I should preface this article by making a few disclaimers – firstly, that this is my third year living at one of USyd’s residential colleges. In the wake of a recent media onslaught centred on something so personal, it’s tempting to assess the claims made against my own “college experience”. But to do so would risk equating my own voice with a group that spans six separate communities, and cannot be singularly spoken for or defined. In the context of global focus on institutional culture, it seems more constructive to focus on the significance of these events in how we navigate these issues in the public sphere.
The most pervasive aspects of sexism come from the nuances of everyday life which don’t lend well to headlines; the casual comments, attitudes and conversations which shape what is acceptable. To address the failings of an institutional culture, in any context, is far more complex than making grand gestures to be seen as positive action. It’s about addressing where the problem lies at the roots, rather than just chopping off branches.
Unfortunately media articles inevitably focus on the dramatic, and can sometimes escalate into a war of electronic words. What should be a dialogue deteriorates into a battle between cliques which obscures productive discussion of the real issues at play: that these incidents are a product of a something much bigger and more nuanced, extending far beyond the sandstone walls of colleges. What we end up with is a cycle of criticism and reaction that doesn’t address the substance of the problem.
The purpose of this article isn’t to fire another shot into the battle of publicity on this topic. It is to suggest that all stakeholders in this situation should stop thinking in terms of attack and defence. As students, we need to make concessions about how the culture in our institutions can exacerbate broader issues such as sexism, whether or not we feel our personal experiences are accurately conveyed to the public. We need to distinguish a critique of culture from an assault on our own self-worth. Equally, media coverage which distorts and politicises these issues only alienates the communities within these institutions and encourages a culture of blaming those who come forward. While the college management have a part to play, the power to impart cultural values lies with the students. Publicity can only generate change by starting a meaningful discussion with the people who have the power to do something.
On a broader note, maybe it’s time to open up a critique of a university culture fixated on divisions between campus groups and communities, where we define people by their place of residence, a society or a coloured t-shirt.
It is natural that everyone needs to belong somewhere. But without an inclusive concept of what it means to be a student here, USyd is just an amalgam of different cliques with values that are varying degrees of problematic. We need to resist the instinct to fall back on a discursive framework of “us” versus “them” and admit battle lines have already been crossed. That is, if working towards a more progressive environment for young people is what we’re really fighting for.