St Paul’s reform law clears parliament

The embattled USyd college hopes the governance reforms will help with cultural change

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For the first time in 150 years, St Paul’s, an all-male residential college at the University of Sydney, will see reforms to its governance structure, under a law passed by the NSW parliament last week. The reforms, spearheaded by college officials, enact recommendations from Elizabeth Broderick’s review into the culture at St Paul’s, which has become notorious for its sexism and aggressive hazing rituals.

Like most other USyd residential colleges, St Paul’s was established by a private Act of parliament in the mid-19th century. In St Paul’s case, that Act was last updated in 1857. On Wednesday last week, state parliament voted unanimously to repeal the old law and replace it with the new Saint Paul’s College Act.

The new Act affects the upper rungs of St Paul’s management. The college’s council, its supreme governing body, will shrink from 19 members to 13.  Two councillors will now be appointed, rather than elected by St Paul’s alumni, and the council must “have regard” to gender diversity when appointing these members. One councillor will now have to be a USyd academic, where there used to be no such requirement.

The four Anglican clergy who sit on the council can now be of any gender, where it was previously just men. And, for the first time, there is a clear description of council’s role and the duties of its members. Councillors will have to act honestly and in the best interests of St Paul’s, and must refrain from acting where they have conflicts of interest.

The law makes further changes to the office of the warden, St Paul’s chief executive. Previously, the warden had to be a male Anglican priest. Under the new law, any person can become warden, so long as they profess the Anglican faith.

This reform was made necessary by the appointment of Dr Donald Markwell as college head late last year: though an Anglican, Markwell is not a priest, and so has run the college for nearly a year without officially being the warden. Markwell will become warden when the Act takes effect.

A spokesperson for St Paul’s explained that governance reform is “an important step towards renewal that was endorsed by the Cultural Review of St Paul’s College undertaken by Elizabeth Broderick [and her team] this year.” In fact, the new law directly implements the review’s recommendations on leadership reform.

St Paul’s initially refused to join Broderick’s review into the other USyd colleges, only engaging the former Sex Discrimination Commissioner late last year, after a series of sexism scandals.

Alongside Broderick and her team, St Paul’s points to a broad spectrum of groups who were involved in passing the new Act: according to the college’s website, “The governance reform  was supported by the College Council, the committee of the St Paul’s College Union, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney (Dr Michael Spence AC), the Archbishop of Sydney (The Most Revd Dr Glenn Davies).”

The website stresses the law was passed “with the support of the Coalition Government, the Labor Opposition, and the Greens, and with no votes against or amendments in either House of Parliament.”

In parliament, speakers on both sides of politics stressed the role of governance reform in promoting broader renewal.

Education Minister Rob Stokes acknowledged “the need to ensure that governance systems are framed so that people behave in appropriate ways that respect our shared dignity as humans and encourage effective and healthy relationships”.

Labour upper house MP Courtney Houssos said “as colleges around the country undergo this sometimes difficult process of modernisation, the rules that govern them are vital in acting as a bedrock in times of cultural change.”

Some student activists, however, are not convinced by the changes. SRC president Imogen Grant, who as 2017 Wom*n’s Officer was involved in campaigns against the college, denounced the reform as hollow.

Statements on how the [new] Act will reduce bullying and assault are optimistic to the extreme. It is not just an issue of who manages the colleges. The social structure of the colleges creates conditions that enable rampant abuse and sexism.

“The SRC believes that colleges are a stain on campus. Colleges are bastions of elitism, sexism, parochialism and mind-numbing anti-intellectualism.”

Current Wom*n’s Officer Jess Syed was similarly unimpressed. “At best, [the reforms are] meek bureaucratic change that ultimately aim to maintain the existing college system, establishing lukewarm equity only for those already existing in high socio-economic echelons.”

Syed also criticised the ambiguity of some of the new provisions. For instance, she pointed out that though the Act requires council “have regard to” gender diversity,  “on its face there seems to be no actual quota requirement.”

“Nor does the act consider race or sexuality in appointing members,” she went on to say.

“This is concerning as colleges at the University have too often turned a blind eye to homophobic and racist sentiments among their residents.”

St Paul’s spokesperson admitted that governance reform is not enough and promised the college would introduce all recommendations made by the Broderick report.

“The College has consistently made it clear about its commitment to dignity and respect for all, and its commitment to being leaders in preventing and responding strongly to sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual assault.”

At present, there are no further plans to change the college’s governance arrangements, the spokesperson said.

For its part, the University has welcomed the reform. Vice Chancellor Michael Spence congratulated the college, saying  “We are delighted that St Paul’s College has changed its governance to allow it to fully implement the recommendations from the process of cultural change led by Liz Broderick and her team.”

The Act will come into effect when it receives royal assent from the governor, likely sometime later this month. The council will be reconstituted gradually over the next two years.