And yet more on St John’s but, please note, let’s not isolate this to just one of Sydney’s colleges.Posted: November 13, 2012
The St John’s College saga drags on, with the news that almost all of the Council have now resigned (and, goodness, here is a similar piece in The Australian). This follows the ‘requested’ resignation of the six sitting priests by Cardinal George Pell, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney. What is worth noting is that one member has remained (not the chair) and I’m slightly puzzled as to why: one can only hope it’s because they’ve been on a cruise and not yet read their e-mail! The Council itself will need to be complete reconstituted, and may change dramatically if the governing Act is altered, so remaining as the ‘last person standing’ doesn’t make much sense to me. (I admit my ignorance here as to the formal benefits and perquisites of Council membership so any who can inform me, please do!) I find the retiring chair’s comments interesting, for other reasons. Former chairman Christine Liddy has recognised that the Council no longer has quorum and also notes that the council ‘condemned the recent behaviour of “a minority of students” and supported any steps Cardinal Pell might take to address management of the college.
Well, that’s nice. The writing is on the wall so let’s all agree that the typeface is pleasing and that this is the shade that we wanted. What next, Ms Liddy, do you think that, after chairing this council over some of the most unseemly behaviour at a college seen for some time, including a near death due to intimidation, that perhaps some other actions are required?
She said the 1857 Act which governs the college was inadequate for a university college in the 21st century. (From the linked article from the ABC)
Now, my searching has turned up that Ms Liddy was a recent appointment to chair, as noted in a March document, so please allow me to genuinely generous in my comments that this may all revolve around particular poor timing for Ms Liddy’s commitment to modernising St John’s and that, had a group of students not decided that their 2012 theatrical production was to be a role-played 3D experimental version of “Lord of the Flies”, we would have seen requests for the government to consider revising the Act anyway. She is, of course, completely correct in that from almost any angle, the Acts that define the colleges do not address the realities of the late 20th Century, let alone the 21st.
Now, let us not forget that there are multiple colleges of this sort associated with the University of Sydney. A friend pointed out that we have been down similar paths before, with bad behaviour and loutish antics at the Presbyterian St Andrew’s College in the early 90s. One of the principals at the time, Dr Peter Cameron, tried very hard to modernise the culture, but as his book “Finishing School for Blokes: College Life Exposed” recorded, he had entered an atmosphere that was, to the vast majority, focused on activities that stagger the reader with their mindlessness and unpleasantness. Dr Cameron was, of course, famously convicted as a heretic in 1993 for having the audacity to preach that he supported the ordination of women and opposed the Church’s hardline on homosexuality. Fortunately, by the time that his colleagues had assembled the pyre, he had sensibly resigned his position and returned to Scotland, to join the Episcopalians, who appeared to be more agreeable.
And, yes, that was a heresy charge in 1993. In case you thought I got the year or the charge wrong. (You can read the sermon in Dr Cameron’s own, delightful, words at a piece here. He’s a far better writer than I am so please do take the time to read the sermon, whatever your religious leanings!)
Now, St Andrew’s, at least, has modified its Act (in 1998) to make the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney a Visitor, and hence allowing the University some voice and influence, but the unchanged Acts, designed to mandate separation from state influence in religion, now appear to be as archaic as they are. The freedom to practise Christianity will not be threatened by making the colleges more accountable to their University, but changing the Acts will start to address the poisonous and privileged atmosphere that surrounds these institutions.
It’s easy to label this as prudishness or, even, jealousy in that this appears to be about kids ‘having a good time’. However, and let me very clear, the good time stops the moment that you start to make someone else have a bad time. It appears, from the outside and from what leaks out, that a large number of the good times are purely had by inflicting a bad time on someone else. This all looks like a sad tale about older people, having been through a system, wanting to see it perpetuated and gazing through rose-colored glasses at a standard of behaviour that is repellant, unnecessary and, when regarded with any degree of criticality, fundamentally wrong.
I am very pleased to see that the Council has resigned, not least because it now means that the Rector who has been advocating for change (and who has been stymied consistently) will not have to step down in the face of a mysteriously large group of complaints from students that all materialised in the last month or two. (This does not, of course, mean that he may not have valid complaints to face in future but, to be frank, his accusers have largely undermined themselves through their actions.) I am very pleased to see that the Premier of New South Wales, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney and Cardinal Pell have all stepped in to try and clean this mess up.
As someone else commented on a previous post, wouldn’t it have been better if it had not come to this? Does it really take the near death of a girl to point out that gangs of roaming youths intimidating others, defecating in public, burning furniture and running riot is somehow not something that we associate with a University? One of my students commented that I must have been really angry when I last posted about the “letting their hair down” comment and, yes, I was furious. I don’t want anyone, anywhere, exposed to this kind of intimidatory and vindictive violence, and I most certainly then don’t want it whitewashed away with linguistic niceties so that, once again, the offenders walk way snickering and the victims/whistleblowers are left standing there, feeling like idiots.
We can only keep watching and wait to see what happens and hope that we can achieving something lasting in terms of protecting all of our students.