In the last few years, the University of Sydney's residential colleges have been rocked by several reports of harassment and hazing. As recently as last month, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that disparaging sexual remarks about women at Wesley College had been made in that college's annual yearbook. Following its reporting on this incident, the newspaper excoriated the colleges in an editorial for not "adopt[ing] standards of governance and behaviour which reflect modern values".
In response to the reports, the University has appointed former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick AO to work with the residential colleges to address “concerns that have been raised” about their culture. Broderick, who oversaw a review into the treatment of women in the defence forces, will look at governance reforms to modernise the way these exclusive institutions are run.
Changing the governance structures of the colleges, though, is difficult because it requires the state government to amend the 19th and early 20th century acts of parliament that established them. Under the legislation, each college has a council, which plays the role of a board in deciding policy and setting the general direction of the college.
One residential college, St John's, has already begun the process of reforming its council. It has proposed amendments to the 1857 St John's College Act to modernise oversight of its cloisters.
You wouldn't want a board or a college council that was just full of lawyers, which may have been close to the case historically at some places. At a college you need financial expertise, you need some property expertise, you need people who have done strategic planning at organisations. You especially need people who are involved in university education
The Catholic college faced a crisis in 2012 when a misbegotten alcohol-fuelled initiation ritual left a young woman hospitalised. Professor Roslyn Arnold, a member of the college's council at the time, called for an external review of the college's governance and Cardinal George Pell ordered the priests that sat on the college's council to resign. In response, the college established a Working Party on Governance which proposed the reforms.
Under the current method, alumni elect all 18 members of the St John’s Council. The working party has recommended trimming that number to 12, of which a third would be directly elected by alumni. Of the remaining eight, three would be appointed by the church, one by the University and the remaining four appointed by the council itself.
The reforms are aimed at bringing in a broader range of skills to the college's council with their views and attitudes filtering down to effect positive cultural change at the college.
"You need a skills mix so the system for appointing a board of directors has to be suitable for that," St John’s College Rector Adrian Diethelm said. "For instance, you wouldn't want a board or a college council that was just full of lawyers, which may have been close to the case historically at some places. At a college you need financial expertise, you need some property expertise, you need people who have done strategic planning at organisations. You especially need people who are involved in university education as it's a rapidly evolving context. Under the old model [for appointing the college council] there is no guarantee that you'd get anybody who has that experience."
Frustratingly for the college, the reform proposal, though submitted in 2014, is still parked with the government while the Department of Education consults former students on the proposed changes.
It's not an environment in which you can issue orders. We're not a military academy here. So you've actually got to persuade students who are here that some practices that have gone in the past can't keep on going
Cultural transformation required
In the meantime Diethelm and the council have taken steps to ensure that an incident like the one that occurred in 2012 never happens again.
The college has taken a 'zero tolerance' approach now to any initiation or 'fresherisation' with the residency agreement making it clear that any student involved in an activity of this sort will be expelled from the college. But more than that, Diethelm, who became acting rector in 2013 before being permanently appointed in 2014, and the college leadership have worked hard to win the students around to the importance of culture change.
"We have worked with the student body and got them to see that cultural transformation is expected and required. It's not an environment in which you can issue orders. We're not a military academy here. So you've actually got to persuade students who are here that some practices that have gone in the past can't keep on going for various reasons, because of risk elements, because of culture. We're not running a nineteenth century English boarding school. And when we get very talented young people coming to St John's as freshers in first year, we want them to stay. We want to create an environment where they think this is somewhere where I can really flourish. We've got a very intelligent, talented group of people and when you put it out there and explain it, they pick it up."