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The Lasting Legacy of Dalhousie’s Year of Scandal

Sexism, murder, massacre plots; did we miss anything?

Dalhousie campus. Photo via Facebook/Dalhousie University

Google "Dalhousie University" and you won't, currently at least, see much about the school's revered medicine program or its beautiful East Coast campuses.

Instead, you'll be directed to headlines about student-on-student murder and foiled massacre plots. Scroll a little further, and you'll uncover a litany of reports on the dentistry scandal, a perfect storm of sexism, homophobia, and racism that sparked national outrage.

The latest incident, dogpiling on what's turned out to be a grim year for Dal, involves the arrest of 30-year-old medical student Stephen Tynes, who allegedly threatened to kill a dean at the school, her daughter, up to 20 other students, and himself.

According to court documents, police seized two rifles—a Russian SKS and Golden Boy .22-calibre—and 1,834 rounds of ammunition from Tynes' home. He has since been suspended from school and is currently out on bail. This happened just weeks after another Dal medical student, William Sandeson, 22, was charged with first-degree murder in the death of fellow student and reported drug dealer Taylor Samson.

Suffice to say, 2015 has not been kind to Dal's reputation.

"It has been a good year for Dalhousie in many respects. It has also been a tough year. We've been through some very public challenges," Brian Leadbetter, director of communications for Dalhousie said in an email statement to VICE.

Citing a high volume of media inquiries, Dal would not agree to a phone interview with VICE. The school's student union also declined to comment for this story.

Founded in 1818, Dal is one of the country's oldest academic institutions, serving as both a community fixture in Halifax and one of its major employers. Like all universities, it relies heavily on its good name to boost enrollment and gain funding and sponsorship. But, within the span of a year, it's become best known for a series of scandals and, some say, its public mishandling of them.

The school's PR troubles date back to the dentistry scandal that erupted last December. A female student reported sexually explicit and misogynistic comments (eg. references to chloroform and "hate fucking") posted in a Facebook group called "Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen." It took about a month for the school to effectively suspend 13 students who participated in the commentary from clinic privileges. A task force led by a University of Ottawa professor later revealed a deeply-entrenched culture of sexism, homophobia, and racism within the Faculty of Dentistry at Dal.

The report also criticized Dal for being slow to address the controversy, both internally and externally. This, in spite of a reported $344,000 spent on handling communications.

"The phrase 'sweeping it under the rug' was heard repeatedly," the report stated. "This widespread perception generated suspicion and distrust, and it heightened criticism of every step the University administrators took."

Speaking to VICE, PR expert Greg Wilkinson said in times of crisis, you want to be fast and as forthcoming as possible. "If you wait until your information is perfect, that's way too long," he said, adding " If you screwed up, you say so."

Brad McRae is director of the Halifax-based Atlantic Leadership Development Institute, a firm that trains private- and public-sector leaders; he also taught a course at Dal. He says Dal missed an opportunity to host a national dialogue on sexism and homophobia. Specifically, he said, the school failed in not immediately condemning the actions of the dentistry Facebook group, and by punishing whistleblower and member Ryan Millet to the same degree as the others. (Millet was suspended and found guilty of misconduct through a disciplinary process.)

"Instead of doing that, most of the effort was on containing the scandal," McRae told VICE.

"They ended up trying to contain the uncontainable."

McRae, who has close ties with the business community in Halifax, said the scandal has left a "lasting legacy."

"I think there's at least a reluctance among some people to donate funding to Dal because of this," he said.

Yep, still Dal. Photo via Flickr user Duane Brown

Dal's image issues aren't limited to the public realm. Recent events have also left students reeling.

"The last few weeks have been kind of ridiculous from a news perspective," Kevin Wilson, a 29-year-old Community Health and Epidemiology student told VICE.

He said he was shocked when he came across a Facebook post relating to Tynes Wednesday morning.

"The optics of it seem like Dal med is going off the rails."

Though he explained that he's not concerned for his safety, "It's hard to open a news article and hear about a guy who made some level of threat and not say 'That's right across the street from where I work all day.'"

"Students are feeling pretty apprehensive, afraid, and simply shocked," added sociology major Asrar Haq, 19. But he thinks the dentistry scandal is what's really left a sour taste in people's mouths.

Tanya, a business student at the university who worried her full name might hurt her employment chances, said the misogyny demonstrated by her peers was "really upsetting. And it's scary because they have access to the chloroform and they stuff that they were joking about using."

The steady stream of negative press has been demoralizing for Dal students, she added.

"I can't even imagine what parents sending their kids to their first year at Dalhousie are thinking. They must be terrified."

Wilson and Arar said administration has been forthcoming in giving students updates, including advising them of beefed up security on campus.

Wilson predicted the recent turmoil won't leave a stain on the school's reputation.

"Five or ten years from now, an incoming med student will know very few of the details of what's going on this summer."

That's an optimistic point of view, but it doesn't always work out that way.

Columbia University and the University of Virginia are still dealing with the aftermath of their respective sex scandals. Toronto's York University is facing an ongoing public relations nightmare due to high profile sex assaults and shootings that have taken place on and around school grounds.

Leslie Armstrong, 23, a recent grad and former editor of the campus paper Excalibur, enrolled at the school in 2011. She told VICE there was a strong stigma associated with attending York.

"Sometimes I would tell people I went to York and they'd say 'It must be so terrible with all those crimes happening,'" she said. She also heard of international students being advised to live off campus for safety reasons.

Armstrong felt the characterizations were unfair, and even took on the mainstream media in an editorial titled "Twenty minutes from the truth."

"I begin to wonder if we've earned our abysmal reputation through the amount of crimes that happen here or through the media's portrayal of the university," she wrote.

Leadbetter told VICE Dal is facing its problems head on, although he did not get into specifics.

"Our university community has been deeply affected by the issues we've been addressing this year. But as a result, important conversation and debate is continuing on our campuses."

But for the moment, it seems likely that " important conversation" will stay more focused on sensational headlines than the underlying systemic issues. If that remains the case, any progress the school thinks it is making can easily be undone by the next bad headline.

Follow Manisha Krishnan on Twitter.