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Fix St John’s: How Roslyn Arnold got the church, state and university involved

/ Nov 09, 2012 8:19AM / Print / ()

Roslyn Arnold was told she was "overreacting" when she urged the board of St John's College to consider reform in order to overhaul its dysfunctional culture.

Arnold, an honorary professor at the University of Sydney who sat on the board of St John's College for more than a decade, resigned in disgust earlier this year, when a young woman nearly died during an initiation ritual. The men involved in the incident – in which a first-year student was forced to drink a toxic cocktail – are all members of the college council. Without intervention from the board or the university, these men are virtually responsible for their own punishment, but not for their actions.

That's why Arnold decided to resign, and go public with her concerns. In a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald on Wednesday, Arnold argued the case for an urgent culture change at the college. She was nervous in the days before the article was published, not knowing what the consequences might be. But the situation at St John's compelled her to break the confidentiality of board proceedings to tell her story. Her belief in good governance and respect for proper leadership motivated her to confront the board of St John's – a board of 18 with just three women.

Arnold's voice is steady as she tells Women's Agenda about the day she resigned.

"I'd been saying for a long time 'We've got to reform. We've got to reform' but when I realised there was just no concern expressed about what happened to that young woman, it just tipped me into thinking, 'I can't do this anymore'," she says.

"So I stayed on the board long enough to put forward a motion for a review. When I confronted them, there was dead silence. I sat down, briefly, and looked around. Somebody looked at me and said 'You're overreacting, you know'."

Arnold does not believe a man in her position would have been accused of overreacting.

"That would not have been said to a man who came forward," she says. "To say that is patronising and demeaning. It's an attempt to diminish your standing. When I left that meeting, I felt so contaminated by the process that I tried to think what to do next."

Arnold says her previous calls for reform at the college were met with incredulity or silence. On the day she resigned, she and a colleague presented a paper on the subject of good governance and leadership. She says she recently looked back through email correspondence in which she implored people to change the way St John's operated, for the safety and dignity of its residents. She says the chair of the council signed off on her resignation before had a chance to formally submit it.

A few weeks ago Arnold was contacted by a journalist, and made the decision to go public with her long-held concerns about the behaviour of adults living at St John's.

Now she has a very powerful triumvirate of supporters to carry on the cause. Sydney University vice-chancellor Dr Michael Spence, Cardinal George Pell and NSW Premier Barry O'Farrell have joined her campaign for drastic change. It's a triumph for Arnold.

"It doesn't get much stronger than the church, the state and the university being aligned, and committed to a certain direction," she says. "They have to ask themselves whether students should come back next year, and whether they need to appoint a whole new board. They need to be clear about what they want to do, right down to the detail of whether student clubs should have any disciplinary authority at all."

One of the things that most troubles Arnold is how fiercely St John's board members wish to protect the reputations of their students. Centuries-old laws allow religious colleges on the campus of Sydney University to own land and govern themselves, which is why they're not accountable to the same moral standards as the rest of the university.

"These fellows at St John's are so worried about the boys suffering damage to their reputations for their own behaviour, because it will stay on their CV forever if they're expelled. What do they think will happen in the real world? They're sitting there, deluded about their reputations.

"They must know that if you trash St John's, you forego your own reputation. They have an investment in maintaining a good reputation because it's linked to their own."

Arnold's aware she's played her part in affecting much-needed change at St John's College. All she asks now is that the next generation keeps fighting.

"I'm an educator, and I love empowering people," she says.

"We've never been in such a position to effect positive change, and I'll be thrilled to see it happen."

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