McGill, News

Former student goes to court over alleged toxic culture and discrimination within Faculty of Dentistry

A former McGill dentistry student has sued McGill and three professors who were part of the Faculty of Dentistry while he was at the university over alleged discrimination. Adam*, the complainant, says his experiences at McGill were marked by targeted threats, a toxic atmosphere, and efforts to limit his ability to continue his studies.

Adam, who is Muslim and of North African heritage, is now 42 years old. He came to McGill as a mature student in 2012, entrance scholarship in hand, having graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) at the top of his class. Entering McGill, Adam hoped to ultimately become an oral and maxillofacial surgeon.

“At UCLA, I felt it wasn’t based on how you look […], [your] origins,” Adam told The McGill Tribune. “It was just based on merit, you know,  if you’re serious about your work, if you are professional, if you are interacting with others in a polite and nice way […] that’s how it should be, not based on how you look. But at McGill, it was different [….] I felt like I was entering politics. It was who you knew […] how much you [are] willing to give up.”

During conversations with the Tribune, Adam alleged that he was subject to verbal abuse, had grades manipulated maliciously, and had negative feedback added to his Dean’s letter—a reference letter required to apply for a specialization in oral and maxillofacial surgery—without due cause. He believes that both his race and willingness to voice his opinions about unjust structures and practices within the institution precipitated this treatment.

Ashraf Azar has been an advocate for students for over a decade and has his own experience going to court against Concordia University. He has helped Adam navigate his experiences with McGill and advocate for himself.

In an interview with the Tribune, Azar explained that listening to students and giving them the tools to challenge large institutions is crucial for holding power to account and helping students recognize their worth.

“A lot of the students, whenever they get involved in these things, they kind of feel isolated and secluded,” Azar said. “Some of these targeted events and some of these situations almost make you feel like you’re undeserving of continuing this program, or you’re not worthy, or, you know, ‘why is this happening to you?’ You’ll see a lot of these [instances], they’re almost psychological, [they’re] extremely dramatic events for people.”

Azar noted that Adam was not the only student in the Faculty of Dentistry concerned about the culture and practices ingrained at the school.  

“Just in his graduate cohort alone, I had spoken to at least five to 10 people who told me that it was complete abuse in that faculty,” Azar said. 

Adam explained that pre-clinic, which some faculty members referred to as “boot camp,” is meant to help students prepare for a mandatory summer clinic between their third and fourth years. This, however, was when his experience at McGill took a turn for the worse. According to Adam, the director of pre-clinic at the time would curse at students and put them on his so-called “shit list,” creating a hostile environment. The director also allegedly told Adam—who was on this “shit list”—to “get used to it” and that he would encounter patients in his clinic that were hard to work on.

Another professor allegedly made inappropriate and derogatory comments about Muslims, referring to them as “fucking Muslims,” and asking Adam what was “wrong with [his] kind.”

In 2016, Adam was told he was being held back from entering his fourth year of Dentistry because he failed a summer clinic course led by former assistant professor Nareg Apélian. After appealing the failing grade, the decision was rendered null, and Adam was reinstated with the rest of his cohort in the fourth year. 

Though he ultimately graduated on time, Adam felt that his experience in the program was hindered by the extreme stress of the barriers and discrimination he faced, along with the time and practice he lost. When he began his fourth year, Adam was behind and excluded from the listserv and Facebook group where important information was disseminated to Dentistry students in his year.

Another student from Adam’s year, Gregory Gareau, was also held back but not reinstated. In 2016, Gareau, who is Indigenous, recounted his story of alleged discrimination and ableism within the Faculty of Dentistry to The McGill Daily, explaining that he was denied necessary accommodations and felt unwelcome and unvalued in the Faculty.

When Adam requested a Dean’s reference letter in 2016 to apply to get an MDCM (Medicinæ Doctorem et Chirurgiæ Magistrum) at McGill, the then-Dean, Paul Allison, provided him with a document that stated Adam was “below expectations” in three categories. Adam vehemently argued that this was an inaccurate reflection of his performance and pointed out that the letter was based on the overturned summer clinic evaluation. 

Apélian, who taught the summer class, was one of the subjects of Adam’s complaints and was deemed to have carried out “psychological harassment” against him by a McGill assessor. The dean’s letter also stated that Adam repeated a year in 2012-2013, when in fact he took a leave of absence, after which he resumed his studies. The Dean’s letter was later amended to say that Adam “met expectations” and the error regarding his leave of absence was corrected. 

Documents shared with the Tribune show that two other instructors believed that Adam “exceeded expectations” across the board in their evaluations.

Azar helped Adam reach out to the administration and eventually file an official grievance over his experiences.

“All the channels were accessed, the Dean of Students was contacted, the Associate Dean was contacted, the Provost was contacted throughout this process,” Azar said. “And everybody just kept giving [Adam] the runaround, like nobody addressed anything, all the way up to when the grievance was reached. After the grievance was reached […] nobody did anything. I think the only thing that they did, which says a lot for what was going on internally, was that they found Nareg Apélian guilty of psychological harassment.”

In his written statement to the Senate Committee on Student Grievances, which compiles a systematic list of his complaints against the school, Adam quotes an assessor at the university as having determined that “the situation in the Faculty of Dentistry is clearly troubling” and that “there is sufficient evidence to indicate management and governance issues.” The assessor also wrote, “the charge of psychological harassment [against Nareg Apélian] is deemed founded [….] Given the nature of the transgression, I believe discipline is warranted in this case.”

Apélian was later at the centre of a sexual assault scandal and removed from his position in 2019.

Unsatisfied with the university’s handling of his case, Adam decided to sue for damages in March 2018. In September 2022, he was unable to attend a hearing because he had contracted COVID-19. As a result, his case was dismissed and Adam was mandated to pay McGill’s legal fees. He is in the midst of fighting this decision by requesting a revocation of judgment.

When the Tribune reached out to the Faculty of Dental Medicine and Oral Health Sciences for comment, the university’s Media Relations Office replied that the university “does not comment on cases involving former students.”

A representative from the Dental Students’ Society of McGill University (DSS) wrote to the Tribune on behalf of the Society. They noted that the makeup of the senior faculty has changed significantly since 2017. 

“Since 2020, there has been an [Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI)] committee established and implemented to the 2021-2026 strategic plan; [and] in 2021, as part of our accreditation visit by the [Commission on Dental Accreditation of Canada (CDAC)], the student body was surveyed,” the representative wrote. 

They went on to quote some of the internal survey’s findings about Dentistry students’ feelings toward the Faculty as of 2021:

“Most students felt that faculty members exhibit professionalism and/or ethical behaviour (85 per cent) [….] A great number of students felt respected by their faculty (75 per cent) and themselves respect the faculty (85 per cent). Half the students felt that their time and needs are valued by the faculty (53 per cent) and that the faculty has adequate policies in place to deal with harassment or abuse (physical and mental) (43 per cent).”

The report also states: “Students’ comments voiced concerns over the faculty not taking student feedback and making changes regarding timing and coordination of the different aspects of the curriculum and elements of the curriculum itself [….] Some students share the view of ‘us vs. them’ in regards to the faculty and commented on the lack of [a] formal process to hold professors and faculty accountable.”

Adam, who is now a practicing dentist in the U.S. but never got to specialize in oral and maxillofacial surgery, hopes to create a non-profit where he can platform and advocate for students. Although plans have not yet been solidified, he believes in the need for a “ contre pouvoir to make a difference.”

*Adam’s name has been changed to preserve their confidentiality.

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