The Halifax-based university drew intense fire after a video was posted online showing students repeating the chant that included "Saint Mary's boys, we like them young" and "Y is for your sister … U is for underage, N is for no consent."
Student representatives oversee orientation week at Saint Mary's, a common practice across the country, while university administrators serve more in a "consultative" role, said university spokesman Steve Proctor.
"It is a Saint Mary's student association event. We co-ordinate with them. They show us the schedule. It is clearly their event," said Proctor. "But that does not take away any responsibility from us from the university's point of view."
Proctor said he expects the question of who oversees the rite of passage to be part of a promised review.
"That will undoubtedly be one of the things they look at in terms of what went wrong and how can we make sure that it doesn't happen in the future," said Proctor.
The university has already stated that the students' union executive and all 80 frosh week leaders will undergo sensitivity training after the incident which university president Colin Dodds called "inexcusable."
Reliance on unions
Post-secondary institutions across the country have struggled with how to handle the often alcohol-fuelled frosh week activities that welcome new students to a campus.
In recent years, scandals from high-cost policing of out-of-control events to alcohol-induced student deaths have added pressure to universities who ultimately bear responsibility for student experiences.
"With most orientation programs you really rely on student leadership to deliver the messages and ensure that new students arriving on the campus have the best possible information and are supported through that process," said James Sanford, Acadia University's executive director of student services. "It's a significant transition."
Acadia University, located in Annapolis Valley less than 100 kilometres away from Saint Mary's, came under scrutiny in 2011 when a 19-year-old student from Calgary died after consuming copious amounts of alcohol.
Part of the changes spurred by the death two years ago are still taking place today, not only at Acadia but across the province.
Just days before the Saint Mary's chanting incident, an alliance of student associations announced a cross-province campaign to target sexual assaults and overdrinking.
Lesson to be learned
At that time, student union representatives said the Acadia death was a wake-up call for student leaders to be more proactive on the two issues and realize the importance of their role.
Canadian Federation of Students' deputy chair Vanessa Hunt says unions provide the opportunity of peer-to-peer orientation to help freshmen settle into their new homes and a new lifestyle.
"When done responsibly, as is the case on the vast majority of schools," Hunt says it "leads to students being properly introduced to campus life in a respectful and enjoyable way."
Sanford notes that at Acadia, it's a collaborative effort, though in the end it's the university's reputation at stake.
"We're responsible and that responsibility is one that is built on the relationship with the student union," said Sanford, a relationship built over a couple decades.
The student services director, however, is watching the incident unfold at its fellow Nova Scotian institution closely.
"This is one of those moments when there's something for all institutions to learn from," he said. "We've taken a second look at our programming. We want to make sure we're doing the right things to encourage our student leaders to look at everything that they do and what the message might be."
Program from 'yesteryear'
It's a lesson that Carleton University's director of student affairs said they already learned four years ago.
That's when the Ottawa school took over control of its orientation week, appointing a dedicated official to commandeer the months of planning and then deploying seven to eight employees to keep a watchful eye during the week of.
"If young adults aren't provided with appropriate guidance and appropriate monitoring then stuff like this is going to happen. Carleton wasn't immune to that," said Ryan Flanagan, director of student affairs at Carleton University.
The university still works in partnership with the student unions and Flanagan says it's been a very good working relationship.
Nowadays, orientation leaders go through a "battery of workshops," undergo a police records check and sign a behavioural contract promising to abide by a litany of rules that include promises not to consume alcohol and a vow to report any sexual assaults or abuses of the rules.
"I consider it a best practice," said Flanagan about the behaviour contract. "I wouldn't run an orientation program unless students were required to sign this."
When asked about the evolution of Carleton's orientation, Flanagan describes the prior model as a "program from yesteryear."
"It was a bit of a dinosaur," he said. "It was all about socializing and having a great time and not focusing on what we want our students to focus on as part of their university experience."
By Flanagan’s estimate, about 60 per cent of orientation now focuses on socializing while the remaining 40 is devoted to academic success and good citizenship.
Watching the furor over the Saint Mary's incident unfold, Flanagan says it illustrates how students with perhaps good intentions can succumb to "group think" and make poor decisions.
"It validates the position that Carleton University took a number of years ago to become more involved in the delivery of our program," he said. "I think that should be the norm across the country."