When the Chronicle Herald broke a story about non-consensual posting of sexually explicit images on Instagram by students in Howe Hall, Dalhousie, it seemed, was ready. Within a day, it released a statement, detailing its responses – which included the matter having been referred to the police, with no charges laid, and some of the students involved having been evicted from residence – and calling the incident “not acceptable.” In light of the events at Dalhousie’s Faculty of Dentistry, the school couldn’t have plausibly tried to argue that the Howe Hall incident was an isolated incident, and they didn’t, saying that the episode was “part of complex social issues in which we have been fully engaged.”
Although the Dalhousie Student Union doesn’t criticize the particular steps made by the university, it takes issue with that last part. Without substantial changes to the university structure, says Ramz Aziz, president of the DSU, the underlying culture that contributed to the incident is unlikely to change.
“Incidents like this happen far more frequently than the media reports and they go by unnoticed because people think that’s normal,” he says. “Where is the conversation, where’s the strategy that addresses this?”
On March 30, the DSU released its own statement on the Howe Hall incident, calling on the university to make changes – incidentally, the same changes that the DSU had called on the university administration to make in the wake of the Dentistry scandal – to address “a widespread, systemic culture of gender-based violence that is enabled and upheld by University senior administrators.”
The statement suggested the university stop treating this incident as a “communications crisis” and do something to actively engage with the issue. While measures that have already been adopted such as the tepidly-titled ‘Belong’ Report on Diversity and Inclusiveness are positive, says Aziz, they barely address gender-based violence as such.
I asked Aziz if the university should expand its sexual harassment policy to include the harassment that takes place on social media. There are some universities that do so – albeit very few – including Lakehead University, whose definition of sexual harassment includes the “non-consensual posting of pictures, aggressive comments or stereotypes and slurs on social media.” Despite having the first “social media research lab” in the country, Dalhousie has no such policy. Aziz says the DSU will be releasing its own social media policy, but that when it comes to gender-based violence, no one approach is enough.
Among the DSU’s six recommendations is a formal process for students to anonymously report concerns. That the student who reported the most recent incident was then identified as having done so, says Aziz, “shouldn’t have happened, so we have to look at that, what’s a safe way for people to report these things, voice concerns about what they see happening in their community.”
But addressing the problem means engaging with the reasons why those who experience or report sexual harassment risk the censure of their peers; to that end, the statement also calls for a mandatory equity course (as did the statement released after the Dentistry scandal). These issues, says Aziz, won’t be resolved without the buy-in of the whole community. “You have to raise the question how do we all make campus safer, how do we all be conscious of our own privileges and basically work on preventing ourselves from oppressing others.”
University policy should also acknowledge the ways in which the culture at large shapes people’s attitudes, and not wait for students to arrive on campus before they start talking to them about gender-based violence, says Aziz. Whether that means addressing it in welcome packages, sending student ambassadors out to high schools or having a realistic conversation about what university is like, it needs the commitment of university administrators.
“We do need university support in helping us develop some sort of method,” he says. “What we need to do is to send that message before people show up this is a reality, you know, that happens on campus.”