Interview by Millie Roberts. Additional reporting by Janek Drevikovsky.
Don Markwell, the new head of St Paul’s, is convinced that a college education is the best education.
We’re sitting in one of St Paul’s boardrooms, overlooking a 162-year-old sandstone courtyard. Its hallowed halls haven’t received so much praise in recent years. Parts of the press have characterised Paul’s as a byword for hazing scandals, misogyny and sexual assault—a decaying castle teetering on its pedestal of privilege. Only last year did Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence described the place as having “deep contempt for women”.
But just six months in the job, Markwell is promising change. “Respect and dignity for all” is a phrase that dominates our conversation—an unofficial slogan for St Paul’s new era.
And it’s a slogan that raises questions: can a college promise dignity to all when its undergraduate intake is still restricted to men? Can it treat all students with dignity—even those without the means to pay its astronomic fees? And can St Paul’s new leader—a man who champions an education model available largely to the elite few—really be its reformer?
At Paul’s, they call Markwell ‘the warden’. This title falls to the head of college by law, but actually, Markwell is not officially the warden. Not yet.
It all comes down to religion and very old statute. The Saint Paul’s College Act is the New South Wales law which established the college and provides for its governance. In its current form, it requires that the head of the college “shall always be a clergyman” in the Anglican church.
But Markwell is not a priest, meaning the Act will have to be amended by a vote in NSW Parliament. It might seem strange to go to those lengths; after all, the selection panel could have just found a clergyman for the job.
But times are changing, as Markwell hints.
After 22 years in the position, Markwell’s antecedent, Reverend Ivan Head, retired from his post late last year, a mere week after the latest in a series of scandals to afflict the college. Residents’ private messages had been shared to the press—posts in which certain Paulines spoke of “harpooning” women during intercourse.
Head’s response was an infamously lukewarm and erasive warning: “Some things may resurface just when you need your best CV to work for you.”
Markwell winces when I bring up the incident. There was some handover between the two college leaders, he says, but due to Head’s early Christmas departure, their paths didn’t cross much.
There is a stark contrast between the old generation and the new guard. Head, the theologian, was a traditionalist. Markwell positions himself as a liberaliser.
Before our conversation, Markwell takes me on a tour of the college grounds. We come to a stop in a courtyard humming with construction noise: from either side, Paul’s two latest infrastructure projects tower over us. Markwell stops to chat with a group of passing undergraduates One of the residents is wearing a pair of wireless Airpods; they don’t escape Markwell’s notice and, in a curious tone, he asks what these white ear plugs could possibly be. The banter flows quickly, and Markwell smiles at the jibes over his technological ignorance.
“I’ve met with over 100 of the students […] to play a mentoring role,” he explains later.
Markwell grew up in outback Queensland. He laughs when I ask what suburb specifically, and explains that his home town Quilpie, with its population of 500, was 1000 km from Brisbane. It was rural enough for the young Markwell to own a pet kangaroo. For the last 30 years, much of his career has been centred on education: teaching, research, publication, and various advisory roles, including Senior Advisor in National Security and Governance to the Turnbull government. Pedagogy runs in his family: his mother was a kindergarten teacher, who later moved Markwell and his four siblings to the city so they could attend high school.
Each of his words is carefully chosen, and he often pauses before answering a question. When I ask him about the importance of education, the pause is long. At last: “I think it frames the path that you’ve chosen for your life and the decisions that you’ve made and the morals that drive what you’ve been doing.”
Markwell is unafraid to flash his progressive credentials. He cites the praise he received from Naomi Wolf, a feminist journalist who once wrote that, under Markwell’s leadership, “there’s a sense that whatever your ethnicity or background, you’re welcome, equal and valued.”
There’s no denying his successes in diversity and inclusion: he introduced Indigenous student scholarships while warden of Trinity College at Melbourne University; and, as warden of Rhodes House, he pressured Princeton to encourage more female students to apply for the Oxford-based programme.
In his own words this time: “The theme of my career has been trying to improve the quality of educational opportunity for students and trying to expand who can have access to the best quality education.”
“Over time,” Markwell hopes to be “very active in fundraising for scholarships.” It’s unclear whether scholarship programmes can substantially expand the diversity of a college population: currently, most USyd colleges offer only a handful of full-fee scholarships per year. Paul’s itself offers nine. Otherwise, the average resident will pay over $25,000 for their first year alone.
But the real rot which the colleges have come to typify is patriarchal misogyny—an alleged culture of dangerous hazing, male domination, hostility to women and sexual assaults.
Markwell inherited something of a mess from his predecessor. Last year, Paul’s refused to take part in Elizabeth Broderick’s college cultural review. But then came a backflip, a late entry into the Broderick Report, and only now—months after its neighbours—will it see Broderick’s findings.
Markwell describes the process as consultative, and the results as transparent and forward-thinking.
“We will implement all the recommendations of [the review],” he commits. This will involve an action plan in the next few weeks, a statement from Paul’s administration, and mandatory consent discussions and training.
“I think [it] will show our deep commitment to be leaders in fighting against sexism [and] sexual harassment and sexual assault.”
That said, Markwell rejects calls for University control over the colleges. “[I] don’t imagine that being directly controlled by the university and kind of run by university bureaucrats would actually make things better.”
But other than introducing consent training, it’s unclear what Markwell himself will do to stamp out misogyny. He is adamant that Paul’s will have a “zero-tolerance approach” under his watch and that “nobody doubts that we mean what we say and uphold what we say”. That’s about as specific as it gets.
He’s also quick to disclaim control over all aspects of college life. “An enormous amount of what happens is run by students themselves, who organise extracurricular activities, social things and so forth”. But these are exactly the contexts where hazing rituals, binge drinking and macho sexuality predominate: college OWeek, which first years experience in a blur of often forced inebriation and expected sexual conquest, is organised largely by senior ‘mentor’ students. If the college does not intervene and shape these cultural forces, it’s unclear how reformism will succeed.
The situation is a difficult one: media attention has been sustained and public outcry has been fierce. But despite protests calling for USyd colleges to be replaced with cheap housing, Markwell insists the collegiate system should stay.
“Of course I believe in affordable housing […] but to try to solve those problems by tearing down the finest educational opportunities there are, would seem to me to be a dreadful mistake.”
As our conversation moves on, it becomes clear Markwell is captivated by the ideal of a college; his vision is of a perfected, accessible and welcoming community of scholars.
Markwell aims for St Paul’s to become a “centre of excellence”, reaching the calibre of Cambridge, Oxford or Princeton. And the college’s latest work-in-progress will, he hopes, help them get there: Graduate House is Paul’s new postgraduate community and will be open to anyone, regardless of gender, and will not just host former Paulines, but welcome any graduate scholars studying at or visiting USyd.
From humble origins, the new warden has made himself at home in the exclusive world of the college. And he seems, at times, to lose sight of just how far the reality falls short of his ideal. But Markwell seems genuinely committed to making things better. He is a driven administrator and an effective collaborator—with Paul’s defenders and critics alike. He has opened dialogue with the USyd Women’s Collective, national activists, various University administrators and state educational ministers, to propel his idea of reform.
St Paul’s is the accretion of one and a half centuries of stubborn tradition and attitudes, designed to make university comfortable for a few very wealthy boys. Changing these entrenched values will take longer than six months. But perhaps, with Markwell at the helm, the college might start moving in the right direction.