Last week, I attended the University Colleges Australia conference in Sydney. One of the workshops I was involved in as a panel member was called Guiding a course of Responsibility and Respect in a context of Risk, Regulation and Renewal. We explored how we lead our student communities to take responsibility for their own behaviour, respect themselves and respect others while at the same time acknowledging that young adults can make mistakes and have errors of judgement along the way. As the leader of a small community of young people, sometimes it feels like the media and other adults are looking for a headline when viewing the behaviour of young people. Why don’t the media report inspiring stories about the young people that we know? Easy. They don’t sell. Sensation sells, and in an era of Risk and Regulation, the heart of my work, my students, become the institution’s greatest joy and the greatest risk in one fell swoop.
I told the audience the story of a group of rural young men at a college I led in the early 2000s. One drunken night, the young men had come together in one of their bedrooms and started chanting very inappropriate, sexist and sexual chants. The language of the chants objectified any woman as a sexual object for their use and the misogyny within the chants was breathtakingly awful. When reported, a couple of brave young women also gave me a tape-recording of the chants they had heard the night before. They wanted me to act.
As I listened to the tape recording of the words, I couldn’t believe my ears. The young men who had been reported as the voices in the recording had always struck me as decent, respectful young men. I carefully wrote out the words that I heard, then made several copies to take into a meeting with them that I had arranged. They looked surprised when I handed out the words to the chants from the night before. They also looked worried when I asked them to sit down. ‘Now,’ I said. ‘Last night, you were chanting these words with real enthusiasm. I want you to imagine your families here listening, especially your mother, your grandmothers, your aunts and your sisters, and say the words with the same gusto!’ I then started reading the words with them. One by one, each young man crumpled and fell into sobs. One by one, each stopped chanting. I let them cry in silence for a while. I then told them that I had notified each of their families that they were suspended for a week. They were then to return and apologise to the student body. They did these things. I had no other reports of the chants happening again.
Many years later, I ran into one of them. He greeted me with an open smile and reminded me of this incident. He told me that, in his workplace, he had seen men lose their jobs for sexist/misogynistic behaviour, and that without this experience in his life, he may well have wound up in the same boat. He thanked me for taking the time to discipline them with hope that they could learn from the experience and change their behaviour rather than just booting them out of the college as a punitive measure.
Rules and regulations and mitigating risks are essential to the running of any institution. I have to ensure every day that all of the best processes are in place, that everyone I lead is safe and secure. However, I have to regularly remind myself, too, that I am leading young people, people who make mistakes and need to learn from them. It is a tricky balance every day to hold the rules on one hand, and believe in the human power to change in the other.
St Hilda's College is a living community and residential college on campus at the University of Melbourne.
We acknowledge and pay respect to the Wurrundjeri people of the Kulin Nation, the Traditional Owners of the land upon which our college is situated. We pay our respect to all the Elders of Indigenous students who call St Hilda’s home. We also acknowledge all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander members of our community, the University of Melbourne, and the wider world.