St John’s College needs change. It needs women. And it needs a dose of manners for its well-to-do, elitist, mostly-male student body.
In March this year I picked up a copy of the Sunday paper with a shaking hand. Plastered across the front page was a story that no ex-collegian wants to read: 30 students had been expelled for an orientation week drinking game that went wrong, and one of the first year girls was in hospital. The place was now in turmoil.
I scoured the story for details, looking for the sentence that told me she would survive, her health intact. As a former resident of a fellow University of Sydney institution, Wesley College, I thought “typical John’s boys, they never learn”. And as someone who has an ongoing relationship with Wesley it crossed my mind that, this time, we will all feel the consequences. The University’s vice chancellor Michael Spence will finally have had enough.
Was it only three years ago that boys from St Paul’s College put up a “pro-r-pe” Facebook page, which landed them on the front page? At the time, acres of newsprint were expended in decrying the elitist, s-xist nature of the university college system. But I think this is slightly missing the point. The biggest problem is that both Paul’s and John’s are male-dominated institutions; as the heads of any all-male sporting team will tell you, when you put a group of young men together and add alcohol there is trouble.
Paul’s is one of the last male-only colleges in the country, and John’s took in girls in 2001. But John’s is still very much a male institution — there are only three women on the 18-member college council, and one of them resigned this week. Six of the council members are Catholic clergy, whose knowledge of gender relations, I suspect, may be slim. Do the two female colleges and Wesley — which has been co-ed since 1969 and has a female master — have O-week rituals involving dog food? Of course not.
The other important issue is the failure of corporate governance. The master, Michael Bongers, has authority over the students and answers to the council. The fact he hasn’t been able to deal with this problem in a way that satisfies anyone means the system is broken.
If I was the mother of that girl who was hospitalised I would be suing John’s and sending them bankrupt — the fact that hasn’t happened yet is no excuse for inaction. The perpetrators need to be expelled, the master needs to be empowered or replaced, and all the old boys on the council need to grow up or get off. And the next person who appears at a disciplinary hearing with an SC in tow should be excluded.
Another aspect is that college fees are relatively more expensive than they used to be. I went to Sydney Uni in the 80s; there were no university fees and my mother paid $58 a week for my board; in addition I received a generous tertiary allowance from the federal government. But the colleges are astronomically expensive institutions to run, and fees are now more than $450 a week. This means a much bigger proportion of the student population are the progeny of the rich and powerful, with a strong sense of entitlement.
John’s, in particular, has always recruited heavily from Catholic GPS schools. It is entirely possible for an 18-year-old boy to arrive at its doorstep having had very little contact with the opposite s-x. If you need to ponder the consequences of that, look at Saudi Arabia.
Spence has done much negotiating behind the scenes, but the colleges are independent bodies and he has no legal power over them. But his interview on 7.30 last night made it plain that this time he will do whatever it takes to bring them into line.
The University of Sydney received $80 million in donations last year and he is tired of the reputational damage to his institution. He is not alone.