To my mind, the most telling aspect of the recent St John’s scandal was the discrepancy between the responses of non-residential university students and college students. The former were largely shocked and horrified, many demanding to see the colleges shut down for condoning such abhorrent behaviour. The reactions of the latter ranged from amused exasperation to long-suffering resignation; all agreed that the media were creating a storm in a teacup.
As a resident at an all-female college, I can say with some authority that incidents such as those reported in the Sydney Morning Herald are hardly unheard of. College culture is crude, often misogynistic, and, to no small degree, a product of the ready availability of alcohol. That said, the vast majority of residents seek only to enjoy themselves, albeit exuberantly. A minority can rightly be described as repulsive, bullying, predatory individuals. Others are guilty of bandwagonning; most are complicit only by virtue of their silence. A system in which senior student leaders and even staff discourage residents from discussing “incidents” with the media can hardly be expected to produce many whistleblowers. When the vultures descend, the collegians rally to protect their own.
In her open letter to the colleges, Eleanor Gordon-Smith denounced these institutions as “sandstone pockets” which cater to the “overdressed children of an outdated elite”. The implication, I assume, is that the repugnant behaviour which triggered this controversy is a product of the impunity granted by wealth and status. I do think privilege is important, but in other ways. My female peers were, for the most part, dismissive of both the media hype and the Johnsmen’s conduct. The relative protection afforded by their privilege didn’t allow these girls to link the routine use of the word “slag” with the horrifying reality of rape – a reality few are truly aware of when they enter college. Many see themselves, not as women who happen to be college students, but as college students who happen to be women. Whilst I agree wholeheartedly with the anti-bullying and anti-misogynist sentiments expressed in Eleanor’s letter, it is her “us and them” attitude which fuels the very insularity she criticises. “The plebs are after us. Close ranks. Give them nothing. Protect our own.”
In the early 2000s, St Andrew’s and St John’s began accepting female residents. This change was in part an attempt to combat the rape culture rife within the intercollegiate community. Significant opposition arose from alumni sitting on each college’s council of fellows, no doubt reflecting concern over the erosion of institutional traditions. It has emerged that parents of the 33 Johnsmen potentially involved in the incident that put a girl in hospital earlier this year intervened on their children’s behalf. The resulting decision voided the punishments meted out to the students by the rector for their failure to take responsibility for their actions. The exclusivity of this community grants alumni, often the parents and grandparents of current-day residents, extraordinary influence over the execution of college policies. When the old boys would rather feed their nostalgia than address institutionalised misogyny, and when a father employs a barrister to clear his son’s name rather than holding him accountable for his antics, what lessons are young collegians learning? These supposed figures of authority – they grin, wink, and turn a blind eye. They are the people against whom our ire should be directed. Is it any wonder students do not speak out?
I am not in any way condoning the dangerous, intimidating, and sexist conduct of college residents, both reported and unreported. I am not suggesting that the individuals guilty of such conduct be excused or exempted from punishment. But as long as critics fail to acknowledge the complicity of alumna-dominated college boards, the unsavoury elements of this culture will continue to thrive.