Change Comes Slowly

Subeta Vimalarajah tells the exclusive story behind the University’s new sexual assault and harrassment survey.

Subeta Vimalarajah tells the exclusive story behind the University’s new sexual assault and harrassment survey.

According to a recent estimate, 17% of university students across Australia have been raped. This statistic is notable because it’s alone; there is little available data on the incidence of sexual harassment and assault on campus.

However, on the 21st of September, Sydney University e-mailed all students a survey to fill out regarding sexual assault and harassment at University. This landmark survey asked students about their experiences at university, their perceptions of how the university deals with these issues, and what reforms they would like the University to undertake.

This is a genuine opportunity for students to have their voices heard. Students can and should provide the university with critical feedback, all of which will be anonymous and received by Elizabeth Broderick, the previous Sex Discrimination Commissioner, and an independent partner to the project.

The Vice-Chancellor, Michael Spence, officially announced the survey last Wednesday at an invite-only event at the Opera House, an exclusive venue presumably chosen to emphasise the University’s leadership on this issue. Sydney University will be the first G8 University to conduct a survey of this kind, and while other universities have started to construct their own surveys, it is unlikely it has had the extent of student consultation that informed Sydney’s survey.

Yet this is also a bold move from the University. If its survey results are published first, there is a risk that media coverage could suggest that Sydney University has a particular problem with sexual assault, when we know this is an issue across the university sector.

This survey exists because of the student activists who are often dismissed by their peers. Working with dedicated University management staff, they have managed to create change. This is the story of the battle to secure the survey’s existence. It recounts student involvement in its formulation and the challenges we still face before policy reform is secured.


In May 2013, Alexander Wright took a naked photo of a woman while they were having sex, without her knowledge or consent. Wright, who was a Sydney University student employed by the University as a residential assistant, then shared the photos among his friends.

Ivy*, the student at the centre of the case, approached Student Affairs for help. After waiting for months before her case was even processed, fighting for meetings, and dealing with repeated unresponded e-mails, she reached out to the media to continue her fight in a more public setting. The Sydney Morning Herald and Honi Soit publicly exposed the University’s failure to punish Wright. At the time of publishing, he still studied, lived and worked on campus.

Ivy also met with the Wom*n’s Collective, the SRC’s feminist activist organising space for non-cis male students. As a result of Ivy’s meeting, a rally was organised for the 30th of October 2014. On that day, a dozen or so students gathered outside Fisher Library to protest the ‘Alexander Wright’ case and show the University we wanted reform. Eight demands were read out. Among them:  a university-wide survey, a new policy formulated with student input and a campaign to raise awareness to reform an institutional culture that had failed Ivy and protected Wright.


On the surface, the protest outside Fisher may not have looked like much.  However, talking to Bebe D’Souza, the then-Vice President of the USU, who was the University’s point of contact on the issue, it was one part of a broader student strategy. She described this strategy as “three pronged”: raising awareness through student activism and rallies, applying pressure through Honi, and lobbying management in meetings.

It was certainly not an easy fight. Jordi Austin, a Senate Fellow, the current Director of Student Support Services and the member of management who has driven this project, told me there had been “strong commitment and goodwill on all sides of the project from the beginning” and was vehement in denying any political difficulties with getting approval for the survey from senior management.

The students involved told a different story. Although Jordi may have been interested in the project from the beginning, approval from all levels of management took time. The day after the Wright story was published, Bebe raised the article with Spence in Student Consultative Committee—one of the key forums of interaction between management and student representatives. Spence directed her to Jordi, whom she met and consulted with soon after.

Once a relationship between students and management had been formed, they strategised about how to keep pushing for their interests. Since the Honi story, Spence had told Bebe in passing that he viewed such student journalism as “irresponsible”. Having perceived this themselves, the editors publicly separated from Bebe, concerned their connection or involvement in lobbying would be counter-productive. As Bebe told former Honi editor Georgia Kriz, “let’s make sure to keep agitating in our own ways.”

Student involvement in meetings with the University was also carefully orchestrated, balancing activist anger with willingness to compromise when necessary. As Bebe explained: “if we were going to work with the University, we had to be conciliatory.” Student representatives were divided into ‘good cops’ and ‘bad cops’, with each allocated points to raise or refute.

By all student accounts, the meetings were difficult. Phoebe, one of the Wom*n’s Officers at the time, noted how frustrating it was “trying to talk about the issue as if it was some distant thing” when the injustice of the Wright case was so strongly felt by all involved. Regardless, students knew what they wanted and how to phrase their demands in a language the University could understand. They knew the University was worried about its PR that year—Barry Spurr’s racist and sexist emails had been exposed, and the St. John’s College hazing scandal was still in recent memory—and so they had little power to ignore the issue.

The students involved also wanted to ensure that they were not just pawns of the University Marketing Machine. The Wom*n’s Collective organised a rally to keep the issue in the campus consciousness, and every promise made by the University was kept on record by Honi Soit.

