Behind the Sandstone

Thursday, 25 September, 2014

Words by Eliza McDonald
Photography by Lynley Eavis

You could write a thesis on life inside a University of Melbourne Residential College. The salacious ins and outs of the wild nights and ridiculous parties, the high school-esque scandals between friends held captive in the same environment for thirty-six weeks of the year, and the politics behind the committees and leadership roles. Curiosity surrounding these apparently prestigious institutions has peaked of late, after rumours of mistreatment and bullying leaked from within college walls. These were coupled with outbursts from former collegians appearing on pages like The University of Melbourne Confessions. As a University of Melbourne student that has called a college home for the last 18 months, I’ve experienced the full spectrum of the College Experience, and feel I can offer an insightful look into the inner workings of #CollegeLife.

There’s no denying that College is a petri-dish in which the issues of the outside world are significantly magnified. When you take several hundred newly adult humans, add alcohol, and house them within spitting distance of each other, the results are extreme, and range from the altruistic to the abhorrent.

However, I would argue that the negative qualities that arise in these environments stem not from the institutions themselves, but from a culture embedded in society as a whole.

Last semester, at a college that will go unnamed, controversy broke out over sexist and homophobic comments allegedly made by student leaders at a meeting of the student body. A group of students wrote an anonymous complaint in the college bulletin in order to raise their concerns with the rest of the student body. They argued that the use of sexist and homophobic comments as humour was inappropriate, offensive and promoted a toxic culture, particularly among the new members of the college community.

And it does. The use of derogatory terms in what should be at least a semi-professional setting is completely inappropriate and perpetuates stigmas of discrimination. This is clear. Alongside this, a member of the group that published their criticism in the student bulletin said that they didn’t feel they could put their name to the critique because they were intimidated by the fact that the comments had come from the student leadership team. In response, the student leadership team wrote a response apologising for the occurrence. The president of the college emphasised to me that this was an isolated incident, in no way representative of the attitudes or values of the college overall. It was thoughtless slips of the tongue, he argued, that shouldn’t be used to condemn the college or its culture entirely. The administration at the college heard of the complaint and the student club president was issued a please explain. The committee answered the complaints with a formal apology. The situation was handled in the same way that it would be… well, anywhere. Because these exact circumstances, sadly, take place on a daily basis in high schools, universities and workplaces. Not just colleges at The University of Melbourne.

At another college, a group of male students started a game in which they would go out and attempt to seduce the “most unattractive girl”—whom they would refer to as a “pig”—and “gift” themselves to her. They would take photos of the procedings and post them on a Facebook page.

In any context, there can be no defending this. There’s no argument that could makes this behaviour even remotely defensible. It’s repulsive But is this a college specific issue? Or would these people still be the worst, independent of college? The answer lies in the college reaction: as the rumours seeped out, the response was one of disgust. Ultimately the student leadership team, without the prompting of administration, addressed the students directly and put an end to the behaviour. College, like the rest of the world, is not immune to complete ass-wipes. But this instance highlights that when they appear they are condemned.

I’ve mentioned two instances in which college students have internally handled issues arising in the student body. This is a common procedure. Given that colleges are communities of adults, it’s normal for incidences to be responded to by the students. It shows an eagerness to correct cultures they know are inappropriate. However, there are circumstances that make it to the administrative staff—but for confidentiality reasons, I’m not able to write about them. I can, however, illustrate how mechanisms are arranged to handle such complaints.

The colleges are party to Fair Treatment policies, which outline the discrimination, sexual harassment and bulling policy procedures. Each college has a coordinator—usually a senior staff member—and a set of internal advisors with whom particular incidences are discussed. The documents outlining the hierarchy, procedures and policies are comprehensive. They cover the college’s legal obligations, courses of action when complaints are raised and how to respond to situations involving harassment. They’re the mechanisms designed to keep students safe, and give them an avenue for support when incidents happen at the college.

The issue is, a large proportion of the student body—over 2000 students—do not know that these procedures exist. While it is a thorough structure with a broad range of options for aiding students, it is relatively unheard of by students. And while they don’t know about it, they can’t access its support. Which is in part why these complaints instead filter through the colleges and become distorted myths.

