What’s in a name?: O-Week becomes Welcome Week

Is O-Week, by any other name, equally sour?

This year, both the University of Sydney (USyd) and the University of Sydney Union (USU) have changed the name of Orientation Week (O-Week) to ‘Welcome Week’, reasoning that the term ‘O-Week’ has become too deeply associated with instances of sexual assault.

Ever since these decisions of the University and USU became public knowledge, debate as to the efficacy of such a change was sparked on the most prestigious of forums, USyd Rants. Online opponents of the change have broadly stated that changing the name of orientation week will do little to stop sexual assault on campus.  

Less publicised is the fact that the idea for changing the name was recommended in the now infamous Broderick Review into residential college culture. This recommendation was not aimed at the University or USU, though both institutions have latched onto it. The question remains as to whether the target demographic of the Review’s recommendation, USyd’s residential colleges, have followed suit.

In a 53 page action plan released on its website, St Paul’s College outlined how it would implement each of the recommendations of the Review, including . One action point involves changing the name of O-Week to Welcome Week.

Bizarrely, another action point centres around having “one or more alcohol free days in the orientation programme.” Beyond the fact that intoxication can’t excuse sexual misconduct, the notion of limiting consumption in a model that resembles a concentrated form of 1920s U.S. style prohibition is unlikely to bode well, as 18 year olds tend to get their hands on alcohol even under the most trying circumstances.
Apart from this strange prescription, and despite the name change, most of the changes in St Paul’s orientation week practices appear vague.

The action plan notes that students will be “educated about hazing”, but does not specify by whom or in what capacity, with little to no consultation with feminist groups on campus as to the most effective programs available.

It’s prudent to question how effective any such education on hazing would be, when student hierarchies are maintained through a concentration of power in “student orientation leaders”, who will oversee orientation activities.

Most problematically, it is ambiguously described that “investigations will continue to be conducted by the Sub-Warden,” meaning investigations into hazing and sexual assault will transpire internally.

The fact that the majority of decision making happens behind closed doors is the very thing that has invoked significant of criticism of college culture. Processes of accountability remain covert and hidden from the public eye, leading many to believe that perpetrators of sexual assault are “let off” to maintain the reputation of their particular college. It’s apparent that any sentiment of change is undermined by the fact that the Colleges—as a separate entity to the University—lack sufficient oversight, despite efforts by the Broderick Review to encourage increased cooperation between the two institutions.

Not that this secrecy is particular to St Paul’s. Other colleges at USyd have not publicly released any action plan to implement the recommendations of the Broderick Review. Honi reported in December 2018 that St John’s College went so far as to withhold its internal review into allegations of sexual assault made in the Red Zone Report, which was released by advocacy group End Rape On Campus during orientation week last year and outlined 40 years of hazing and sexual assault in Australian residential colleges.

Walkley award winning journalist and author of the ‘Red Zone Report,’ Nina Funnell told Honi that “a mere name change is a superficial ‘fix’ to a deeply ingrained structural problem. One in eight sexual assaults which happen this year will likely happen this week.”

When some behaviour is so entrenched in specific institutions, to the extent that it is hailed as tradition, it’s unlikely that any name change will reduce sexual violence at USyd this week—at least so long as residential college procedures and accountability mechanisms remain clandestine.