made on Dec. 22. It was announced this fact was only being made public now because dentistry students would now be able to access counseling services on campus.
Dalhousie said the suspension were “necessary to ensure a safe and supportive environment for patients and classmates who participate in the clinics.”
Florizone says he didn’t see an immediate public safety concern.
“What we did see, and why we took action, is the men’s behaviour had called in to question their professionalism. Now, the broader question of safety: how does a professional college, the faculty of dentistry, ensure public safety? It’s through professional standards. So, by engaging in conduct that calls into question their professionalism, it does create a safety concern. And those concerns are real. So that is why we then took the step to suspend, pending further assessment of this and potential mitigation by the Academic Standards Class Committee.”
Determining who is most directly affected
Florizone used the term “most directly affected” ambiguously at his Dec. 17 press conference to refer to women in the fourth-year dentistry class. To understand what was meant by this term, we asked some questions. The following is an unedited interview transcript.
Gazette: So the conference started with you defining “those most directly impacted” as the women in the fourth-year dentistry class who were the subject of the deeply offensive posts from that group. And later in the conference, you said that out of Dalhousie’s available policy options, for your response, you wanted to pursue the option that best understood and addressed the needs of the women who were most affected by the situation. So, I took that to imply you meant you wanted to pursue the policy option that best understood and addressed the needs of the women in the fourth-year dentistry class who were the subject of the deeply offensive comments made in the Gentlemen group. The next thing you said, at your conference, was: “And so, the route that we’ve taken is the route the women had selected.” But you hadn’t yet spoken with all –
Florizone: That’s correct.
Gazette: – the women who had appeared in the posts that were offensive. So, how were you comfortable saying that restorative justice was what the women in the fourth-year dentistry class who appeared in the offensive posts in the group wanted, when at this point, you hadn’t been able to consult with every woman in the class who appeared in the posts?
Florizone: Right. So let me try to clarify. The women who came forward, so there were a number of women who came forward and elected the restorative justice option. What I’m saying is that that is their right under university policy, that is an option available to them. And I fully support the right those women chose. Now, that didn’t, I wasn’t trying to imply all the women in the class. Because we hadn’t, at that point, connected with all of them.
Gazette: Right. But when you’re saying it’s what the women who were most affected wanted, but you’re also saying it’s all women who were most affected, can it really stand up that all the women in the class wanted restorative justice?
Florizone: So let me go back to – it’s the women who came forward elected this. And that is their right and obligation. Or, that’s their right, and it was my obligation to support their right. We also felt that it was an appropriate way to move forward. Now, others, and others as I’ve said publicly, others may come forward and elect another option. And we’ll support that right as well. But we have to support the rights of the women who did choose to come forward, and choose to elect this option under policy. They have that right, we have the obligation to support it.
No clear plan to save reputations of fourth-year dentistry men who weren’t in the Gentlemen group
The Gazette asked Florizone, “Have you had the chance to speak with any of the men from the fourth-year dentistry class who weren’t members of the group? How are they feeling right now?”
“I would simply say that I think all of our students have found this, in that class, have found it a very stressful time,” replied Florizone. “And it gets at, again, why we have to take a very careful, deliberate and just process through this and why we have to address the broader harm. Because a lot had been affected, right?”
“So we have to deal, again, I come back to it – we have this unacceptable behaviour. We know there has to be significant consequences. And we have to go back to that just process to determine now what happens with these specific men. But we also have to have this broader conversation, and address the broader harm. Talk about the culture at Dal, in dentistry, and more broadly.”
Hundreds of people have made comments saying they will either never see a male Dalhousie dentist or a male Dalhousie dentist who graduated in 2015 as long as the names of the 13 Gentlemen aren’t released. These comments may be found widely in social media and within the comments of the change.org petition to have the men from the Gentlemen group expelled.
Florizone says releasing the names of the 13 men would violate a just process. In a Dec. 18 CTV interview he said he would be breaking the law to publish the men’s names.