There’s a general belief that the colleges are mysterious organisations in which disproportionate amounts of abuse and mistreatment occur. This is simply not true. To look from the outside and think that discrimination goes unchallenged is wrong, and to say that it occurs disproportionately lets the rest of society off the hook. Because the truth is, the colleges are not an outlier, but a microcosm of the society in which they exist.

Binge drinking and mistreatment are cysts that grow not only on college, but on society as a whole. To suggest that harassment is unique to college culture minimises a set of much greater issues. That Australian culture as a whole must question its affiliation with discrimination, misogyny and binge drinking. The false perception that the colleges are Animal Houses neglects the fact that there are day students who on occasion do crappy things too, but we don’t consider all day kids animals because of it.

The reputation of the colleges is tenuous—and the shitty things that have come out of Sydney University’s colleges in recent years impact on it. But the condemnation of colleges and college culture misplaces blame that should be refocused on the way we handle discrimination and harassment in society broadly. By the time students arrive at university institutions and at colleges, their views and opinions about the world are already informed by a smattering of other life circumstances. The college environment does not trigger a latent tendency towards discrimination or poor behaviour by individuals involved. Nor do the institutions make habits of condoning or promoting bad attitudes. The individuals perpetrating harassment in colleges are to blame—not the institutions. Sexism and homophobia are real and pressing issues that occur within our culture as a whole and should be addressed on a national level.

Focusing so heavily on discrimination and attributing this to “college culture” does two other negative things. Firstly, it throws shade on other pressing issues that genuinely are products of college culture. High fees often prevent capable students from benefitting from collegiate opportunities due to financial hardship. Colleges are expensive. Even when adding up the costs of share house living in comparison: food, public transport, internet, bills. Colleges remain a large, often lump sum that many students can’t afford. While there’s an increase in the availability of scholarships and bursaries College fees themselves continue to rise and marginalize those who would benefit greatly from campus living— particularly rural students. Furthermore, the competitiveness of the college application process has turned acceptance into a game of “who-you-know”— particularly at the larger colleges.

As such the process ought to be adjusted to be more equitable or even merit based and less similar to how Slytherin chooses their students.

Secondly, the idea that discrimination is “part of college culture” undermines the hard work that numerous college student leaders and staff do to make college kids feel as comfortable and supported as possible. Many of the colleges have teams of students who are paid (or receive discounts on their fees) to look after the welfare of students. These mentors are given the specific responsibility of keeping an eye out for discrimination, harassment or students who are falling through the cracks. The mentors can then in confidence seek advice from staff about how to handle particular issues that may arise. The mentors are also put in touch with services available at the University, to which they can refer students that that require professional support. In this way the colleges foster a supportive peer culture that promotes looking out for your mates and being aware of discrimination. The student bodies at colleges also seek ways to encourage diversity and tolerance, as well as breaking stigmas like homophobia.

At the same college responsible for the homophobic comments previously discussed, the O-week team implemented activities at a student club meeting to promote sexuality equality. Incoming first year students met with current gay students to discuss their experience of coming out to the college community. The discussion assured students that it was more than okay to be themselves, and that bullying would not be tolerated. This is what we promote at college.

Personally, the myth that colleges breed discrimination or mistreatment is saddening given how many people I’ve worked alongside who have campaigned tirelessly to make the college experience positive. People who seek to condemn entire institutions due to individual actions ought to take a look at the bigger picture. Because there are countless little initiatives implemented by students and staff to promote safety and security, and countless people who genuinely care about looking after those who pass through the college corridors.

The purpose of the college environment is not to perpetuate discrimination in any way. It’s to give young people something more out of their undergraduate degree: real and lasting friendships, unforgettable opportunities and adventures.

Hundreds of students every year from a diverse range of backgrounds would not be able to go to The University of Melbourne (or in fact a number of other Universities) if these colleges did not exist. While they are in no way the holy grail of residential living, they can’t they be blamed for students exhibiting shitty attitudes and intolerance given that this exists in broader society just as frequently. Discrimination and intolerance are pressing issues that deserve to be addressed accurately. As such, focus needs to be shifted away from condemning the college crescent and onto dealing with the much broader problem that in reality exists to an extent in every institution and in every workplace across the country.