SMU is stepping up for its students

Dalhousie Schulich School of Law professor , Wayne MacKay, chairs the President’s Council at Saint Mary’s University. Photo: Rebecca Hussman

Saint Mary’s University is working to change its campus culture and improve its image – and this year’s orientation week began what will be a long process.

In the wake of last year’s controversy over an orientation week event marred by students repeating a pro-rape chant, President Dr. Colin Dodds formed a President’s Council to review the school’s policies and procedures.

“It’s kind of an exciting time at the university right now, being able to try and create cultural change in a short period of time,” said Travis Smith, the communications officer and spokesperson for the president.

The changes are projected to take place over the next three years, the President Council’s report says. Every six months, the council’s action team publishes detailed progress reports on the university’s website.

The first report, released in June, promised that orientation week, renamed welcome week, would follow the recommendations of the report.

For example, leaders this year attended a conference on sexual assault prevention, organized by the Antigonish Women’s Resource Centre, called “Bringing in the Bystander.”

Students received training from representatives of the University of New Hampshire, one of three universities on the White House Task Force hired to help prevent sexual assault on U.S. campuses.

The training included fully understanding the meaning of consent, promoting a culture of equity and learning strategies for witnesses to help prevent attacks. It also ensured students became aware of the resources available for victims of sexual violence, such as the nurses at the university’s Health Centre and the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre in Halifax.

The resurgence of the student society, Drink Responsibly And Feel Terrific, or DRAFT, is another substantial change. DRAFT was cancelled in the ’90s due to lack of funding. It is in line with the council recommendation to have more peer-based programs that focus on campus safety, and the dangers that come with heavy drinking.

Wayne MacKay, chair of the President’s Council, a law professor at Dalhousie University and an expert in human rights, stresses the need for education about sexualized violence and consent on campus to continue past welcome week.

“You need to have ongoing, systemic education, not just a one-off sort of thing. That’s really important.”

To this end, the university has posted an online mini-course on consent, receiving permission to base its design on the original from the University of New Hampshire. MacKay believes it should be mandatory for new students to take this instruction and Smith says Saint Mary’s is aiming to make this happen by the end of the academic year.

MacKay pointed out that the attitudes behind the chant staged last year are not unique to Saint Mary’s students.

“It was a lack of understanding of sexual equality on campus, and that’s a widespread problem,” he said. “One of the good things that’s come out of all this is there’s been a real active dialogue about the need to change that.”