7 Nov 2012

Elitist College Culture Runs Deep

By Jessica McLean
Sydney University's colleges revere tradition, and one time-honoured practice that never seems to fade is the sexist and elitist treatment of 'freshers' by their student betters, writes Jessica McLean
Recent reports of scandalous college initiations and abuse at St John's College of University of Sydney didn't surprise me. The systemic, abusive behaviour that constitutes college life there does not seem to have changed in the 15 years since I lived at Women's College, another University of Sydney institution that shared social events and culture with the "Johnsmen".

I completed my HSC at Mudgee High, and desperate to get out of rural Australia, moved in to Women's College immediately. I loved the rhetoric found on Women's College's marketing material. It was for women interested in intellectual pursuits! Who liked sport! Who believed in equality! It read very well on paper. They offered me a scholarship to help pay for my fees; there was no way I could turn down such an opportunity.

My parents drove me down with our van packed with books and clothes and a small array of other personal belongings. We were handed a stack of pamphlets to read over and I was to meet everyone at the welcoming ceremony that night. Within this stack of papers was the college song book — which my Mum read while I unpacked. Somewhat judiciously, and perhaps not wanting to bias my experience, she made no comment on it before leaving.

I was so excited to start this city life, where I had my own space, and was going to learn everything about environmental science, while living in the beautiful grounds of the University.

The slow unpicking of these hopes began that first night, the official welcome night for new Women's College members, known as "freshers". All freshers sat on the common room floorboards and the older students ran a quiz on college life that was a glimpse into a closed world full of bizarre rites.

"What did the P atop a W signify and which college boys write it around the University?" They asked.

The answer? "The phantom arsehole sign." I still don't know what a phantom arsehole actually is, and I can't remember which boys from which college used it as their signifier, but it baffles me whenever I see it on the pavement at the university at which I now work.

After the quiz, we sung the college song. High society we extol thee was the chorus, punctuated by a punch in the air, not unlike a Nazi salute. I looked around the room at the young women raising their voices in song and caught sight of one other set of bewildered eyes. She and I became firm friends and supported each other through the disturbing experiences that would ensue over that year.

During orientation week, it became apparent how college life differs from the the broader university culture. The colleges' insularity feeds their strange practices, such as The Bone Room — a place at Paul's College where individual Women's freshers were, and possibly still are, invited to participate in whatever activities the group of young men therein determine. The invitation to participate was a badge of honour for my co-freshers, one I happily never got to wear. Men and women alike seemed to participate in the demeaning of women.

Various other rituals emerged: a group of college males would encircle a female and chant "Yes means yes and no means more!" during social events; college hallways were lined with tarpaulins taped to sideboards to cope with the vomit coming from binge drinking during big dances; incursions into female colleges by young men were huge achievements, especially if naked.

One such incursion happened one evening when I had decided to not participate in a college formal event. I was fixing a snack of yoghurt and apple in the kitchenette at the end of the hallway when a trio of naked men appeared in silhouette at the other end of the hall. They ran towards me, calling out to each other, asking why I was there and who I was. It was impossible to make it back in to my college room as it would mean running towards the wall of naked man-flesh, and so I dashed to the bathroom instead. I hid in a shower cubicle holding my feet off the ground so they wouldn't discover me. The three naked men ran around and around the bathroom until they grew tired of their pursuit and left.

After 10 minutes or so I felt it might be safe to emerge again and ran in to my room, locking the door and checking it twice to be sure it was secure.

The elitist attitudes that inform college life at the University of Sydney found expression on a near daily basis while I lived at Women's. People would attest to how the Austudy money their parents managed to wrangle for them made for really good play money — it was was used for disposable income. Their parents paid the fees for college and uni, while the government paid for their drinking.

I was lucky though: having a boyfriend outside of the college space and avoiding big events meant I was able to avoid the worse elements of college culture. I drank at Manning Bar on campus — $3.50 wine carafes went a long way — and in Newtown, where I became a happy hour specialist. I wasted a lot of time drinking too, but I couldn't relate to the narrow mindedness and rituals that dominated the space I lived in.

I hope something can be done to make sure other young men and women aren't forced to experience the horrible culture that still seem to dominate college life at the University of Sydney. Addressing institutionalised sexist and elitist attitudes may be one way to do so.

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Posted Thursday, November 8, 2012 - 02:09

Who employs the louts who attend these colleges? Other than the Liberal Party?

I have placed 'membership in a university college' on my DO NOT HIRE list.

Jessica McLean
Posted Thursday, November 8, 2012 - 14:42

Alumnae from Women's include lawyers, vets, models, musicians and even activists. Interesting that you say you automatically discriminate against college-goers, haven't heard anyone else say that before.

Dr Dog
Posted Friday, November 9, 2012 - 08:58

Right on Jessica! Just because it was daddy and mummy's money that allowed them to go to university and to live on campus in a college full of privileged brats with little understanding of the needs of their socio-economic inferiors shouldn't negate the value of their contributions to society.

Clearly Acey has no place in his organisation for a part time flute player, doctor's wife and local government activist with a specialty in resisting high density housing on the North Shore. Your loss Acey.

I can't believe that a public relations firm isn't moving immediately to snap up the genius pictured above. Her command of the English language was, like, awesome and shit. The decision for her to impersonate a 'freshie' was inspired, given that no-one would suspect she could sound so ignorant after three years at a supposedly top university.

Of course after three decades of service to the community St Johns alumni still could end up in a room full of their college mates called the ICAC, where their skills at obscurification and downright lying will come in handy. Applause to the college for giving them not just a world class education but also the practical skills they will need as the future decision makers of our great nation.

