Fairness Isn’t Enough

Dalhousie must be both fair and transparent when dealing with student concerns.

As I write this, at Georgetown University in Washington DC, students are staging a sit-in in university president John DeGioia’s office. They demanded that the university rename Mulledy Hall, a building on their campus named after a former university president who sold 272 slaves to pay off the university debt in 1838.

At Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, the Faculty Council is considering a vote of No Confidence, to be cast on Nov. 30 in president Tom Rochon. This is in response to the way in which recent events at the campus have shown a lack of tact and understanding as to why students are upset about issues of race and privilege.

And at the University of Missouri, the flashpoint from which these protests and others like them have emerged, university system president Tom Wolfe and Chancellor R. Bowen Loftin of the Columbia campus have resigned.

I myself cannot claim to have a special understanding of the issues which have come forward on these campuses and others across North America, no more than any other BA student would have. But, in a sense, I see them as the result of a frustration that is similar to that which has occurred here at Dalhousie.

Within the university, two specific protests come to mind in the recent past: that of the divestment movement, led by the Divest Dal student group, and the response to the School of Dentistry events of last year, led by a number of campus and community groups.

In both cases, neither group of protestors have felt as though their voices and those of students more widely have been respected by the way in which the university administration and the university governance has received them.

Over the years which I have attended Dalhousie, the divestment movement has gained momentum and support from other students, faculty, and community members around Halifax. In November of last year, though, any such divestment of the university’s investments was firmly rejected by the Dalhousie Board of Governors, leaving it to the Senate to pick it up afterwards.

With the events related to Dentistry last year, the initial student response did not have the gradual build up which divestment had, but was in many ways a direct response to the antagonistic and occlusive ways in which information was slowly and partially released regarding the incident and the response being undertaken.

This difficulty is even recognized by the university in their own accounting of the way in which they handled the response. As the Backhouse External Taskforce Report, released in June, itself accounts:

“Some of the people who did not participate  in RJ, or objected to it from the outset, said they were dismayed by how the report [Dalhousie’s Restorative Justice Report, released May 2015] seemed to mischaracterize their positions and concerns and make their perspectives invisible.”

The report itself goes on further to account a list of 19 distinct points which external observers considered troubling about the way in which Dalhousie handled the issue. Later, the report makes a telling recommendation:

“Many of the questions about the University’s response to    the Facebook postings centred on the fairness of the processes it invoked. An institution’s response to allegations of misconduct must not only be fair, it must be seen to be fair. That applies to the processes as well as the outcomes.”

The processes by which matters are handled is important. Issues of systematic disenfranchisement or individual incidents can be handled, and they can be handled in a productive capacity. But whenever there is some subset of those involved — students, faculty, or other members of the larger Nova Scotian community — who do not have an understanding of the process by which incidents and systems are reviewed, frustration will emerge. To help promote this understanding, the administration needs to ensure that it is operating with the utmost transparency.

At Dalhousie, for whatever reasons, our frustration thus far hasn’t become as radical in nature as it has within some American campuses. But until the university makes honest attempts to actually be more transparent and fair, and the words “diversity” and “inclusiveness” are proven to be more than just empty P.R., we have the potential to be just as explosive.

William Coney is a final year History and Classics student.

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William Coney

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