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St John’s College to revise its 160-year-old founding document

The overhaul stems from the 2012 hazing crisis at the college

Education Minister Rob Stokes introduced the bill to parliament. Education Minister Rob Stokes introduced the bill to parliament.

The NSW Education Minister, Rob Stokes has introduced a bill to parliament that is set to overhaul the governance of St John’s College, replacing the St John’s College Act 1857.

Stokes told Parliament that since 2012, the College has been operating under legislation that allowed the College’s governing council to be reconstituted after “a highly-publicised crisis in governance which saw the resignation of all but one council member.”

That crisis stemmed from a hazing incident in which a group of older college students coerced a female first year into drinking a toxic cocktail of alcohol and household goods that almost killed her.

After that incident, 33 students at St John’s were suspended by then rector Michael Bongers. Seven of those students were subsequently voted onto the college council, which led to a period of “mob rule” according to the Herald . 

Then Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell (now on trial for unrelated sex offences) directed clergy on council to resign, prompting the 2012 legislation that let him appoint a new governing council without the rebel students.

The new College council will have 13 members, permanently diminishing the power of alumni. Previously, alumni votes decided the makeup of the College’s eighteen-member council.

Now, they will directly appoint only four. The University, the council and the Church will be responsible for the other appointees.

It is understood that the gap between when these reforms were first proposed in 2013 and now is due to extensive negotiations between alumni, the College, the Catholic Church and the University.

After the 2012 changes, Stokes said, “There was always the intention that there would eventually be more comprehensive and measured reform.”

St John’s counts a wealth of prominent individuals amongst its alumni, including Liberal heavyweight Tony Abbott.

Despite the Education Minister and University both telling the Sydney Morning Herald that all parties, including alumni, support the new legislation, it will not be debated in parliament for some time.

“I am deliberately introducing this bill now in order to leave it before the parliament for consideration before debate”, Stokes said.

A University spokesperson declined to comment on whether the University expects the bill to pass in both houses of parliament.

While St Andrew’s College updated its statute in 1998, St Paul’s still has its original statute in place, despite recent scandals.

In June, the Paul’s statute was the subject of public debate.

Comments by Stokes that he had “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” prompted Vice Chancellor Michael Spence to deny that the University sought to take control of the college. Doing so would require amendments to the St Paul’s College Act 1854, its governing statute.

There does not appear to have been much movement on that front.

“The University has supported a range of governance changes requested by the colleges and would continue to do so if there are firm and reasonable proposals”, a University spokesperson said.

St John’s College did not respond to Honi’s request for comment.