And while Ontario’s licensing body for dentists has said every male Dalhousie dentistry graduate intending on practicing in Ontario will be asked whether they were the subject of any complaints or inquiries unless Dalhousie gives them the names of the 13 Gentlemen, Dalhousie has denied this request.
The Gazette asked Florizone what Dalhousie could do at this point to make sure the men who weren’t part of the group will have the same chance at success in their careers as dentists when they graduate as if the investigation had never been launched or made public.
“Right now, they’re the ones on track to graduate. So that would be my principal answer,” said Florizone. “Because the men who were directly involved are not on track to graduate unless there’s some mitigation.”
The length of the suspension of clinical privileges of the 13 men in the faculty of dentistry is to be decided by the faculty of dentistry’s Academic Standards Class Committee.
If the committee decides after a review that the men show the required level of professionalism, the suspension from clinical practices may be lifted.
Florizone says he commits to letting the public know if and when the men who currently have their clinical privileges suspended return to practicing in the clinic.
Still, this presents a dilemma.
If the 13 men have their suspensions lifted this year and manage to graduate on time, the public would still have no way to separate the men who participated from restorative justice that graduated in 2015 from the men who didn’t.
And if the suspensions continue into next year or any other year, Florizone has said the public will be made aware when the suspensions end – so to some members of the public, whatever year the suspensions are lifted would be host to the graduating class of male Dalhousie dentistry graduates that must be avoided.
According to the Canadian Press, Dalhousie Director of Communications Brian Leadbetter said the Royal College of Dental Surgeons of Ontario would not receive the names of the 13 men participating in restorative justice because Dalhousie has an obligation to protect the privacy of its students.
When a reporter asked at the Dec. 17 press conference how many women had come forward with complaints, Florizone deferred the question to a member of legal counsel.
The legal staff said the number of women who had come forward could not be given, “because given the amount of information that’s been publicly available through the media, if you were to identify the numbers, it would be very easy to identify the individuals.” She said it would violate Dalhousie’s obligation “to maintain the confidentiality and privacy of the individuals.”
But when Florizone asked if he could say how many men were taking part in the restorative justice process, the same legal counsel did not hesitate to say yes.
Florizone proceeded to say with confidence that all men in the Facebook group, 13, were taking part in the restorative justice process.
But up until this point, the public had no validation from Dalhousie as to how many men were in the group, or how many were participating in the restorative justice process.
Florizone could have denied answering how many men were in the group and simply said it was “all men” in the group, but instead gave the public a concrete figure.
The Gazette asked Florizone how the 13 men were not having their privacy risked by their number being made public, but it would be considered a violation of privacy to name the number of women who came forward for restorative justice before Dec. 17.
“So, the reason I stated the number of men was because at that point, the reason I was paying attention to it was to have assurance that all men who were part of the group had agreed to join the restorative justice process,” said Florizone.
He says he had received advice that communicating the number of women was confidential, so he didn’t do it.
It is still unclear why there was confidentiality placed on the number of women who had come forward to Dalhousie, who all wanted restorative justice, while the number of men was made a public fact.
Students get involved
Florizone first announced his intention to create a Presidential Task Force with the intent of understanding and influencing a necessary cultural change at Dalhousie on Dec. 17.
More details on the Task Force is scheduled to be released by the end of January. Florizone was asked whether this Task Force will include Dalhousie students or student societies.
Florizone says that before Christmas he asked Dalhousie Student Union president Ramz Aziz to assist with the Task Force, because he wants the DSU to be an active participant. He says Aziz has been encouraging on this.
“[Aziz] said he’d of course like a further definition of what the task force is, so we need to do some work on that,” said Florizone. “In fact, my hope out of this is building that better culture. My hope is we actually get young people talking on campus on this.”
The Gazette did not hear from Aziz on Jan. 4 after sending an emailed request for an interview on the DSU’s statement on incidents of misogyny and sexism in the faculty of dentistry.
