Flat White

When campus claims of sex abuse meet politics

8 August 2017

4:09 PM

8 August 2017

4:09 PM

For nearly thirty years I served as a university college head in four different institutions.  Before that I was myself a college student.  I know colleges and appreciate their weaknesses as well as their strengths.  And I’m angry.

The release last week of the Human Rights Commission’s national survey into sexual assault and sexual harassment of university students exposes the frailty and deficiency of surveys as a political tool.  Its acceptance by the media exposes the gullibility of men and women who should investigate fairly and report truthfully.  Worse than gullibility, a malign sensationalism seems to be the driver.

Consider how News.com.au reported the story:

The national survey of 31,000 students revealed that half of students (51 per cent) were sexually harassed at least once in 2016, with one in five students sexually harrassed (sic) in a university setting.

If one troubles to read the report itself one finds these figures grotesquely misleading.  The report includes some formidable caveats:

The survey data has been derived from a sample of the target population who were motivated to respond, and who made an autonomous decision to do so. It may not necessarily be representative of the entire university student population… who had been sexually assaulted and/or sexually harassed may have been more likely to respond to this survey than those who had not. This may in turn have impacted on the accuracy of the results… People who had been sexually assaulted or sexually harassed may have chosen not to respond to the survey because they felt it would be too difficult or traumatic. This may also have impacted on the accuracy of the results.

These are worth quoting in full in order to appreciate the contrast between the two, and the prodigality of the report’s use of the word may.  I suppose in a world that’s chary of objective truth a may is as good as a did, but I question these findings on the basis of many years’ experience of student life.


The appalling injustices surrounding the McMartin Preschool trial and the Wenatchee child abuse prosecutions in the US clearly demonstrate that young people can lie, without regard to the sufferings they may cause, particularly when they are under the constraint of peer pressure – or of investigators who have a predisposition to believe them.

To anticipate the biggest and loudest objection of all, no, I do not deny the existence of sexual abuse and harassment among college students.  But I insist that the rate is very much below the levels reported or hinted at.   Surveys are dangerous things in themselves, the more so when they fall into the hands of the media.

College students make very good scapegoats.  It could be said of them as it was once said of the clergy, that they might do some good spread evenly on the ground, but in a heap they stink.  They have a high profile and will often cop the primary blame for public student misbehaviour.  Sometimes such charges are just, sometimes not at all.   I was often called to a neighbouring shop to look at CCTV images of thieves at work, but can only remember one occasion when I recognized the student as one of my own – and disciplined him accordingly.  Would that have happened if he had not been a college student?  Frankly it’s far less likely:  parents are more likely to be protective of their children’s peccadilloes than college staff can afford to be.

In the sexual sphere we are on more certain ground.  Our own polls and surveys were more exhaustive, more inclusive, than anything the Commission could come up with.  Entry interviews, follow-up interviews, exit polls, a sensitive and perceptive tutorial system, all these things gave us both information and insight.  We didn’t know everything, of course, and offences were committed every year because every year students come and go and make mistakes, but we always acted on complaints and actively investigated cases when we suspected a cover up.

In the colleges we could do what the larger institution could never manage to do.  But when the balloon goes up and the larger body starts getting complaints, the colleges provide an easy and highly visible target.  Accusations of cronyism, elitism, snobbery, brutishness stick fast.  ‘One act of sexual harassment,’ in the words of a vice-chancellor recently, ‘is one too many.’  Of course it is.  But kicking unprotected heads is no solution.

For the record, most of my several thousand students over the years were good people with a strong sense of decency and fairness.  They were not spoilt rich kids:  most had jobs and some worked too damned hard — because they had to.  They were no more prone to mischief and criminality than any other young people are, but I think on balance they were better able to deal with it because they had to live together in harmony and diversity.  I hate to see them pilloried and very much deplore the treatment meted out to St Paul’s College in recent weeks.

When will we learn to re-evaluate the weighting we give to surveys?  Maybe we won’t.  Life is always so much easier if you can find a victim and you’ve got someone else to blame.  But I’ll go on hoping.

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