How St Paul’s has stayed so retrograde

An archaic statute is at the heart of the College’s power to weather criticism of its sexist culture

School boys, school girls is an annual party at St Paul's where students dress up, typically in the uniforms of the expensive private schools they formally attended. Source: Facebook. 'School Boys, School Girls' is an annual party at St Paul's where students dress up, typically in the uniforms of the expensive private schools they formally attended. Source: Facebook.

St Paul’s College has had a bad fortnight. There was the story of vicious hazing, the recount of blatant slut-shaming and the Facebook post that called women “harpooned whales”, in a display of what Vice Chancellor Michael Spence labelled “clear contempt for women”. In response, the College’s long-serving Warden Ivan Head announced he was stepping down at the end of the year, along with the immediate resignation of College Council Chairman, Angelo Hatsatouris. Yet Paul’s has come under attack for sexist incidents before — including the discovery of a pro-rape Facebook group at the College in 2009, and a number of sexual assaults stretching back to the 1970s  — and nothing changed. So what’s different this time around, and how has Paul’s’ retrograde culture survived for so long?

History is key to understanding the College’s resilience. In 1854, St Paul’s was formally established by an act of the New South Wales Colonial Parliament. That act has only been amended once, in 1857, and still features the archaic and confusing language of colonial Australia. It sets out that “‘The Warden and Fellows of Saint Paul’s College’ by which name the said incorporated body shall have perpetual succession … may take and hold … chattels and other personal property as lands buildings”. In other words, the College is an independent body with the power to own property — specifically the large parcel of prime land on Camperdown campus, adjacent to City Road, where the College sits. Spence may want to overhaul the College’s culture, which he signalled when he lobbied for Paul’s to join former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick’s review of the colleges a year ago, but he is largely impotent. The Vice Chancellor has no ability to either take over the College as an institution or remove its real estate.

The prospects for internal change are similarly slim. The archaic Saint Paul’s College Act provides for a council of 18 fellows — six Anglican clergymen and 12 old boys — to oversee the College. Where other institutions recruit external leaders with diverse experience in times of crisis, the Paul’s College Council is largely comprised of men whose attitudes were formed during their own time at the College, often 30 years prior. All of these fellows are elected by former Paul’s students, ensuring that the traditions of the college are perpetuated.

The College is not only protected by law; it has produced generations of powerful and well-connected old boys with an interest in defending their alma mater. Paul’s students are not unusually talented — according to the College’s Senior Tutor Allan Atkinson, two thirds of Paul’s boys typically score credit grades or below — but many are hugely wealthy. Since 1977, the College’s fundraising wing has raised over $15 million from old boys, on top of numerous large donations made in previous decades. Each year, Paul’s raises between $100,000 to $200,000, in addition to fees paid by residents, which amount to roughly $15,000 per student, per semester. This income stream gives the College financial security, so the University cannot ‘buy’ change by tying funding to reform.

As well as money, Paul’s graduates possess significant professional and personal power.  The College counts three High Court justices, two prime ministers and dozens of Rhodes Scholars amongst its alumni. Paulines, the formal term for graduates of the College, are well represented across the numerous fields from business to law and medicine to charity. The influence that Paul’s graduates wield is a powerful deterrent for any politician considering college reform.

The level of difficulty associated with reforming St Paul’s legal foundation has led some within the University to term it the ‘nuclear option’, but that is what Liberal NSW Education Minister Rob Stokes recently invoked. Last week, the minister “requested advice on the options available to the NSW government in relation to potential changes or repeal of the various Acts which relate to university colleges”, according to a spokesperson for Stokes quoted in the Sydney Morning Herald.

There is real appetite for reform. Greens Newtown MLA Jenny Leong characterised Paul’s students’ behaviour as “outrageous and unacceptable”, telling Honi that “The NSW Government cannot shy away from responsibility for oversight on these matters”. In an open letter to St Paul’s released today, Leong wrote that “Given the history of unaccountability and lack of action from St Paul’s on this issue, it’s time for genuine reform which may only be possible if university colleges come under university or other governance structures.” Similarly, Jo Haylen, the state Labor Member for Summer Hill, has been lobbying for college reform.

Despite the Education Minister’s vague language, it seems as though Stokes’ threat to the College’s independence, backed by at least some demand for reform across the political spectrum, was enough to prompt Paul’s’ leaders to take action.

Yet with Hatsatouris gone, Head going, and a commitment to finally consider joining former Broderick’s review of the colleges, Paul’s may have done enough to head off the current wave of scrutiny. In response to questions about whether Paul’s would consider taking on external oversight from the University to correct its internal problems, acting College Chairman Reverend Andrew Sempell refused to comment, saying that “it is too early in the process of reviewing the College governance”.

As long as Paul’s retains a governance structure rooted in the people and traditions that have sustained a toxic view of women for so long, there seems little hope that new generations of Paulines will not be inculcated with the same attitudes as displayed by some of their predecessors.