A sad, and relatively unexpected, spectacle these past few days has been the implosion of my old college, St John’s College within the University of Sydney. It has been headline news in the Australian media, and even made it to the daily news brief from the American Catholic Culture website. The incisive Kate at Australia Incognita has discussed the scandal as well. As an alumnus of the college it is unpleasant enough. As a Benedictine there is an extra level of sadness, given that the college is the fruit of the monk/Archbishop Polding’s high aspirations for the Church in Australia, who saw it is providing leaders for both Church and state. His successor, another English Benedictine, Roger Bede Vaughan, actually lived in the College during his too-short term as archbishop. The fine and imposing portrait of Polding in the college refectory formed an subconscious backdrop to my own budding vocation.
The immediate history dates from an incident in March this year when a female freshman was hosptalized after being made to drink a disgusting concoction involving shampoo and alcohol, among other ingredients. She was made to do so as part of an initiation ritual. The Americans call these rituals ‘hazing’; in my day at the college the initiation rituals were called ‘fresherization’. Having read that the rector, Mr Michael Bongers, had identified 33 students involved in the incident in some way, and suspended them pending further punishment, it seemed the matter would fall from the media gaze. The college engaged a state judge to examine the matter, with the result that the rector excluded the ringleaders from standing for the college’s student governing body and ordered them all to do 20 hours of community service.
As startling as anything else in this imbroglio is that the students appealed this light punishment. Their parents engaged legal counsel on their behalf (it almost beggars belief), another judge was brought in and a sort of mock trial was held in the college, complete with legal representation for the parties involved. This new judge upheld the rector’s actions except that he held that the exclusion of the students from standing for house government the next year was unjust, being in effect an instance of double jeopardy. Given that many old-boy Fellows on the governing Council were actively championing the students’ cause, this striking down of one of the rector’s penalties seriously undermined his authority. The last few days have seen the outcome: widespread vandalism in the college, and open defiance of college authority to the point that the students elected the ringleaders of the May incident to the senior positions on the House Committee, the students’ governing body. A sofa has been burned outside the rector’s rooms; not quite an effigy, but tending in that direction. One college fellow, Professor Roslyn Arnold, resigned in disgust, as did the Honorary Dean, Fr Walter Fogarty. It has been rumoured that some Fellows will move imminently to remove the rector (but not the students!).
So against the backdrop of the media frenzy, the statutory Visitor of the college, Cardinal Pell, has intervened tersely and clearly. His Eminence has declared his lack of confidence in the College Council, and asked the remaining five clerical Fellows to resign from the Council, which they have done. This renders the Council unable to function legally. The Cardinal will also discuss with the state Premier the possibility of changing the legislation under which the college operates.
This is a good point at which to get some context. The college, like other colleges within the university, was founded by an act of the state parliament. Its full title gives a clue to its status vis à vis the university proper: The College of St John the Evangelist within the University of Sydney. The “within” is crucial. It is within the university, but not of the university. The university has no control over the colleges so incorporated. St John’s is governed by a Council of 18 Fellows who appoint a rector. The Fellows are elected by the alumni, and six of them must, by law, be Catholic priests. The court of appeal, as it were, is the Visitor of the college, who is always the Archbishop of Sydney. The University of Sydney, Australia’s oldest university, was intended as Oxbridge Down Under, with the exception that the university itself was to be secular. This was an attempt to avoid the religious sectarianism that marked Australian society in the 19th century. The Christian denominations were involved via the colleges they founded, which were established by acts of parliament to ensure their freedom from interference.
Kate, among others, has asked why has it taken this long for the Cardinal to act. To be fair, much less blame than is implied should laid at his feet. The Visitor has no active role in the life or governance of the college. He is called in as is needed. His powers are limited by the act of parliament establishing the college. His press release was not an official act of the Visitor per se, as far as I can tell, but an act of moral suasion, drawing a line in the sand and letting all know where he stands with regard to his future official actions as Visitor. He has made it impossible for the Council to move against the rector.
Yet a prior question is surely how has all this come to pass. 20 years there was certainly fresherization, as there was at the other colleges. It was occasionally crude, sometimes light-hearted (the “Newtown Run” involved the freshmen running naked back to the college from the neighbouring suburb of Newtown) and very adolescent. When I arrived in 1990 it was a remarkably tolerant place: clearly homosexual residents were not harassed, Asian students were accepted in what was an overwhelmingly Anglo-Celtic environment, and a profoundly disabled student played a conspicuous part in the life of the college. The fresherization period was not very long, and I have no memory of anyone being forced physically to do anything. That said, one can never underestimate the power of peer pressure and the individual’s need to be accepted. Perhaps the greatest sin a resident could commit at St John’s was not to be involved in some way in the life of the college. This need not be by drinking or sport; singing in the College choir, membership of the debating team, or even just cheering the college team at sporting events, were all acceptable ways to participate.
