New South Wales

Nov 6, 2012

Take it from an Old Girl, St John’s needs a dose of women

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.

Margot Saville — <em>Crikey</em> Sydney reporter

Margot Saville

Crikey Sydney reporter

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.

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13 thoughts on “Take it from an Old Girl, St John’s needs a dose of women

  1. rhwombat

    What St John’s College needs, and will get, is the scrutiny of it’s naked privilege. Gillard’s excoriation of the type specimen of the “Johnsman”, Tony Abbott, lit this fuse, and it will continue to burn its way towards Pell’s powder store.

  2. Dion Giles

    St John’s may need “a dose of women” but do women need a dose of St John’s?

  3. zut alors

    rhwombat – summed up perfectly.

    Something is seriously wrong with the way young men are being raised in the 21st century. The lout/bully/irresponsible gene has become endemic and seems to thrive when mixed with privilege.

    It’s not only young women who should be frightened.

  4. Arty

    Don’t be critical of them. One of them will be Prime Minister some day – or Cardinal.

  5. Whycantmydisplaynamebeshort?

    The gender essentialism in this piece is very disappointing.

    “when you put a group of young men together and add alcohol there is trouble”?

    Come on. Expectations affect behaviour. As long as we keep thinking that “young men” have some natural or inherent tendency to behave in sexist, violent, or abusive ways, many people who identify as “young men” will continue behaving in those ways.

    I see very little difference between the sexism of this article and that of the St John’s college council. Both perpetuate the fallacy that “boys will be boys”.

  6. gruy fghyu

    “One of them will be Prime Minister some day”

    that obviously says more about Australian’s who would vote them in than any one actual person or culture.

  7. Dogs breakfast

    No gruy fghyu, it shows how privilege can always hide their dark pasts.

    This story is just more about the way privilege plays by different rules. I am more appalled by the dads who suppor their kids and say stuff like ‘it’s just a bit of hi-jinks’ or ‘you shouldn’t mess with tradition’.

    This is just foul, every ex-Johns man should be shouting from the rooftops to shut it down, but that’s not the way privilege works. God forbid that the sons of money would have to be accountable for their actions.

  8. John Bennetts

    I have paid for my children to reside at 4 colleges, in 4 universities, over about ten years. Not everything I have heard about college life has delighted me as a parent, as also not everything that I did in my youth, despite not being a college resident, would have delighted my own family.

    The current rash of stories about John’s stands apart from all that I have previously heard of.

    Let’s be smart enough to be able to draw a line between youthful nonsense and unacceptable behaviour. I’m optimistic that the strong responses of the Premier, Vice Chancellor and Cardinal Pell indicate a determination to root out those responsible.

    Come first term 2013 and we will all find out whether my optimism was misplaced.

  9. James Munro

    @Whycantmydisplaynamebeshort? I totally agree. The article complains about sexism then goes on to make an offensive/sexist remark. As a male I’ve certainly never participated in such behavior (whether there was alcohol or not). Quite frankly Crikey shouldn’t be publishing sexist remarks such as this. The fact that they’re directed at males doesn’t make it any more acceptable.

  10. [email protected]

    Well, it’s not just about ‘the leavening effects of the fair sex’- as we have seen , women allowed into a bastion of privilege and chauvinsim are potential victims. Boys will be boys, and without proper boundaries and enforcement of rules, some boys will be thugs.
    The fish rots from the head is clearly true, and Cardinal Pell has done the right thing by starting with ( effectively) disbanding the council. The next and most effective step will be to disband the student councils. this exercise in living democracy may have worked in another era, but nowadays it is a pathway to “lLord of the Flies’.
    To a traditionalist this may be anatheme, but trust me, it works. Put it another way, start from sctach and design an institution, and then say lets put the effective rule setting and behaviour management in te hands of a few transient residents.

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