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Panel urges University to do more to deal with sexual harrassment

Siobhan Ryan reports

Last Thursday, the University of Sydney Wom*n’s Collective hosted a screening of US documentary The Hunting Ground and a panel discussion about sexual assault and harassment on university campuses.

As Honi reported on May 28*, the Vice-Chancellor Dr Michael Spence admitted, during this panel, that he was not aware of how sexual assault and harassment complaints are currently made.

Although The Hunting Ground’s focus is on the mis- handling of complaints at US colleges, both Spence and fellow panellist, Wom*n’s Officer Anna Hush, agreed there are many parallels to Australian universities.

While there are similarities between US fraternities and Australian residential colleges, the underlying factor that causes sexual assault and harassment “isn’t fraternities, [and] isn’t [US] sporting culture, it’s sexism”, Hush said.

Much of the discussion looked at the danger of victim-blaming attitudes, which creates a culture in which survivors are less likely to come forward.

Panellist Nina Funnell, who has experience working in this area, outlined the three best responses to someone disclosing such an incident: “I’m so sorry that this has happened to you, what has happened to you is wrong and I’m here for you.”

As the discussion moved on to international students, Executive Director of Rape and Domestic Violence Australia, Karen Willis, identified them as particularly vulnerable and less likely to report incidents.

Funnell spoke about interviewing an Australian student who was sexually assaulted while on exchange in France, and described the experience of navigating the medical and criminal justice systems of another country in another language as “horrific”.

Spence noted the University is in the process of building more accommodation for international students, yet implied some limit to the University’s ambit of control.

“Universities are in a particularly special place” to lead, especially as they are creating future community leaders, Willis said in response.

When asked why it had taken so long for action to be taken in light of consistent reporting on this issue over the last four decades, Spence spoke to the difficulty in getting colleges to cooperate.

“The colleges are totally legally independent of the University, and the University actually has no jurisdiction over the colleges,” aside from disaffiliating from them so they lose their land, which would involve lengthy court proceedings.

“I think that in any of these discussions we need to organise the asymmetry of power between the institution and students,” and ensure that there are a number of students in meetings so that a single student isn’t “isolated and spoken on top of ”, Funnell added.

The University recently enlisted former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick to help take action on this issue.