Jennifer Nowoselski, Vice President (Internal) of the DSU, told the Gazette on Jan. 6 she has recently been unable to get in touch with Aziz. She says the last thing she heard from him was in December, when he said he was in Pakistan.
Contrary to how Florizone said Aziz responded, Nowoselski has shown she is discouraged by the idea of a presidential taskforce. She spoke boldly on Monday at a rally outside of the Henry Hicks Building that hosts Florizone’s office.
Nowoselski criticized Dalhousie administration’s handling of the complaints lodged against the Gentlemen group, calling it a “complete lack of action.” She specifically targeted Florizone’s Task Force plan.
“Through a media storm, voiced concerns through students and community members, a community-organized rally, petitions, a formal complaint from faculty, threats of losing funding, concern from the government, and with the entire country watching, you created a task force?” Nowoselski said through a megaphone.
South House, a student-funded gender justice and sexual resource centre on Dalhousie campus, organized the “Rally to Expel Misogyny”.
Members of South House’s board criticized Florizone at the rally for not reaching out to them while he speaks of Dalhousie’s need for a broader discussion on misogyny in our culture. Four days after the CBC made public the existence of the Class of DDS Gentlemen 2015’s misogynistic posts, South House announced their desire to work alongside Dalhousie in instituting cultural change.
“We want to work with Dalhousie to implement mandatory survivor-centred workshops and education on gender-based violence at all levels of the university because we believe that this learning is just as crucial as academic study and that it is critical that Dalhousie demonstrate that we are committing to making an immediate shift in our actions and accountability measures,” wrote members of the volunteer-driven organization in a Dec. 19 statement.
The Gazette asked Florizone how he felt on Monday as the rally was active outside his office.
“I understand that frustration, but I hope people also understand the importance of a just process. We have to do the right thing,” said Florizone.
“So following a just process is the right thing, following law, following policy. Following the rights of everyone involved.
“Not only is it the right thing, but if we don’t follow a just process, whatever we do could be overturned by the courts. So, you know, the answer for Dal here is not to rush to judgment. Or to sweep it under the rug.
If we actually want real consequences, and real change, we need to go through this just process and we need to have this broader conversation. If we’re actually committed to change, and I am.”
Unclear why there wasn’t an investigation earlier
At his Dec. 17 press conference, Frances Willick of the Chronicle Herald asked Florizone why the university wasn’t running an investigation into the situation in tandem with the restorative justice process.
“Well, the students, again, I come back to the process here that the students have elected. I articulated that principle of victim-centered justice,” Florizone answered. “The students have elected to go this route, and so we need to respect and to support that. There will be resources, there will be university personnel engaged in the process, that may involve gathering information. I think the issue becomes, do you launch a parallel process over top of it against the wishes of the women students who were harmed by this? And that’s what we’ve chosen not to do at this time.”
The Gazette asked Florizone whether any of the women who had come forward to him by Dec. 17 had explicitly stated their wishes that there wouldn’t be an investigation or any other parallel processes alongside the restorative justice process.
“So unfortunately those conversations are confidential with each of the women,” said Florizone.
Why the president only met two affected women in person before restorative justice was chosen
When Florizone held a press conference on Dec. 17 to discuss Dalhousie’s next steps on responding to the misogynistic and sexually violent posts of the Gentlemen group, there was a strong media presence.
A clip of Florizone stifling tears while he spoke of meeting with women who had come forward to him with complaints about the posts was shared and broadcast more than any other part of the conference.
In a Gazette editorial published on Dec. 28, the context of this clip was analyzed.
