University Frosh Rape Chant Poses Leadership Challenge

Last week, a scandal sprouted on Canada’s east coast, when it was discovered that part of Frosh Week activities at Saint Mary’s University (SMU), in Halifax, included the chanting of a song promoting the sexual assault of underage girls. The news broke shortly after a video of the chant was posted online. Condemnation was broad and swift. Some were angry at the students. Others were angry at university administrators. Others simply lamented the sad state of “youth today” and the perpetuation of the notion that it is OK to glorify rape.

As it happens, I taught for about a decade in SMU’s Philosophy Department; I still have friends who teach there. I know some of the administrators involved in this case, and have more than a little affection for the place, generally.

My own particular scholarly interest in this case, though, has to do with the ethics of leadership. I think the events described above provide a good case-study in the ethics of leadership. That’s not to say that it is an example of either excellent or terrible leadership. But rather, that it’s a case that illustrates the challenges of leadership, and an opportunity to reflect on the ethical demands that fall on leaders in particular, as a result of the special role they play.

Two key leaders were tasked with handling the SMU situation. One was Jared Perry, President of the Saint Mary’s University Student Association. Perry has now resigned. Reflecting on his error, Perry said “It’s definitely the biggest mistake I’ve made throughout my university career and throughout my life.” The other leader is SMU president Colin Dodds. For his part, Dodds has condemned the chant and the chanters, and has launched an internal investigation and a task force.

A leader facing a crisis like this needs to balance multiple objectives.

On one hand, a leader needs to safeguard the integrity and reputation of the organization. Of course, just how to do that can be a vexing question. Do you do that by effecting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, or by a more balanced approach? Do you focus on enforcement, or education?

A leader also needs to deal appropriately with the individuals involved. In this case, that means offering not just critique (or more neutrally, “feedback”) to the students involved, but also offering compassion and advice in the wake of what everyone agrees is a regrettable set of circumstances. In particular, a situation like this involves a “lead the leaders” dynamic. It is an opportunity for university leaders to teach something specifically about leadership to the student leaders involved. It is also, naturally, yet another opportunity for university leaders to learn something about leadership themselves; unfortunately, that lesson must take the form of learning-by-painfully-doing.

Finally, a leader needs to be responsive to reasonable social expectations. In this case, those expectations are complex. On one hand, society wants institutions entrusted with educating the young provides a suitably safe setting, and arguably one that fosters the right kinds of enculturation. On the other hand, society wants — or should want — universities to be places where freedom of speech is maximized and where problems are addressed through intellectual discourse. Indeed, my friend Mark Mercer (in SMU’s philosophy department) has argued that what the university ought to demonstrate, in such a situation, is its commitment to intellectual inquiry and to the idea that when someone uses words we disagree with, we should respond not with punishment but with open discussion and criticism.

Balancing those objectives is a complex leadership challenge. And there’s no algorithmic way to balance such competing objectives. But one useful way to frame the leadership challenge here is to consider the sense in which, in deciding how to tackle such a challenge, a leader is not just deciding what to do. He or she is also deciding what kind of leader to be, and what kind of institution he or she will lead. Each such choice, after all, makes an incremental difference in who you are. It is at moments like this that leaders build institutions, just as surely as if they were laying the bricks themselves.

1 comment so far

  1. Dominique O'Rourke on

    Chris, I understand that university leadership had many interests to balance. However, I don’t believe that it is ethical to let the student leaders take the blame and especially not on national television. The President of the student’s association did not invent this chant. In fact, it’s likely been around for years and, to be chanted in front of 400 people, had to be taught to the frosh leaders. It has to be an accepted social norm. It is impossible that no one has previously complained about this chant and, had it not been caught on video, there would have been no repercussions.
    In a similar case at UBC’s Sauder School of Business, student executives resigned after chanting pro-rape slogans. Again, where is the accountability for the dean of the business school? The President of the University? These are future business leaders who are in an environment where they think that promoting rape is acceptable.
    The universities and the media will move on next week because they have tidily scapegoated their student leaders but they will not have addressed a pervasive problem in Canadian society and in our institutions. Just check out the RCMP and the military.
    Unfortunately, I think the leaders fell short in this instance.

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