Colleges show flaws in the sandstone

The newly installed Principal of St Andrew's College surveys the drunken carnage before him and thinks he's walked into a scene conjured up by Bruegel or Rabelais.

The year is 1991. The occasion is a college dinner to celebrate ''Drew's'' rowing victory over fierce rival St Paul's. The grog flows endlessly.

Dressed in their academic gowns, some students vomit from the hall windows, while others bring up the contents of their stomachs without leaving the tables. The principal ventures into the courtyard and discovers a vomitorium. A spewing competition is under way.

A ''chundermarker'' chalks around each congealing pool, marking it for circumference, distance and composition and ''using his finger, tastes it for acidity''.

These scenes mark the opening of Finishing School for Blokes, a first-hand account of the excesses of Sydney University's third-oldest residential college written 15 years ago by former principal Dr Peter Cameron.

It was, he said, a ''lotus-eating dreamworld'', where the ''household gods are beer, chicks and footy''. Despite it all, he professed a certain affection for his charges.

Fast forward to 2012 and the heads of the venerable Sydney University colleges could be forgiven for thinking they've blundered into groundhog day, reprising the scandals of yesteryear.

Centre stage is the Catholic residential College St John's, one of the oldest colleges in Australia, founded like long-time rivals St Andrew's and St Paul's in the mid-nineteenth century.

Its rector (as the college head is known) and council are deadlocked in a months-old dispute over student misbehaviour which has drawn in the Premier, the Catholic Archbishop, Cardinal George Pell, and the university vice-chancellor, Dr Michael Spence.

The facts are by now reasonably well known. In March, after an initiation ritual gone wrong, an 18-year old female ''fresher'' was rushed to hospital with a bleeding stomach after being induced to drink an alcoholic cocktail laced with shampoo, Tabasco sauce and dog food.

The rector, Michael Bongers, tried to identify the ringleaders. Faced with a code of silence within the student body, he then suspended or rusticated 34 whom he suspected might have been involved, either as instigators or onlookers.

Punishments that to an outside eye seemed reasonably light - a short suspension, community service orders and a ruling that they not run for student council positions next year - were imposed. But Bongers, already under siege after previous attempts to crack down on roistering and decades-old hazing rituals, ran into a wall of resistance.

Some students called in lawyers. The council appointed its own legal umpire, Roger Gyles, QC, to adjudicate the rift between the rector and the suspects.

On September 5 the council chairman, Christine Liddy, wrote to the university vice-chancellor informing him that on the basis of Gyles's advice, half of Bongers' rulings would be set aside.

The letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Fairfax, said the council had further resolved that there should be no ''contact with the press by any student, member of staff, or council, or any other member of the St John's College community on this matter or any other matter relating to the college, except by the chairman''.

This effectively gagged Bongers, who in May had publicly complained that he was battling ''middle-aged old boys'' among ex-Johnsmen loath to see decades-old ''traditions'' at the college overturned.

Following the Liddy letter, some of the previously suspended students were elected to the 2013 student representative body. This was open defiance of Bongers. The respected educator Professor Ros Arnold revealed she had resigned from the board in disgust. She was followed early this week by the honorary dean, Father Walter Fogarty, who expressed his anguish in a parting shot in last week's edition of the college journal, The Eagle.

He bemoaned tens of thousands of dollars spent fixing damage from ''mindless vandalism'' after drunken college events; urination in corridors and previous problems with defaecation around the premises; the intimidation of students who had been cowed into silence.

He lamented the disrespect shown to the students who had spoken up for Bongers and his wife at the valedictory dinner. He railed against a lewd mock-up of The Eagle, titled The Spread-Eagle, and an in-house production of Dimboola re-scripted to ''include language that could only be deemed intentionally obscene and offensive (particularly to women)''.

He concluded: ''As the year draws to a close it is hoped that those who appear happy to undermine the college's

noble traditions … will look back on their actions during this sorry year and decide that it is time to start afresh.''

That appeal seems to have fallen on deaf ears. Students suspected of helping college authorities have been threatened with reprisals. Pell (battling church scandals on other fronts) and Spence have looked on, horrified. Privately university authorities hoped the council would fall on its sword. It didn't.

In what was seen as a pre-emptive strike to hobble the council before it might sack Bongers, Pell this week withdrew the remaining five clerical members of the 18-member body.

It was, claimed one insider, a ''brilliant'' stroke by Pell, because the council can only meet legally if at least one clerical member is present. It is check - but not yet checkmate.

Among the three oldest, originally all-male colleges at Sydney University, St John's is not alone in having a riotously chequered history. But it has always seemed to play harder and rougher than the others. This reputation stuck after the college became co-ed a decade ago. (Students and old boys fought the decision, but college authorities needed the money.)

