By Freya Cormack and Brandon Foo
Anyone who has ever heard of, or stepped foot in a university college knows of the controversies and cultures that exist within them.
From the sexism, misogyny, hazing, and sexual assault stories; controversy is what many people have come to know and associate with these colleges.
“I thought it was going to be incredibly sexist, exclusive, everyone was going to be really wealthy and elitist.
“I thought there was going to be a massive drinking culture, I thought there was going to be a lot of sexual harassment and a very sexualised view of the girls.
“It hasn’t been the case,” Lily Kutena, the 2019 President of Philip Baxter College at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) says.
Philip Baxter College is not unfamiliar to scandals of the sort, and its reputation continues to be tarnished by the past.
In 2016, the college was under fire and sustained reputation damage after a video from a yearly “Boys-Night-Out” event surfaced.
The video featured footage and audio of an old chant with lyrics critics have described as “sexist” or “encouraging rape” being sung on a party bus.
Isabelle Creagh, Residential Director for UNSW colleges, is confident that in the three years following the incident; Baxter has made necessary changes.
“It was acknowledged as deeply inappropriate and responsibility was taken by the student leaders to forge a better path and to be the role models the University and Colleges expect in the future,” Creagh says.
The concept of Boys-Night-Out and Girls-Night-Out was removed from subsequent calendar years and colleges have gone to further lengths emphasising the ban on any sort of misogynistic, racist, homophobic, or sexist chants.
“The song that made the news is apparently an old rugby or sporting chant song that has been popular in the past,” Creagh says, regarding the incident from 2016.
“It was not composed by anyone at the Colleges and is apparently well known outside of them.
“It was definitely not an approved activity and we had thought we had eradicated it but with each year comes a new group and sometimes they bring these influences with them from the outside.”
Lily Kutena says that O-Week was treated as as time to clarify the rules and expectations of Baxter regarding sexual conduct.
“For the freshers, we did consent training. There’s an online three-hour module that’s done for sexual conduct which talks about consent, sexual harassment and misconduct on campus.
“I also organised a speaker to come in and talk about consent,” Kutena says.
Baxter College organise various seminars and training sessions about gender, safe sex, LGBT issues and even toxic masculinity, which refers to the practice of legitimising the dominance of men in society.
While most students are supportive of the training and apparently respond positively to it, some students doubt the effectiveness.
“They [the training sessions] are treated as a joke by some groups,” one student said.
Kutena agrees that the training is a work in progress, saying that much of the training (including the talk on consent) only commenced this year after feedback from students.
“As the years continue, each year can look back on the last year and what they’ve done and improve it for the following year,” she says.
Karen Willis, a representative from Full Stop, a foundation that supports victims of sexual and domestic violence, says that incidents such as the Baxter chant point to a much larger issue within Australian society.
“We clearly have a problem,” Willis says, in reference to the alarming statistics surrounding domestic violence and sexual assault within Australia.
“Australia absolutely has misogynistic culture with deeply ingrained sexist and stereotypical attitudes towards women.”
Australia’s casual attitude towards sexism was highlighted in the aftermath of the Baxter College incident when a formal apology was issued by college residents via UNSW’s Student Representative Council Facebook page.
While many of the comments denounced the chant, a large proportion didn’t see any problems with it.
Many of the comments referred to the chant as a “tradition” that had existed for decades.
One commenter wrote, “Stop with the nanny state whinging b******t. The songs are hilarious.”
According to the White Ribbon Foundation, 1 in 5 women in Australia have experienced sexual violence since the age of 15 and on average in Australia, one woman a week is murdered by her current or former partner.
Willis says that these statistics can be slowed and that university colleges such as Baxter play a key role in changing Australia’s culture as universities are expected to produce the leaders of tomorrow.
“Peer groups can influence a positive or negative culture. What these groups need is strong leadership, as the other members of the group will seek to emulate their behaviour,” Willis says.
Creagh says that Baxter has done just this, “We hold peer-led talks during O-Week on toxic masculinity and how it has no place in our community.
“As these talks are led by college men their impact seems to be greater than any of the messaging and training we have done in the past.”
Baxter students say that they prefer discussing these difficult issues with people they can relate to as it allows students to feel more comfortable giving input through participating in open discussions.
“You’re a lot more influenced by people you interact with on an everyday basis where there’s no sense of authority separating you from them,” Cheyenne Bardos, a Baxter O-Week leader says.
Aided by movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp, recent years have brought a change to the way that sexism and sexual violence are discussed in the mainstream.
Victims are less scared to talk about their experiences with sexual assault, and society – especially active social media users – are more than happy to put accused perpetrators on blast.
Karen Willis is not so sure that shame is the best tool to combat sexist behaviour.
“Where there is opportunity for positive change to occur, I don’t think shaming the wrongdoer is very productive,” she says.
Other commenters on the Facebook apology post agree that participation in misogynistic group behaviour does not constitute a misogynist, and it certainly does not constitute a lost cause.
One male commenter said that the exact chant was common when he attended university 25 years ago, and believed that it existed even before that.
“It’s wrong, misogynistic and misguided but I don’t think these boys should have to bear the brunt of decades of unacceptable misogyny from many thousands of campus males.
“This should see the end of such behaviour, but all men who have participated in or tolerated this in the past must share the blame,” he said.
While Baxter, and other university colleges across Australia have no doubt had their reputations tarnished by sexism, it doesn’t have to be their legacy.
Baxter Dean, Creagh remains assured that the stain on the college’s reputation will fade as time goes on.
“I see Baxter as a place that learns from its mistakes and seeks to do better as well as a place that those who come to be part of it are proud to be associated with for all the right reasons” She says.