Where's that taskforce to combat 'toxic' college culture at?

Sydney University Vice-Chancellor Michael Spence has released details of the ‘taskforce’, set up with former sex discrimination commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, to combat the culture of sexism and misogyny at the university’s residential colleges.

At a recent Student Consultative Committee meeting, Dr Spence confirmed the ‘taskforce’ would be a two-part process designed to address sexual harassment and assault in colleges. It will be modelled on the review Ms Broderick conducted into the treatment of women in the Australian Defence Force following the 2011 ‘Skype sex scandal’.

The first phase, titled “Holding Up The Mirror,” will involve speaking to student leaders and management about their experiences reporting and reacting to instances of sexual harassment, assault or abuse.

The second phase will involve rolling out an “Action Plan” to change existing processes based on the consultations between the taskforce, the university and the colleges.

The taskforce was established as a response to a Pulp investigationinto rampant sexual misbehaviour at Wesley College published earlier this year.

The public release of images from the Wesley College Journal, including a ‘Rackweb’ identifying inter-college hook-ups and awards for ‘best ass, ‘best cleavage' and ‘RackWeb Queen’, brought the prestigious institution into disrepute. Incidences of Wesley students infiltrating a massage parlour during a Scavenger Hunt and taking unsolicited pictures were also slammed by sex workers upset at the invasion into their privacy.

Following nationwide condemnation over the incidents, Dr Spence released a statement saying: “The Chancellor and I have invited the heads of college councils to meet with Ms Broderick to see how we can address concerns that have been legitimately raised. I am sure they will co-operate.”

Pulp can confirm a dinner has taken place at the Vice-Chancellor’s home between college masters and Ms Broderick, where they all agreed to phase one of the taskforce. They have also met several times afterwards to discuss how the project might work.

The colleges are not bound to undertake any of the recommendations made by the committee because their councils operate independently from the university. This is despite recommendations by the NSW Anti-Discrimination board in 2000 for colleges to be included within the university’s sexual harassment policy.

Chloe Smith, President of the Student Representative Council (SRC), said the updates on the taskforce given by Dr Spence at the meeting were “very vague and noncommittal”.

When she asked Dr Spence about the timeline for implementing any of the recommendations she was told: “it’s a long process and can’t be rushed”.

Wom*n’s Officer Anna Hush said while she appreciates the university and colleges are still refining the details of the taskforce, they should be more transparent about the process given how vital it is to the ongoing safety of students.

“It will take a significant and systemic shift, driven by college students and administration, to dislodge the endemic culture of sexism,” she said.

Last week, Hush, alongside Wom*n’s Officers from the past ten years, released an open letter to Dr Spence that called for the University to take immediate action to prevent sexual assault on campus and support those impacted by sexual violence and harassment.

One of the demands included ensuring that the college ‘taskforce’ was consultative and included at least two student representatives, one of whom should be a SRC Wom*n’s officer.

Following the letter's release, members of the Wom*n’s Collective held up mattresses on Open Day with messages including, "red tape won't cover up rape," and "university silence perpetuates violence," to warn prospective students about their experiences reporting sexual harassment and assault on campus to university staff.


"University management have had decades to take action on this issue, but have continually delayed doing so. The university's silence on this issue condones a rape culture that allows for student fear, trauma and unrest to persist,” the Wom*n's Collective wrote on Facebook.


It comes after a Creating a Safer Community for All: Sexual Harassment and Assault on Campus survey found that almost 25 per cent of respondents had experienced some form of unacceptable behaviour, unwanted sexual harassment or assault while at the university.

A Sydney University spokesperson declined to comment on whether the Vice-Chancellor was still considering stripping the colleges of their land if they failed to co-operate with the taskforce.

“The colleges are wholly independent institutions with separate land grants and autonomous governing bodies,” the representative said.

“Many of the students of the colleges are also University students and the University and colleges together consider we have a significant duty of care and a duty of concern for all our students,” she said.

“The University and colleges will work together to ensure safety and care for all students.”

Wesley College Master Lisa Sutherland declined to comment.

Pulp Editors