The early 90s saw a reforming element introduced into the college. A new rector and his team sought to civilize the house by acting vigorously against the drinking culture, the mild yet tasteless sexism of many students, and especially the initiation rituals of fresherization. This was probably long overdue. The problem lay in their approach. For all their political correctness (and this very much informed their policies) they had little understanding for or appreciation of where late adolescent males were “at” in this stage of life’s journey. They made a poor job of listening. They applied inverted commas too often to words that made the nervous or disgusted. They came across as puritans. They allowed their actions to be perceived as an attack on the traditions of the college, and this seriously undermined their project by antagonizing even the moderate, amenable residents. They alienated a majority of the college tutors, who should have been a major weapon in the reformers’ arsenal. They advocated introducing women, largely to help civilize the place, and this served further to inflame the situation. Recent events suggest that eventual introduction of female residents some years back has failed in this aim. What is galling is that immediately adjacent to St John’s was the Catholic college for women, Sancta Sophia, and an excellent modus vivendi existed between the two colleges. The girls, for one, had their neat, clean and calm sanctuary to retire to if the boys got on their nerves.
For better or for worse, the young men of the college, traditionally coming from boarding schools, brought with them a familiarity with a relatively restrictive institutional regime, as well as a desire to enjoy their new found freedom from that regime. So they thought in institutional terms, and so in terms of tradition, while at the same time wanting to enjoy their recently-acquired freedom. This is a recognizable part of maturation and the emergence from adolescence into adulthood. There will be moral and social failures in this process. A college’s role should be to contain them and gradually to correct them. In large measure this process, wherever it takes place, must involve making the young take responsibility for their actions. This responsibility flows along two streams: taking the wrap for misdeeds, and also being positively involved in making decisions for the benefit oneself and also the group.
The events of the last few months have revealed that this process of acting responsibly, both the active and prudent exercise of power, and manning up to one’s misdeeds and atoning for them, is woefully lacking. The student body has become radicalized, and their behaviour is now one of entrenched reaction. In such an atmosphere reason will have little influence. Growth in mature responsibility as a goal has been totally lost. Instead of the young being coaxed into taking responsibility for their actions and for the common good they have now, it seems, adopted an attitude of self-righteously defiant libertinism. Grandstanding has been evident on more than one side. Perspective has been lost as the dynamics of cause celèbre have taken over.
Thus the scandal has become a weapon for the media to attack the Church, though the Church does not directly control the College; to attack the collegiate system as elitist, and elitism is a mortal sin according to Australian social dogma; and to stigmatize young males in general as all being potential anti-social louts.
Yet vital questions might not be addressed adequately at all. For example, how is it that things have been allowed to deteriorate so rapidly and calamitously? How many more actually bear responsibility, at least in part, for this toxic culture now prevailing? To what extent is the loss of the Catholic identity and ethos of the college a contributing factor? Has education yielded too often to cack-handed experiments in social engineering? And where does the welfare of the students figure in this?
What lies in store for the college? I have no inside information, but one probable outcome will be a revision of the legislation governing the college, and all the colleges no doubt. An act dating from 1857 is probably no longer totally adequate for a 21st-century tertiary college. In more immediate terms, I imagine that the entire Council will have to resign, and probably the rector too if a new broom is to have an effect. In fact all the most involved parties might have to relinquish any role from now on. The students who have acted criminally should probably go too. They have brought this on themselves. In the long term I suspect there will be a move to involve the university formally in the government of the college.
This is not without dangers from a Catholic point of view. The current legislation allows the college to be distinctively Catholic, and the potential this gives the college has been sinfully under-realized. In future, with the possibility of more secular control over the life of the college, the Catholic identity of the college could be further eroded and what potential it had much reduced. It is to be hoped that Cardinal Pell will push to ensure that an eminent and gifted rector is appointed, bolstered by the full support of those who appoint him or her; and also that a resident chaplain, with experience dealing with the young and a firm commitment to the Faith, will be also be appointed. It would be a fitting reform in this Year of Faith and the New Evangelization. For as the college motto, from Psalm 127, reminds us, “Unless the Lord build the house, in vain do its builders labour”.