Melbourne University's Ormond College (image by Eivind Dovik via Wikipedia)

Female leaders make a big difference in stamping out sexual assault at university campuses, writes Vanessa Jo di Natale.

Content warning: sexual assault

I AM A STUDENT at the University of Melbourne with peers who have been sexually assaulted in dorm rooms, at college parties and other university events. 

During my email correspondence with Ormond College’s first ever female Headmaster, Lara McKay, she mentions plans to establish an online anonymous reporting platform for Ormond students.

It was reassuring to hear, on October 13, she’s currently 'scoping the anonymous reporting site'.

McKay, it appears, will be a headmaster of firsts.

Admittedly, I was initially sceptical. But I now see how McKay is leading Ormond 'into the next phase of the College’s history'. It will be the first college at the University of Melbourne to have anonymous reporting and the first female headmaster has brought it in, more than two decades after two female students made sexual harassment allegations against former Ormond Master, Alan Gregory.

McKay has even taken more initiative than Melbourne University itself, whose Safer Communities Program expects students to report to someone they don’t know via a generic email address, but the process doesn't allow students to be anonymous. 

It’s been just two months since McKay became Headmaster and she already has done more for student survivors than her male colleagues have. And they’ve been working at the college for years.

It took McKay no time at all to: 

'identify [as] a priority area making reporting of sexual violence easier for victim/survivors.'

Student victims are statistically female and it has been grievously unfair how some colleges require a sexual assault allegation to be made to someone in senior leadership. A college head is often a man with seniority. He might even be college alumni and will definitely play a part in shielding the college from any reputational harm.

At the beginning of my conversation with the recently appointed Dean of Students of Queen’s College, Sally Dalton-Brown directs my attention to the office’s "wall of successful Queen’s women".

She tells me:

"We are a feminist college."

This is the very same Queen’s College whose former headmaster, Raynor Johnson, had close affiliations with The Family cult that kidnapped and drugged children. Dalton-Brown is deeply apologetic to student survivors, even using the phrase “institutional failing” to describe how those before her handled sexual assault.

It is indeed an institutional failing. But any college or university employee intending to claim they weren’t aware of the extent to which some students of college residencies commit sex crimes in dorm rooms and who wish to paint themselves as shocked as the general public is not telling the truth. They knew or suspected or would've heard whispers.

Dalton-Brown does not once deny sexual assault against female students on campus is a problem:

“We’ve had very few male victims. They’ve been mostly female.”

She wants to emphasise how committed she is to making the under-reporting of sexual assault a relic of the past. I find myself believing her. But I also suspect she is trying to convince herself she is working for an institution which represents the interests of women. "Our women are strong here at Queen's", Dalton-Brown tells me.

I ask how sexual assault reports used to be handled. She does not feel it is her place to comment. “I wasn’t working here then so I couldn’t say.” She has only been in charge of handling sexual assault disclosures as of this year.

I ask if Queen's has kept numbers on assaults over the years.

She can’t say, no such data exists:

There is very little available about how Queens handled sexual assault up until this year.”

Finally, I ask if she can tell me how many reports have been made this year:

“[At Queen's College there has been] two.”

Only two?

It's clear much more needs to be done so student victims feel safe and supported when reporting to their colleges.

Lara McKay realises this:

'While open disclosure and reporting is encouraged at Ormond, we acknowledge that some members of the community may not feel able to come forward and report incidents.'

It seems bright women have been plucked for college leadership positions and put immediately to task implementing the recommendations of the Australian Humans Rights Commission’s 'Change the Course' report — a report which includes a foreword from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins who is Ormond Alumni. They have been placed on standby with minimal training to support students slowly warming to the idea of reporting to their college.

Meanwhile, those who employed a hush-hush approach and displayed institutional indifference have been able to slip under the radar, leaving the girls to clean up the mess.

At first, when I ask, Dalton-Brown says something along the lines of Queens’s College having a preference for in-house reporting. When I seek clarification she adds the college is “looking at anonymous reporting". I press for further information about whether Queen’s College is only sticking to in-house reporting to determine how likely the introduction of anonymous reporting will be.

We’ll have both,” she says.

Women like Lara McKay and Sally Dalton-Brown are right for the job of eliminating college sexual assault. But why is it now they’ve been put in these positions? Will others join them in their efforts?

And why did former male college heads not prioritise a student victim’s need for somewhere safe to report?

If you find this article distressing or are in need of support refer to ReachOut Australia's webpage.

Vanessa Jo Di Natale is a writer and a student at the University of Melbourne.

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Australia License

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