Traditionally a home for country lads coming to the big city to study, St John's has also taken a steady stream of boys from the big Sydney Catholic boarding schools, Riverview and St Joseph's.

''For the first time in their lives, they are suddenly able to get pissed, there is sex in the air, and they are under minimal supervision,'' says one ex-college boy.

Fees used to be more modest relative to average income. These days, you can pay $450 a week each semester. Many feel this has made the colleges more entrenched bastions of privilege than they used to be. Certainly, some students can now afford to bring in lawyers when trouble raises its head.

The oldest colleges had their own acts of Parliament, and their own grants of land because 19th century legislators wanted clear lines drawn between church and academia. This ensured minimal interference by religious authorities in university affairs.

But it also meant the university had almost no power to intervene in the colleges either, as a co-author of a recent university history, Julia Horne, points out.

It is why vice-chancellor Spence called on Barry O'Farrell two days ago to urgently review the governance arrangements for all the colleges. (St Andrew's act was re-drawn in 1998 so that the university chancellor, at least, now has ''visitor'' status.)

Over the years, the scandals have erupted regularly. With St John's back in the headlines, hair-raising tales poured into the Fairfax office this week. There was the dog allegedly electrocuted by John's boys in a college room in the late '60s, its body later found dumped under leaves near the oval. A young country boy, picked on for weeks and finally locked in a cupboard by his tormenters, fled mid-semester and hitch-hiked home 400 kilometres, never to take up tertiary study again.

In 1977, David Marr and Anne Summers lifted the lid on sexual abuse at St Paul's, considered the most elite of the colleges, revealing that a student who had allegedly led a gang-bang had been garlanded with the Animal Act of the Year award by his peers.

Paul's was back in the spotlight three years ago, with revelations that students had set up a pro-rape Facebook page.

The initiation ritual known as walkabout was notorious in all three men's colleges. First-year students would be ordered to the seniors' quarters, blindfolded, plied with alcohol (sometimes spiked), then driven for hours through the night into the bush where they would be dumped with no money, no map, no light and with orders to bring back an inconvenient object they had been lumbered with (a box of books, say, or an ironing board).

For a few unfortunates, getting back took days.

''I felt like the whole college experience retarded my development by about three years,'' confesses one old John's boy, who had to fetch food from the local garage late at night for seniors. ''I look back and think, how ludicrous. But as the saying goes, you're young, dumb and full of cum … When you get into your second year, you do the same thing - it's a power thing.'' For those who held out, it could be ''an isolating way to live'', he says.

Nudity and binge drinking went hand-in-hand. There were bollocks runs through the all-female colleges (Women's and Sancta Sophia). A current student at St John's reports freshers still being ordered into wrestling matches with the sole object of tearing your opponent's underwear off.

Former rector Dr David Daintree, who headed St John's between 2002 and 2008, says he tried moderating such practices during his term but felt outright bans would have driven them underground.

He raised the numbers of women at the college, and ''tried to work with persuasion''.

''Take the nude football: the blokes would go to the oval around dusk, and as they lost points, one or two of them might be running around naked. Now, what do you do about that? If you forbid it, you are increasing resentment. They are going to do it anyway. I preferred to say, 'we strongly counsel you against it, if you are seen and misunderstood by a member of the public you could be sued for harassment'.''

An entrenched subculture of booze and nudity perpetuates itself. ''Its a bit like the story of the axe that's worn out,'' he says. ''Its head has been replaced twice and the handle has been replaced five times but it's still in a sense the same axe. And somehow, the patterns of behaviour seem to go on and on.''

For ''Harry'', a first-year student at John's this year, this meant being taught an anthem in his first week there, which included the matchless line, ''at night-time we all go and f--- holes, in the day time we suck on piss''.

For all the reputational damage inflicted this week, the colleges account for only about 3 per cent of the university's student population. Many who dwelt inside those sandstone walls say their years there were overwhelmingly positive. But it's clear, says Student Representative Council president Phoebe Drake, that not every student on campus feels safe - and ''every student should have that right''.

''The hard part at the end of the day is it's students dealing with their peers,'' she says. ''It's the people they live with, who they see in the bathroom and dining hall. It makes it hard to come forward and say 'I have an issue'.''

With police now having been called in to investigate the threats swirling around the St John's student community, she says it's time for the university and colleges to urgently review the complaints procedures available to those in their care. The shell protecting the insular college world has cracked wide open. This time all the king's horses and men might not able to put it back together again.

The story Colleges show flaws in the sandstone first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.

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