Securing approval for the survey and reform project to continue came at the February Senior Executive Group Meeting, which is compromised of all the University faculty heads and Spence. Bebe was modest about it: “I rebutted [senior management] a few times,” she said. “I think that might have happened.” She also emphasised how supportive Student Services were in the meeting. She appreciated being asked to speak, as to her knowledge that had been rare for University-managed projects. In any case, the result was support for the project, now secured from the highest level of the University.


After the February SEG meeting, there was a shift in the relationship between students and management. The original actors had reached the end of their terms—Bebe was no longer Vice-President, and there were a new set of Honi editors and Wom*n’s Officers. Everyone acknowledged the momentum had been lost and the handover to new student representatives from their predecessors had not been managed ideally.

I started to go along to the Working Group Meetings with Sophia, the Project Manager, but Jordi was usually too busy to come along. We were mainly working on the survey. Sophia kept us up to date the whole time—from formulating its basic format, to ensuring the demographic questions would not make students feel uncomfortable. She was always happy to bring new students to meetings who had raised specific concerns. She listened earnestly when a trans student identified the problems with the “what is your current gender identity?” question, and re-formulated it immediately to reflect the student’s recommendations.

Every piece of feedback we gave the University was diligently taken on, and I can honestly say I enjoyed the experience. Sophia was not just good to work with, but great company. She had been the Women’s Officer of the Sydney University Postgraduate Association when she was a student; so she understood what it was like to be a student activist and was sympathetic to my position. All my interactions with management had been uncontroversial and I offered to write this article just for that reason—the process seemed to fly in the face of everything I had heard about an immobile bureaucracy.

It was only when I started to interview former Honi editors involved in the Wright article that I realised, as soon as the pressure collapsed, so too did the vision for the project. After my interview with Georgia Kriz, the articles I had read came back to me. I remembered the discussions of policy reform, an inquiry or a campaign—they had all fallen by the wayside. There was talk of a policy-working group, but none of us were privy to it. Students had been kept in the process, but not in the way the original actors had requested—they wanted a policy and a campaign, not just a survey.


On July 30th 2015, Georgia Kriz wrote ‘Make Her Life Hell’ for Honi Soit, in which she reported on a Senate fellow sexually assaulting a student. She waited outside the next Senate meeting, e-mailing every member beforehand, thereby ensuring that it would be discussed.

After hours of waiting, Spence and Belinda Hutchinson, the Chancellor, left the meeting to talk to Georgia. She said to me and expressed similarly in an article she wrote for Honi that, “Belinda Hutchinson’s number one concern was who the Senate fellow was, so she could clear the names of the other Senate fellows.” Georgia alleged that their attitude with the Wright case re-surfaced—“especially with Spence and Hutchinson, their concern is not with changing culture, but saving face,” she said. The Chancellor replied directly to these allegations in a letter to Honi the week after, saying such claims are “not only deeply disappointing and offensive, but also simply wrong.”

Georgia had also kept in contact with Ivy, who had heard nothing from Spence in nine months. Her e-mails were again being ignored and the promises Spence had made—offering her a letter on her transcript to explain her absences, a mentor, involvement in the reform process and knowledge as to the outcome of her case—were all outstanding, as Ivy herself also told me.

After Georgia’s run in with Spence and Hutchinson, a Working Group meeting was called and soon after, we locked Elizabeth in. There was new pressure to finalise the project. Ivy also got a call from Student Services the day after the Senate meeting, asking her whether there was anything else they could do, and soon after I met her in the first Working Group meeting she was invited to. Most recently, Ivy told me the promises are being followed up.


None of the students who started this campaign are satisfied. Christina, one of the Honi editors who exposed Wright, said to me, “if all that comes of it is Spence sitting next to Liz Broderick at a ticketed event, that’s going to be a huge sell out of what it could have been.” To their credit, no one questioned Jordi or Sophia’s commitment. In fact, Christina, Ivy and Georgia specifically emphasised how helpful Jordi had been, “the best of a bad lot, but good in her own right”, Georgia said. When questioned, Jordi did acknowledge that the survey was “only a point in time on this journey” and that the intent was to “guide programs and changes from this point on.”

Regardless, it is frustrating that even once the University was on the record having discussed big and bold ideas for reform, without condemnatory Honi Soit articles every fortnight, momentum has been lost. It is ridiculous that the survey was not announced on campus. The survey is not for people who get exclusive access to ticketed events at the Opera House, the survey is for every student who has been sexually harassed or assaulted at this Uuniversity.

Cambridge has consent workshops for all new undergraduate students in place, and they are battling four hundred more years of staunch conservatism than we are. We can and must do better. The University has taken an important and necessary first step, but changing an institutional culture of sexual assault will take more than a survey. We have had interested students co-operating with hardworking members of management, but it has still taken almost a year to release this survey. There are students being harassed and assaulted in the mean time, so speed is not just a question of impatience, but necessity. 

The survey will mean nothing if it is not followed by a transparent policy that punishes perpetrators. We are the ones that have the relevant expertise about these institutional failings, and should continue to be meaningfully involved in the process. Everyone should fill out the survey, but we will not be satisfied until we see what comes after it, especially because we campaigned and were promised more than this..