‘Holding a mirror up’: Broderick review into University of Sydney college culture released

The report detailed 23 recommendations that five of the six colleges have agreed to implement within 24 months.

Elizabeth Broderick’s review into college culture at the University of Sydney has been released today, detailing a number of issues within residential colleges and outlining recommendations to be implemented by the colleges within the next two years.

At a media launch in Sydney this morning, former Sex Discrimination Officer Elizabeth Broderick said, “This is the first time a group of residential colleges, together with an Australian university, has made transparent the findings of an independent expert on culture following a detailed review.”

“It is never an easy task to hold the mirror up, to have a close look at the culture of the organisation we lead, and at times, to face issues that can be confronting, distressing and uncomfortable,” she said.

“But in my experience of examining organisational culture, those organisations that do precisely this are the ones that continue to evolve and, remain relevant and dynamic.”

The 97-page report provides a general overview of issues identified during the review, including, leadership, belonging, social interactions and safety.

Individual reports for St John’s College, Women’s College, Sancta Sophia, Wesley College and St Andrew’s College are also released today. The report for St Paul’s College will be released in June next year, since the college was late to join the review.

What’s in the report?

The overarching thematic report, titled Cultural Renewal at the University of Sydney Residential Colleges, contains 23 recommendations, all of which will be adopted by all five colleges.

These recommendations include:

  • Measures for strengthening college and student leadership to drive cultural change and renewal. These include sending strong messages about the college’s zero-tolerance policy, to be incorporated into orientation, and ensuring greater gender diversity in student leadership positions. The latter will be achieved by implementing a 40:40:20 gender quota for key positions.
  • That the Heads of College develop a common approach to alcohol harm minimisation. Liquor licenses and bar management should be held by qualified and external organisations, commercial bar rates should be charged for alcohol at college events, and the use of Student Club fees for purchasing alcohol should be prohibited.
  • The explicit prohibition of hazing rituals, with students who engage in hazing behaviours appropriately held to account.
  • The implementation of a stand-alone policy that addresses sexual misconduct, including a zero-tolerance approach. Key terms and concepts should be defined, illustrated with relevant examples, and there should be strong action against breaches. Processes for reporting sexual misconduct, and options for victim support, should be clearly detailed.
  • All relevant staff should undergo first-responder training by an export to ensure they have the necessary skills to respond to disclosures.

Information was gathered from discussion groups, one on one interviews, and key data provided by the colleges. 630 students and recent alumni participated in the review, with 42 per cent of current students engaging in discussions and 69 per cent responding to the survey.

While the review found that most students had a positive and rewarding experience at college most of the time, where they felt a sense of belonging, formed firm friendships, and received academic support, students also identified challenges in college life.

The report details students’ experiences with sexual misconduct, hazing rituals and alcohol consumption. The two key themes of the report were the colleges’ drinking culture, and the experiences of women.

Forty-nine per cent of students thought that drinking helped them fit in, while 15 per cent thought there was too much focus on alcohol consumption and 13 per cent felt pressured to drink when they did not want to. This differed between men and women, with 15 per cent of women compared to 9 per cent of men feeling pressured to drink.

Bullying was also surveyed, with 19 per cent of students reporting they had experienced bullying, intimidation, hazing, or pressure to partake in humiliating activities; 50 per cent of students said they had witnessed these behaviours.

One in four women at college, and 6 per cent of men, reported experiencing sexual harassment at college, while 6 per cent of women and 1 per cent of men reported attempted or actual sexual assault. Of 95 per cent of these incidents, and in all incidents reported by women, the alleged offender was male.

“For women, the college experience can be quite different to that of their male peers,” Broderick said this morning. This is especially prevalent in experiences of sexist remarks, pressure to have sex, and experiences of sexual harassment and assault.

Broderick also called for co-ed colleges in particular to “eradicate all elements of a hyper masculine culture; one where male sport, for instance, is actively celebrated and actively supported over female sport, and a ‘boys will be boys’ attitude can be perpetuated.”

“Where such culture exists, negative attitudes and behaviours, especially in relation to women, have been heightened,” she said.

The review found that women were largely underrepresented in student leadership positions, with only four women having held senior college leadership positions over the last five years, compared to 16 men.

“Leadership teams that are gender diverse result in better decision making processes and outcomes,” Broderick said.

The review process will be repeated again in three years time, after the recommendations have begun to be implemented, to measure change.

“I think it’s appropriate”, sexual assault advocate and End Rape on Campus ambassador Nina Funnell told Honi. “The last thing you want to do is to write a report and have it sit on the shelf and collect dust.”

A long time coming

While Dr Amanda Bell, head of Women’s College, today said that the cultural review “was a most welcome means for us to enhance all we do for our students”, calls for a review into the culture of the University’s residential culture have been resisted for decades. Indeed, at the report’s launch this morning, Vice Chancellor Michael Spence said, “We’ve known for some time that change is necessary”.

