Think for yourself

Students need to develop their professional judgment muscles early to stay out of trouble.

Whatever opinion you hold on the actions of the Dalhousie University dental students who posted misogynistic comments on Facebook late last year, we can thank them for one thing. They have provided a great case study for those involved in the education of young professionals. As I write, the story has quieted down, but several lessons are clear.

Professionals are held to a higher standard

What distinguishes this from similar postings at other universities is the fact that it took place in a professional school. Many of the comments in the press and on social media raise the question of whether students who would make these comments could be trusted to behave appropriately with their female patients. It’s creepy to think that my dentist, who is looming over me with a drill, could have posted comments about using chloroform to subdue women.

Consider the difference if these had been MBA students. While there would still, and appropriately, have been criticism and calls for the university to punish the perpetrators, I suspect the story would have died down much more quickly. We would have shaken our heads and joked that the students would fit in perfectly on Wall Street. It’s difficult to imagine that Goldman Sachs would have blackballed them.

Instead, these students face sanctions including the inability to graduate and the scrutiny of provincial licensing bodies. Harsh yes, but professions, including the accounting profession, rightly guard the trust of the public.

If everyone is doing it, is it OK?

It is important to remember that the perpetrators are still students. And the pressure to fit in is very strong. People make comments on Facebook not necessarily because they believe them, but because they think other people will, in Facebook parlance, "like" them. It is easy to imagine students trying to outdo one another with their crude, clever jokes. It is hard to imagine a male student having the guts to post a comment criticizing other students for being sexist and unprofessional.

The lesson for students in any profession is that you need to develop your professional judgment muscles early to stay out of trouble.

Whistleblowers almost never win

One of the students in the Facebook group has come forward to say that he was the whistleblower and therefore should be treated leniently. He says that he showed the postings to a female colleague, who went to the university administration.

Where has this gotten him? His fellow Facebook students no doubt hold him in total contempt for being a turncoat. The university, so far, has not exonerated him (he did, after all, go along with the comments for some time). And at this point, his is the only name made public.

The discussion questions in my ethics class will be: what would you have done? Continue to participate and hope no one finds out? Withdraw from the Facebook group and say nothing? Go to the administration? Post a comment on the Facebook site about how inappropriate the jokes have become? There is no easy answer, except that it’s easier not to join in the first place than it is to exit as a hero.

The president of Dalhousie University has a tough job balancing the rights of the patients, the female students and the male students (both those who were in the Facebook group and those who were not), while dealing with the outrage of the public. But we need to be careful of hypocrisy here — the types of comments made by the students are not exactly unknown in professional offices (never mind bars and locker-rooms) across Canada.