Following last week’s feature ‘Make Her Life Hell’, Georgia Kriz went to a USyd Senate meeting and met with university management to discuss sexual violence on campus. With additional comments by Christina White.
August 3rd, 6pm: Christina and I arrive outside the Senate meeting, inside the beautiful and ridiculously spacious Charles Perkins Centre. The meeting has already been going for two and a half hours; we have been told we will get to meet with the Chancellor and the Vice-Chancellor at some point towards the end of it.
6.07pm: Christina and I are hungry. We’ve ‘been’ to Senate meetings before (read: waited outside Senate meetings for hours before) so we know there are good snacks to be found in the kitchen.
6.10pm: The lovely Italian HostCo man tells us that the snacks are now only for the Senate. There must have been budget cuts, we reason. We sadly make bitter and watery coffees in mason jars (no clean mugs, tsk tsk) and head back to our seats.
6.30pm: We overhear some old white men talking about removing mould on the sandstone. We reason they must be part of the Removing Mould and Sandstone Upkeep Committee (RMSUC).
6.32pm: The RMSUC is allowed into the Senate meeting. Christina heckles them as they walk past—“Try chlorine, mates!” They are not impressed.
6.45 – 7.10pm: It’s dinner break. The Senate Fellows spill out of the meeting room; most head straight to the bathroom. The Chancellor (C) and Vice-Chancellor (VC) make a beeline for Christina and me. After introductions and general agreement that sexual harassment and assault are awful and should be stopped, ‘highlights’ of the conversation were as follows:
On the allegations that a Senate Fellow harassed and assaulted a student:
C: “You have damaged the reputation of every male Senate Fellow. We need you to urge your source to report the harassment so we can clear the names of the male fellows who are innocent.”
VC: “I can personally ensure her safety.”
Me: “What about the other women in the story? Don’t you want to help them report too? Or do you only care about this one because this is a high-profile case?”
VC: “What other women? Weren’t there only two in your story?”
Me: “There were five.”
VC: “I have to confess: I read your story in a hurry.”
C: “Oh I remember now, there were others … the point is that this is especially heinous because it was a Senate fellow. We’re meant to be setting an example.”
Me: “This is no more or less heinous than any other sexual violence. It should all be taken this seriously.”
On the flaws in the University’s processes:
VC: “I want the process to be quicker, more transparent, and easier to navigate.” (NB: he seems very genuine, in fairness.)
On how to proceed from here:
VC: “We need more women to be brave and report incidents, otherwise this will never get better.”
Me: “Women aren’t more or less brave for reporting or not reporting.”
C: “Come on Michael” (as she ushers him towards the meeting room), “we’re keeping 30 people waiting inside.”
7.11pm: The Senate meeting resumes. Christina and I are fuming.
Overwhelmingly, both the Chancellor and Vice Chancellor insistent that the University is working hard to fix its problems—a fact we’re not contesting—and are obviously trying to placate us and subdue further criticism while they work. They’re chronically and almost comically out of touch with what is really happening in their institution, but unwilling to bridge their knowledge gaps. They’re more interested in framing Sydney as a “world leader” in sexual violence policy reform than accepting responsibility for the current, deeply broken, policies. They’re patronising in their assertions that we don’t understand the problems and the potential solutions like they do. Worse, their narrow and incomplete reading of the article reveals that their biggest concern lies still with the public face of the University and its profit margins—“Senate Fellow abuses student” is a frightening headline, and one they’re patently desperate to suppress.
We resolve to sit down and wait for the end of the meeting. We’re going to talk to them again.
7.21pm: Aforementioned lovely Italian HostCo man takes pity on us, brings over a plate of bread and cheese. We eat in silence, save for my quiet commentary on the Greek feta—it’s delightful.
8.30pm: The meeting finishes. Once again, the fellows spill out of the meeting room. Most head straight home. C briefly says hi to us, before heading over to the kitchen area to drink wine with some of the remaining fellows. The VC comes over to us again, this time with Jordi Austin (JA), the Director of Student Support Services in tow.
8.31-8.50pm: We speak with JA and VC. Here we get more details about the University’s ongoing inquiry/reform process/complete overhaul of Student Services. JA has clearly been working hard and knows her subject matter. Highlights of conversation include:
On stuff that the University has already done:
JA: “We do have a baseline survey coming out hopefully around week 5. This is ground zero for us. We have a lot of space to grow and develop.” (NB: She is—and has been for quite a while, by all accounts—very genuinely committed to helping, and listens carefully to what we have to say.)
On our reportage:
VC: “I don’t think you should have written that the woman didn’t trust the reporting process. It will encourage other women to not report.”
Christina: “It isn’t our job to do your PR.”
Me: “If she doesn’t feel safe, that’s a problem with your process, and it’s our job to highlight that.”
VC: “With respect, I don’t care at all about Honi or what is written in it. I care about the welfare of students.”
VC: “I do like the paper this year though, much more than I did last year. You guys use full sentences this year, and don’t report just on student politics. Well done, your editing has been great.”
Me and Christina: “We don’t edit this year. We edited last year.”
8.51pm: VC and JA have to leave. We thank them for their time; they have been generous with it. We head over to where the fellows are drinking with the Chancellor- there’s more feta there, and Pinot Grigio.
8.56 – 9.01pm: The Chancellor asks me why I’m not willing to clear the names of the innocent male fellows of Senate. Unsurprisingly, a male fellow echoes her concerns, and accuses me of being stubborn. I choose not to directly answer their questions. Instead, I reply: “If the Senate put half as much time into fixing sexual harassment and assault on campus as they did into worrying about their reputations, this campus would be a much safer and better place.” They scoff loudly.
Christina and I down our glasses, and reach for the feta.