Posted Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 08:47

L. Zahra

There should be a Royal Commission into this and when they find the obnoxious little bastards, instant expelling!!!!

Posted Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 16:49

Having done any objective research or enquiry you would be aware that The Women's College has already gone through several internal reforms for modernising the institution. I'm told initiation and other rituals were eradicated some three or four years ago and are no longer allowed. From what I know this year alone their charity and broader community involvement far surpasses that of previous years, including the $8500 raised for Care Australia's "Walk in Her Shoes Campaign" publicised eariler this year amoung many other endeavours. It is one of few institutions to have become certifiably fair trade in 2012 with serious changes and consultations to become environmentally friendly. I cant believe an institution promoting the growth of young women in fields that are so male dominate is being dragged into the media circus over an experience that is more than a decade out of date, and in doing so affects its current community of young women (particularly right in the middle of exam time) who appear just as hard working, caring and motivated as I have always known them to be in my associations

Posted Sunday, November 11, 2012 - 17:40

L. Zahra

Well, AliceW90, looks as though more needs to be done regarding the "eradication" of these disgusting practices. I can't believe that so-called mature, intelligent students can behave like , uncultured :"drop-kicks" and that they also get away with it. They should be weeded out and expelled!!

Dr Dog
Posted Monday, November 12, 2012 - 09:29

Well clearly everything is going swimmingly over there at the women's college AliceW90. Georgie's lying about her freshie status for the news and the poisoning of that girl last year were obviously just youthful hijinks from an otherwise sober, studious and charitable group of young leaders.

Sure they might be naughty but they buy free trade coffee. Free trade!

Regarding the charitable work thank Christ the men weren't in charge or it might have been the Poo in her Shoes campaign, a different prospect I am sure you will agree.

Posted Monday, November 12, 2012 - 11:43

lynnezahra- as AliceW90 pointed out there have been reforms, the events that this article describes occurred 15 years ago according to the author.

Dr Dog- while the article aligns The Women's College with the culture of St John's College they are separate institutions. Georgie is a resident of St John's College and the hospitalised freshman was from St John's College. Men aren't in charge of campaigns at the Women's College because it is a single sex college for females.

Dr Dog
Posted Monday, November 12, 2012 - 12:58

Sorry Alice, that's great then. I thought you had conflated the two.

I am definitely talking here about St John's, although I have a wider interest in the way institutions of privilege operate in the university setting, and beyond.

Jessica McLean
Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 16:26

AliceW90 - I'm truly glad that Women's has had several internal reforms to change the problematic behaviours that seemed institutionalised when i was there. I guess if these reforms were successful, and that the sorts of behaviours I talked about above are no longer going on, then my account of life at college would not be worrisome to those Women's students having exams and essays due at the moment. Although I do wonder why it has taken, as you say, several internal reforms to achieve that change.

kate6029 - While Women's and St John's definitely are separate institutions, they seemed to share an institutionalised culture of elitism and sexism, at least at the time that I was living there. Which was in 1997. Big social events were shared between the colleges, and we frequently attended dinners at St John's and other colleges within the University of Sydney grounds.

Posted Tuesday, November 13, 2012 - 18:04

I attended Currie Hall at The University of Western Australia and was never subjected to rituals such as have happened at St John's College. St John's is presenting a terrible and inexcusable example of what college life is like, but that is not the case at every college.

Living in college is something I will never regret doing. Even though I did not participate heavily in drinking events, the community was always welcoming and I held multiple leadership positions during my three years there, as well as making many lifelong friends from everywhere around the world. Even having graduated, I regularly attend college events as an alumnus. I fully intend that any children I have will also have the college experience.

It would be unfair to say that you would judge college students based only on the media coverage. The national college community is trying hard to do away with the type of culture that exists at St John's. In particular, I attended an annual conference held by the National Association of Australian University Colleges (NAAUC), which focused heavily on the issue of drinking, hazing and initiation ceremonies. This organisation is run exclusively by college students who themselves recognise the need for change and are actively challenging these outdated and inappropriate traditions. Good work is also being done by a group called the Red Frogs, who appeared regularly at college events to help promote safe drinking cultures.


Posted Wednesday, November 14, 2012 - 00:53

That point illustrates what I am trying to say, which is that one cannot simply throw every residential institution on campus into the same awful boat because of the actions of a small number of people at a college separate from other colleges (who should be rightly held accountable) But it is obvious now that it is an unavoidable part of media sensation that no one will bother to make these important distinctions, hence why it is in fact damaging and worrisome to current students of women's. I was told reports of media persons calling girls on private room phones and on some occasions mobile phones to which they shouldn't have access and this is off putting as these girls are not only just young people caught in the cross fire but have done nothing wrong, and if they had their names would deservedly be in the papers as well. I have been to schools in many places outside of Australia as a result of parents having to travel for business, and I can honestly say no other country I've known has the same reaction to so called "institutions of priviledge" and class stigma as Australia who responds with a seemingly inherent resentment when can so much as afford a decent house or car. This is ironic because it is also one of the places that seems to most promote an involved community. I think arahuon is correct in saying that college produces incredible lifelong friends for the majority of college graduates and boasts a thriving community especially essential for international and out of state students. Both myself and my parents went to residential colleges abroad and there was very much the same sort of "ritual" as happens with young people anyway living together, yet as my parents had wanted for me I would love for my children to go to college and be able to experience all of it's positive aspects as I did. For this reason I have always taken an interest in the Sydney university colleges and while I am not usually compelled to weigh in on difficult or contentious debates this is something I've felt quite strongly about so I apologise if I'm out of turn. I'm weighing in on this topic because it has been short of practical defenders from the clumsy mistakes and generalizations of the press in which details have been lost on the public