In 2009, amidst allegations of sexual violence at the colleges and the formation of a “Define Statutory” facebook group by St Paul’s students, several students, activists and academics wrote to St Paul’s, urging the college to undertake a wide-scale review of their culture with special attention being paid to sexual assault. This did not happen. Instead, St Paul’s hosted a White Ribbon fundraising dinner.

In 2011, calls for a review into college culture were raised again. Broderick’s review of how women were treated in the Australian Defence Force Academy, which followed an incident where a male cadet livestreamed himself having sex with a female cadet via Skype, recommended that similar reviews be undertaken at university college campuses where the same issues existed.

However, following years of discussion, in 2014 the prospect of a college review was killed off by Group of Eight Universities, including the University of Sydney, amidst concerns for reputational damage.

“I think some of those objections were based on perception of reputational risk,” Dr Damian Powell from the University of Melbourne told the Sydney Morning Herald. “The honest answer is it was put in the ‘too hard’ basket.”

According to Funnell, “It was incredibly disappointing when in 2014, the Go8 killed off an earlier attempt to review the colleges. It demonstrated how defensive and reputation-conscious they were.”

Incidents of sexual harassment and bullying continued. In 2016, University of Sydney Union media outlet Pulp revealed instances of slut-shaming at Wesley College, where a widely distributed college publication included a ‘Rack Web’ detailing “inter-college hook-ups”. A week later, Honi detailed ongoing incidents of bullying and sexual harassment across all residential colleges.

Months later, in October 2016, Broderick was engaged by the University of Sydney and all colleges, except for St Paul’s, to undertake a review of college culture, and “evaluate the strengths and challenges of residential life”.

“We didn’t need a review to know there are problems with the colleges,” Funnell told Honi. “But apparently the colleges needed the review so that they’re no longer in deep denial about it.”

University of Sydney Wom*n’s Officer Imogen Grant said it was disappointing that the colleges would not act on the issue until a review had been proposed, saying it showed a “deep cynicism” towards the historical allegations brought forward by students.

“College heads have been quick to congratulate themselves for their bravery in making public the review, but in reality there was a significant amount of hostility when it was originally proposed,” she said.

St Paul’s ‘kicking and screaming’

St Paul’s College, the oldest residential college in Australia, initially stood apart in the Broderick process as the only college to refuse to join the review, instead offering to implement their own self-managed initiative.

St Paul’s later backflipped on its original position, with Elizabeth Broderick confirming at the report’s launch this morning that St Paul’s college was “actively engaging” with the process, which will be the same as the other five colleges.

This followed incidents in March this year in which comments made in the St Paul’s students’ Facebook group compared sex with women to “harpooning a whale” and offered advice to help “get rid of some chick” if she did not leave after a “rooting”. Following the comments, the college was criticised after the previous head of St Paul’s College, Ivan Head, warned students against such behaviour as it might harm their “future CVs”.

“St Paul’s have had to be dragged absolutely kicking and screaming to the table,” Funnell said. “There has been a huge level of resistance.”

As of today, the college has not preemptively agreed to take on Broderick’s recommendations, and will instead wait until its individual report is finalised in June 2018.

Small steps towards change

The governance structures of the colleges, which date back to the 1800s and are widely regarded as archaic, were outside of the scope of the report, which instead had a strong focus on culture. However, governance models are seen by some as a structural barrier that allows old boys” to prevent cultural change.

Following a continued stream of incidents this year, a spokesman for Education Minister Rob Stokes said 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.”

Last week, Stokes introduced a bill to overhaul the governance of St John’s College, and replace the St John’s College Act that has governed the college 1857. This follows a crisis in the college in 2012, which stemmed from a hazing incident where a group of older college students coerced a female first year into drinking a toxic cocktail of alcohol and household goods, sending her to hospital.

“The bill will significantly modernise the governance arrangements for the St John’s residential college, creating greater accountability and a stronger relationship with the University,” Stokes said.

When questions were asked about the governance structures of the colleges at a press conference this morning, Spence said, “The Minister for Education is watching and has asked for regular reports. He is prepared to intervene if governance becomes an issue,” but that that was not an issue at present.

However, Grant identified the lack of engagement with governance as a significant issue. “[The University] conceded that the reason they didn’t cover  governance in the review is because they had some form of good faith agreement with the governing bodies,” she said.

Nonetheless, the Broderick review is regarded as a significant step forward following decades of resistance and inaction.

“We do need to give credit where it’s due, and the fact that Liz Broderick was brought in to do this review is very significant,” Funnell said. “Other universities would be wise to follow suit.”

If you have experienced sexual assault or sexual harassment and feel you would like to speak to someone for support or information, NSW Rape Crisis Centre (Phone: 1800 424 017) can provide counselling 24-hours a day, 7 days a week.

A new national University Support Line is available: 1800 572 224

The support line will be available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It will operate until 30 November 2017.