The Lost Boys of College

Students resist adult management at St Paul's College in spite of cultural reform

st Paul's College cut out on black

I lived at St. Paul’s College throughout 2017 and 2018 when the college experienced the unflattering glare of the public spotlight for the first time in its history.

Students at St Paul’s College proudly proclaim that their college is uniquely self-organised. Both first-year freshers and older students participate in jobs referred to as convenorships. Through this, students gradually accumulate responsibilities. The Student Club (S Club) are the leaders at the centre of student activity.

The 2018 Broderick Report noted “a strong belief among students and former students that the students, rather than the staff, ‘run’ the College.” The report, however, didn’t explore this tension in depth. During my time at Paul’s, I quickly found out that Paulines weren’t opposed only to outsiders: some residents also resisted the staff’s management of the college.

During my time, college students told me they saw the interloping hand of adult governance as a toxic influence, corroding the traditions of the College. Some referred to themselves as the ‘last of an era’. College staff cracked down on O Week hazing and in response, the rituals preceding ANZAC day expanded in the name of ‘tradition’, overseen entirely by student leaders. The staff—previously unopposed to the rituals—and now declaring new rules, were seen by students as bowing to external pressure. And so, students paid lip service to staff requests.

2018’s S Club was left in the uncomfortable position of declaring bans on hazing before ANZAC day, knowing that several ‘platoons’ led by their mates would ignore their requests, and also knowing that they could do little to enforce those bans. At least one member of the current S Club organised an initiation last year. It is difficult for me to imagine him declaring a ban with any moral authority.

The disrespectful opposition to adult intervention surprised me at times. At the daily formal dinner, when controversial changes were announced or discussed by the Warden, disgruntled older students would give off low hisses, reminding first years of the traditions at stake.

A common frustration was a perceived lack of consultation between staff, the S Club, and the residents. Some felt unable to bring up ideas for reform, and saw themselves cordoned off from leadership positions for not conforming to expectations.

Others felt that everyday changes to room allocations and events had occurred without their input, despite affecting their lives in significant ways.

A final group felt that reforms, such as bans on hissing at first-years and hazing, were unreasonable, and felt excluded from the conversation.

Students feared that the development of more undergraduate housing and a larger St. Paul’s community would irreparably compromise the College’s tight-knit community and limit the space in Victory Dinners, ANZAC celebrations, and similar events.

A common complaint was that the quality of candidates for entry would reduce—ironic, I thought at the time—given those same residents’ propensity to either urinate on or kick down each others’ doors. To me, it felt like residents were sometimes complaining for its own sake. Despite that, the S Club did an admirable job of communicating sometimes sudden changes.

There was also student dissent towards the admission of female students into the now-completed co-educational Graduate House, largely driven by references to the foundational values of the college as an all-male institution. At a mock debate about combining with Women’s College, a 3rd year leader aired a perhaps more honest articulation:

“What makes Paul’s so great is that there’s no chicks here. What that means is that we can all get fucking weird. I can just walk around naked. I don’t need to watch what I say at dinner.”

He went on to describe his freedom in pursuing sexual conquests, the audience cheered, and in the eyes of impressionable freshers, he became the heroic flagbearer of college tradition they aspired to be.

Students saw themselves as responsible for continuing the traditions of their college, in opposition to a new wave of staff conforming to political correctness. At an annual student meeting, one of the leaders of the Salisbury Syndicate—the group running the college bar—received enthusiastic applause for opposing the introduction of RSA guidelines and CCTV cameras, in objection to adult management. A particular feature of his speech were allusions to the need to uphold Paul’s values in the face of adults changing the nature of the college. Students I talked to were worried that newly appointed management would either cave into external pressure, or more worryingly for residents, seek cultural change.

The relationship between adults and residents at the college is more complicated than I have sketched out. The parts of management that lived at the College grew understandably close with students who spent many years there. As noted in the Broderick Report, this facilitated effective and genuinely unique pastoral care, but also led to complications. Residents who sought to complain about the behaviour of an older member of the community either baulked at complaining to adult staff who were close friends with the older student in question, or didn’t feel as though their concerns were taken seriously.

Dr Don Markwell, appointed in 2018, is in his second year as Warden. As a strong and respected moral leader with an excellent track record, he promised to enact positive change. The question remains: how will students respond to this? Will student leadership continue murmuring bitterly about adults involving themselves in their business, or will they seize the chance to reform themselves?

Possible change to the enmity between students and adult management may be on the way. Previously, only the College Council could expel a student through an elaborate process. The student who posted the infamous ‘whale’ screenshot received a short suspension and continued to engage with the College community during that time. Recent governance changes mean that, amongst other changes, the Warden is now empowered to expel students.

Current residents of Paul’s described how the relationship between staff and students has changed since I left. No students would go on the record. When I was at St Paul’s, the College advised students not to correspond with media.

One student said that “the College is unified with [the Warden] in the fight against sexism and the process of cultural renewal.”

“Over the last year or so we’ve tried really hard as a college to remove traditions which weren’t good,” he said, mentioning that “the Broderick review has been a really great thing here that’s made [St. Paul’s] become a better place.’’

Such comments must be taken critically. During my time, many students defended their college with similar messages. I was ostracised by the Paul’s community for talking to Honi, and so have plentiful reason to be suspicious of its shiny exterior.

Nonetheless, if some older residents are now on board with the review’s recommendations, that represents a significant reversal from the declared community consensus of my time there that the review was a witch hunt.

The new Warden occupies an uncomfortable middle ground between the conservatism of some residents, and the activist demands of others who believe more should be done.

It remains too early to conclude whether staff will be able to carry the students with them, and whether wiser heads amongst the S Club will promote cooperation with management.

For now, I can only be cautiously optimistic that the relationship between staff  and  students  will  improve with time.