Dalhousie’s dentistry scandal: A costly lesson in communications
Bill Dicks, CTV Atlantic
Published Wednesday, December 21, 2016 2:55PM AST
Last Updated Friday, December 23, 2016 6:44PM AST
It’s been just over two years since a group of male students at Dalhousie University's School of Dentistry were found posting misogynistic comments online about female classmates. The university spent hundreds of thousands of dollars dealing with the fallout. Now, internal documents reveal what Dalhousie spent after hiring a Canada-wide public relations firm to help minimize the fallout.
It was the perfect storm. A group of fourth-year Dalhousie dental students - all men - identified by a Facebook group known as “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” were discovered posting sexually explicit comments online.
Some of those comments were directed at the very women with whom they shared classes. A whistleblower showed a highly disturbing post to one classmate because she was mentioned in it by name. That’s when an incident that might have otherwise gone unnoticed blew up.
Looking to respond to what was quickly escalating into a very high-profile story, the university turned to outside help, hiring a public relations consultant - people who had experience navigating sensitive issues. It didn’t come cheap.
How the money was spent:
Dalhousie spent $118,448 in external legal fees. Of that amount, $58,181.34 was for advice in relation to the university’s response and management of the issue, while $57,771.80 was paid out to support the Faculty of Dentistry as a party in the Academic Standard Class Committee meetings.
The costs associated with the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in the Faculty of Dentistry amounted to $183,100.
For external communications counsel, the costs to the university were $380,327 and included strategic communications support and counsel, media monitoring and training, and writing of some communications materials.
For a total of $681,875.
Source: Dalhousie University
Documents obtained by the Canadian Taxpayers Federation show an itemized list of the services provided to Dalhousie by National Public Relations, a PR firm in the business for 40 years, with offices across Canada and beyond.
In its contract, National Public Relations promised to help Dalhousie with crisis management, and to develop a strategy to restore the university’s reputation.
Cost of Communications:
In the first seven months of 2015, more than $155,000 was spent on strategic communications. A large portion of that included media monitoring; whatever was being said about Dalhousie and the scandal, in any form – radio, television, social media, and print - National Public Relations was taking notes.
Another $13,000 was directed toward coaching university employees - faculty and staff who might be called upon to for an explanation. That category was called ‘Difficult Conversation Sessions.’
And interestingly, more than $10,000 went into preparing Dalhousie President Dr. Richard Florizone for an interview with the CBC’s Fifth Estate. An interview CTV has been told didn’t happen.
Source: Access to Information Request
“This is yet another example of universities going over and above the spending that should have been permitted,” says Kevin Lacey, Atlantic Canada director of the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
Lacey says there’s no doubt Dalhousie was under pressure, but spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on PR consultants, when universities are, as he says, ‘quick to cry poor,’ is out of step with current financial realities.
"The best example is the money that was spent on The Fifth Estate, over $10,000 to a consultant from Toronto, paid $450 per hour plus taxes, to try and train the university president on an interview,” the taxpayer advocate says.
Parts of National’s work included keeping track of what Dalhousie’s professors were saying.
Philosopher and ethicists Françoise Baylis was one of them. She’s not surprised, though she is disappointed.
“There was nothing clandestine about what I was doing and I would’ve been very happy to share information about the media that I was talking to, and what it was I was saying,” Baylis says.
She was one of a group of professors who early on went public, urging the university to suspend the students who actively participated in posting offensive material.
In considering the money spent by the university, Baylis says she feels the money could have been put to better use.
“I think that money could very well have been invested in faculty,” she explained. “That’s what a university is about, it’s a place of learning, it’s a place that people hopefully grow up into good citizens, and $680,000 is a lot of money right now.”
CTV did ask to speak with Dalhousie President Dr. Richard Florizone to see if he feels the money was well spent and what lessons, if any, the school has learned, but despite repeated requests, he was not made available.
Instead, a spokesperson for Dalhousie provided this statement:
Dalhousie recognizes that our actions and decisions will be judged by their long-term impact. We are guided by our values as an academic institution, with the highest priority being the safety and success of our students.
We are strengthened by our diversity and inclusiveness. We are a respectful and inclusive community. We are committed to being a place where everyone feels welcome and supported, which is why we committed in our Strategic Direction to fostering a culture of diversity and inclusiveness.
Our ongoing response across the university is a holistic one. We are making positive change at Dalhousie and a lot of progress has been made over the past two years.
On December 12, we shared our third progress update in response to several reports shared with the university community over the past two years: the Belong report, the Report from the Task Force on Misogyny, Sexism and Homophobia in the Faculty of Dentistry, the Report from the Restorative Justice process at the Faculty of Dentistry, along with the national Truth and Reconciliation Report.
The link to that progress report is available here: https://www.dal.ca/cultureofrespect/progress-updates.html
Director, Communications & Public Relations
During the investigation of the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” it was decided to suspend 13 male students for two months from working in the dental clinic, putting their ability to graduate in jeopardy. In the end; however, the university announced it would allow students who posted the Facebook comments to graduate.