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It is provocative and arrogant to reduce the discrimination on the dentistry programme to a question of nervousness and vulnerable students

Dentistry — The head of department at the Department of Odontology, Anne Havemose-Poulsen, is trying to ignore the claims by minority ethnic students. But it would be more fitting for management to reflect upon themselves.

»It should definitely not be the way you describe it. Nobody should be exposed to that.«

This was what the head of the Department of Odontology Anne Havemose-Poulsen said when she spoke to the University Post after the media’s articles, where a number of male dental students say that they have experienced systematic discrimination because of their ethnicity.

READ ALSO: Department of Odontology to investigate its study environment after claims by minority ethnic students

I felt a certain sense of optimism when I read that you took the problem seriously and that you now want to launch an impartial investigation. As I read further into the article however, it dawned on me that your wish for an investigation is more likely to be just spin for the media rather than a sincere desire to get to the bottom of the problem.

On Thursday, I took part in a programme on the Radio4 morning radio, where Anne Havemose-Poulsen also participated. After the programme, I felt disappointed about the indifference that Anne Havemose-Poulsen expressed. Again and again she avoids naming the case for what it actually is: systematic discrimination.

She continued to refer to the discrimination as ‘students in stressful situations’ and emphasised again and again that the instructors are doing everything they can to provide the best teaching for everyone. Conveniently without having to consider the actual issue in the case: The systematic and structural problem of discrimination against ethnic minorities, which the many testimonies from students clearly indicate.

READ ALSO: Minority dentistry students: »In the ideal world, we all start at level 0 when we start a new semester… But I feel that we begin at minus 5«

The instructors are getting the benefit of the doubt

Put together with her statements to the University Post, a clear picture is emerging of a manager who is continuing to avoid tackling the actual problem, and is continuing to ignore it.

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This seems to be in line with what students describe themselves, and it probably also explains the lack of management action to deal with the problem. The students feel vulnerable every time they are forced to complain to management, because they are always met with bias and the mantra »the instructor should always be given the benefit of the doubt«.

I am, first and foremost, aggrieved by how Anne Havemose-Poulsen gives the impression that she cannot recognise the stories that are told. With the many testimonies that the University Post has released, and the latest study environment survey which showed that one in three master’s students’ experience discrimination, I find it improbable that the issue comes as a surprise to you.

This is either a sign that you are not working hard enough to continuously assess the study environment – or even worse: That you have deliberately turned a blind eye to the complaints and attempts at dialogue that have taken place over the years.

I don’t know the answer, but it’s clear that management has not taken one of their core tasks seriously and has been caught napping. After the articles have been published, there has been an influx of testimonies from current and former students with minority ethnic backgrounds, all of whom recognise the perceived discrimination.

The testimonies that continue to emerge are spread out over several year cohorts – almost decades – and some of the cases have even gone up to the Office of the Dean. It is a mystery to me how management has not seen this pattern, and reacted to it.

A bad excuse

It is Anne Havemose-Poulsen’s theory that some of the minority ethnic students’ unpleasant experiences can be explained by inadequate communication.

»This is why we need to take a more in-depth look at where it is that the problem arises. Is it because of a lack of information? Do we need to focus on what the requirements are for getting a course diploma? These things we thought we had made clear to the students. But the criticism suggests that we need to be better on this point,« she says to the University Post.

In my view, this interpretation is simply a poor excuse for being passive in the face of everything that has been going on at the department for years. The same is Anne Havemose-Poulsen’s theory that the experiences of minority ethnic students must be an expression of nervousness. Both in the radio programme and in the University Post, she mentions that the unpleasant experiences of discrimination in the clinic are probably due to the fact that boundaries are crossed when an instructor is as close as they are to you in clinical training.

This leads to nervousness when students are vulnerable and under pressure, she argues. Of course, students can experience nervousness when they have to perform, but I think it is deeply provocative and arrogant to reduce discrimination to be a question of nervousness and vulnerable students. The testimony that has emerged is not about students who have felt nervous.

It is a question of a number of students, on different semesters, who have been yelled at, spoken to in a derogatory manner, and who have experienced failing courses on a non-legitimate basis. It is all about students who have had the feeling of running their heads against a wall every time they have complained about the prevailing atmosphere and what several people describe as »a toxic environment«.

Start reflecting

As I see it, a dedicated effort on several different levels is required if the necessary changes at the Department of Odontology are to take place. That is why I call on Anne Havemose-Poulsen to reflect. This is not just a communication task, it is a task that calls for a deeper level of inquiry.

And this is much more than just reacting to the criticism as if it was a failed communication strategy towards the students. Because the problem is far more serious: It’s a question of failed management.

The investigation that Anne Havemose-Poulsen wants to launch needs to focus on the psychological working environment, she says. But I think it is too easy and not enough to categorise the problems as a psychological work environment case. This is a disciplinary, discriminatory, and resource-relevant case requiring the attention of senior management at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH).

To get to the bottom of it, you need a thorough review of everything from management to teaching at the clinic. The problem is deep-rooted and a solution cannot just be a superficial stitch-up. Fundamental changes are needed.

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