Failure to Respond

8 August 2016

Content warning: discussions of sexual assault, rape and failure of institutions to respond.

This story could start with just a single, shocking anecdote of sexual harassment at a university campus.

It could start with the 2009 St Paul’s College incident, where students ran a ‘pro-rape’ Facebook page. Or the ongoing Defence Force Academy scandals, which involved multiple rape allegations. Or the 1992 Ormond College scandal, which featured sexual assault allegations.

But this isn’t a story of isolated incidents of sexual harassment and assault at Australian universities.

It’s the story of the repeated, systematic failure of Australian universities to act.

So, this is not just about individual incidents – it is about a broader framework of failure. With that in mind, it is still important to shed light on exactly what has been happening at Australia’s universities.

Perhaps the best place to start is the latest incident at the University of New South Wales’ Philip Baxter College, only a month ago.

It was pitch dark – the camera captured no more than a flash of coloured light – but a group of male residential college students were very audible.

“I wish that all the ladies were little red foxes, and if I was a hunter I’d shoot up in their boxes,” they chanted. “I wish that all the ladies were buns in the oven and if I was a baker I’d cream them by the dozen.”

The student holding the camera would upload the video online, sparking a flurry of media headlines, denunciations, and ultimately, apologies from the perpetrators. But perhaps most prominent was the University’s response. It promised it would work to make sure such incidents never happened again.

After the St Paul’s College scandal broke at the University of Sydney in November 2009, a closer media investigation found that students from the all-male college had set up a ‘Define Statutory’ Facebook page. The page described itself as ‘pro-rape’ and ‘anti-consent’. It had been up for over a year.

Kaitlin Ferris, the 2009 National Union of Students (NUS) National Women’s Officer, had been arguing all year that universities needed major change around sexual harassment and women’s safety.

“I hate that it was such a disgusting occasion which brought the issue to the attention of the wider community,” Ferris said. “But it meant that people, media and universities had to pay attention to what we’d been trying to get through all year.”

Vice Chancellor Michael Spence promised change but the only major piece of policy work immediately delivered was the extension of the University’s sexual harassment and assault policy, applying it to all colleges.

But it didn’t work. A 2012 initiation hazing incident at neighbouring St John’s College saw a young woman hospitalised, after fellow students made her drink a dangerous alcoholic cocktail. Both Cardinal George Pell and Premier Barry O’Farrell promised action. The University again promised to continue reform, and 32 students were suspended.

Although St John’s did undertake some cultural change work, tighten its liquor supply procedures and make all students agree to a new anti-harassment policy, there was no University-wide anti-harassment campaign. Nor did they introduce any easy-to-access reporting mechanisms.

Student unions and women’s activists have been arguing for years that serious change is needed.

“Many of these university residential colleges are bastions of the worst excesses of Australian masculinity,” wrote Alison Vaughan, former NUS Women’s Officer in a 2005 report to the NUS.

According to Crime Statistics Agency figures, reporting rates of campus-based sexual harassment and offences are shockingly low. There were five reports of threatening behaviour or harassment at Monash University over the last decade. Eight at Swinburne. Nine at the University of Melbourne.

“What’s at play here is, without a doubt, problematic reporting regimes and cultures, not safer campuses,” says Yan Zhuang, Welfare Officer and Women’s Collective member at the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU).

The National Union of Students (NUS) has placed a large focus on seeking change on the issue. In 2010, in the wake of the St Paul’s College scandal and others, the NUS launched the Australia-wide “Talk About It” survey, examining the safety of women students. The survey wasn’t a scientific survey – even at the best of times the NUS has limited resources – but it nonetheless struck a nerve with universities.

Over 65 per cent of students said they had experienced unwanted sexual encounters but only around 5 per cent had reported them.

The recommendations and guidelines by both the NUS and Universities Australia covered everything from training to reporting to lighting on campus. The recommendations received wide support from students and staff. “Most of their recommendations are spot on,” says Zhuang.

But universities have given a limited response. In 2012, the University of Melbourne introduced a new ‘Safer Community’ unit to address these issues. In 2013, it launched a UniSafe app, which included various emergency services, notably including access to night security escorts on campus.

The much-touted app received a lukewarm reaction. Criticisms small and large surround it. The app’s buzzer, student unionists complain, is way too soft. Take-up rates from students were only about 10 per cent. Security escort take-up rates rose but only by five call-outs a month.

And the University failed to commit serious resources beyond that. They didn’t put the same money into Safer Community that they did for other things, such as external relations. Spending on anti-harassment or pro-reporting campaigns was limited, and none were delivered in partnership with grassroots student bodies, such as student unions.

Zhuang says universities in particular often have unclear or outdated reporting procedures.

Likewise, she says, they do little to reach and train student clubs around reporting and responding to such issues.

The University keeps arguing things are getting better without the statistics or reports to back that up. “We’re able to shine a light on attitudes that we previously couldn’t and whilst it’s very uncomfortable, it’s wonderful to see strong responses,” declared the University’s Deputy Provost, Sue Elliott, in April.

Yet the University still has not conducted a single public investigation, survey or campaign into the state of sexual harassment on its campuses.

But the latest incident – the one detailed at the start of this story: the “I wish that all the ladies…” chants come from the UNSW Phillip Baxter College scandal, which broke on 11 April. Fifty-nine days earlier, Universities Australia had launched its “Respect. Now. Always.” Campaign. The campaign represents universities’ long-awaited response to campus sexual assault and harassment.

It will accompany a national student survey on the issue, and will also promote university support services.

Elizabeth Capp, Director of Students and Equity at the University of Melbourne said that the Respect Working Group “will help plan the Respect Week program for 2017 and [sic]well as the development of local communications materials that support the Universities Australia nationwide survey of student experiences of sexual harassment.”

However, what is missing from campaign’s material is any admission of past failure from universities.

How the campaign goes and whether universities commit to it fully remains to be seen.

If you feel like you need to talk to someone about issues raised in this article, you can call 1800 Respect.

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