When Florizone spoke of meeting with women who had come forward with complaints about the group, he said he had to meet with them in person to be sure they wanted a restorative justice approach:
“I think we’ve tried to be guided by these principles that we laid out 48 hours ago. In particular, I have found that choosing these options, amidst the many voices, listening to the voices of the students most directly harmed by this, those women […] and meeting with them personally today, because of course, this route, when I say I’m taking a victim-centred approach, that implies that I’m providing assurance to this community that we are following the wishes of these women. And so I wanted to meet with them personally. To understand, because I felt that only I could judge by seeing them close-up for myself, that this is the route they wanted to take. And that’s the decision I stand by.”
At another point in the conference, Florizone acknowledged he only met two of the women who had come forward with complaints in person.
This is while media reports including interviews with women from the fourth year of the DDS program and censored, leaked screenshots from the group have made it clear that more than two women appear in the misogynistic posts.
The Gazette asked Florizone why he only met with two women in person, as opposed to all women who appeared in the offensive screenshots possessed by Dalhousie, before he decided to start inviting all women in the fourth year of the DDS program into a restorative justice process.
“Well, I knew that the women who had elected to follow the restorative justice process, if they wanted to proceed with that they had a right to do so. Right? Even if others on campus might disagree,” answered Florizone.
“Under policy, that’s their option. So, the final step I wanted to take for my own assurance was, I asked. I was, of course, confident, that the women had chosen this route. And as a final step I asked if any of them would be willing to meet with me, just so I could hear from themselves that they were comfortable, so I could have a sense of why they chose this route.”
“That conversation with them is confidential. But when I requested the conversation through my staff, through university administrators, two women agreed to meet with me in that first 48-hour period. And those were the two that I met with, and that’s why I went with two.”
Lack of options for anonymously reporting sexual harassment
Florizone has acknowledged since mid-December that executives of the Dalhousie Student Union approached him this summer after two female dentistry students came forward to the DSU with complaints of sexism in their faculty.
Florizone directed the complaints to Dalhousie’s Human Rights, Equity and Harassment Prevention office. There, the dentistry students turned away from filing a formal sexual harassment complaint because they were told they could not do so anonymously, according to the DSU.
On Dec. 18, The Coast published comments they received from a female fourth-year dentistry student who may have wished to file a formal sexual harassment complaint after finding she appeared in the Gentlemen group, but opted not to:
“Another woman contacted The Coast before this article was published. She is one of the women featured in derogatory posts on the group Facebook page. She wanted to emphasize that Dalhousie did not seek or receive her consent before electing to an informal restorative justice process, and she’s not comfortable proceeding with that process as it has been explained. As of right now, she’s not coming forward publicly or with a formal complaint because she’s concerned it will affect her academic standing and career.”
The Gazette mentioned these two incidents to Florizone and asked: “If this is a recurring situation at Dalhousie, where women may want to file these complaints but they don’t because they can’t be guaranteed anonymity, what do you think should be done about this problem?”
“Well, it is a tough problem. Because we need to pay attention to obviously address, in this case, the unacceptable behaviour and victims’ concerns,” answered Florizone.
“We also need a just process to deal with them. So at Dal, we do have processes to deal with anonymous concerns, and we actually will clarify that on the Q&A website, if that hasn’t gone out it will. So we do have some way to deal with it. The challenge is, when you have a formal complaint, how do you have a just process? And that is really the issue, the issue at hand here that has to be resolved.”
When asked if he got to relax at all during his winter vacation, Florizone said his primary concern has been about doing what’s right for Dal.
“It’s been about our students, and about doing what’s right for Dal. That has been all-consuming.”
Jesse, editor-in-chief of the Gazette, is a fifth-year student of journalism at Dalhousie and the University of King’s College. He started university with three years of experience writing for Teens Now Talk magazine, where he is now copy editor. Before writing a story Jesse likes to think about how his metal detector could finally be useful in researching this one, but there is never a way it could be. Jesse has produced writing and interactive features for Globalnews.ca and The Chronicle Herald. He may be followed on Twitter, @RealJesseWard, or from the Gazette office on Mondays around 8 p.m. to his home in West End Halifax.
Email Jesse at firstname.lastname@example.org.