(Note: this is an evoking situation and I am heavily dependent upon the press for information. This story may evolve rapidly and I will update my posts as matters change.)
There is a lot of discussion in the New South Wales press regarding the behaviour of some students at St John’s College, a residential College within the University of Sydney. A tradition for ‘hazing’ now appears to have deteriorated to a culture of bastardisation that has led to some unpleasant incidents, including the hospitalisation of a young woman who was coerced into drinking a concoction of materials that were either not for human consumption or beyond the point of consumption. When disciplinary actions were applied by the new Rector, the actions of a group of old scholars and the parents of the students rapidly overturned the majority of punishments and the ‘guilty’ students reacted as one might expect. Freed of the outcomes of their actions, matters have deteriorated to the point that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal George Pell (who holds an official role to the College as its Visitor), has stated that the loutish behaviour must stop or he may involve the police. That word beloved of the more excitable print media, ‘anarchy’, is being thrown around in a non-complimentary manner.
Do I have the guaranteed and final truth of all of this? No. All of this should be read in the context of an ongoing investigation where the final statements on what did and did not happen will take some time to uncover. Regrettably, comment from old Johnsmen who control parts of the College does not really inspire much confidence, with statements along the lines of ”Some of the fellows feel that certain traditions are to be protected and that protection means the rector must go.”
When the traditions involve 30+ people from higher years standing around a kneeling young woman, ‘encouraging’ her to drink, I think that we see a tradition that makes a great deal of sense to those who stand in control – but very little to anyone who would prefer it that our students not be viciously and systematically intimidated into carrying out potentially dangerous actions. Of course, now would be the time for a true voice of the students who are, supposedly, being victimised to come forward and tell us that it is all media beat-up. And Georgie did just that on a television interview. Georgie’s statements included quotes such as:
“I’m a fresher there and, like, I’ve never been intimidated or forced into drinking anything as they say. Like, all the rituals have been ruled out and all that kind of stuff. Like, the leaders of this college, like, they always sit us down, they’re like ‘you’re never forced into anything and all that kinda stuff.’’ (via SMH.com.au, link below)
Which would be great, if Georgie were not a third year student who is part of the house committee that looks after day-to-day matters in the college. So, to add to the excreting in public spaces, setting fire to furniture outside the Rector’s office and forcing young students to consume (under great peer pressure) stomach turning concoctions, we have the committee that is charged with dealing with these matters presenting a false public presence (at least according to the Sydney Morning Herald). The truth is unpalatable or has been brought into the open? Lie about it! What a splendid lesson for some of the future leaders of the 21st Century. (The current leader of the Federal Opposition and his finance spokesman are both former men of the College. It is not hyperbole to place the current students at the scalable foot of the ladder to the top.)
Things are, fairly obviously, pretty dire and the Vice-Chancellor for the University of Sydney had this to say:
“If I was reading these newspaper reports I would have serious questions about sending my children to a college at the University of Sydney at the moment.”
Well, yes. A culture of thuggery and bastardisation such as this is, of course, completely at odds with the notion of how we should generally treat our students. With everything that is currently coming out of this scandal, it requires only a fraction of it to be true to make St John’s College a massive liability to USyd.
Dealing with students is pretty straight forward. Don’t lie to them. Don’t bully them. Don’t have sex with them. Try to educate them. Finally, protect them from any elements in your own system that can’t follow these simple rules. I don’t want broken students in my classes, press-ganged into hierarchical conformance. I don’t want bullies and people who think that rules basically apply to everyone except them. This way sociopathy lies. While the actions of Georgie are the action of an individual, if this is indicative of the way that thought runs in the College, then it will be hard to see any remorse (if that is ever shown) as anything other than a cynical exercise in presenting a new version of the truth for a suddenly observant public.
Not all traditions are good traditions, and bad behaviour of many sorts is often excused with statements along the lines of “but we’ve always done it this way”. Students should have a reasonable expectation that an organisation with any connection at all to a University should adhere to similar standards of behaviour. The College is an independent college but it is still at the University of Sydney. I do not envy the University this situation, as it does raise questions of pastoral care and ongoing support and affiliation.
Any student deserves to live and work in an environment that neither allows this to happen to the victims, nor encourages or in any way rewards students in becoming the kind of people who would take such an unpleasant approach to fellow humans. When you send your son or daughter to one of a nation’s most prestigious University-aligned or affiliated institutions, you would expect them to be safe, valued and to be in a community designed to foster their successful advancement in terms of their own merits, rather than anything approaching what is currently coming out in the media regarding this college. It is, quite simply, a reasonable expectation.