By AMELIA LIM
A panel discussion on the shocking level of sexual violence suffered on campus descended into a verbal brawl between students and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Monash University last Friday.
After students hurled accusations over the university’s handling of the issue, DVC Susan Elliott abruptly left the event, saying she would not be called a liar.
The panel discussion was part of a student campaign, triggered by a Human Rights Commission report released last week that detailed a disturbingly high rate of sexual attacks on students on Australian universities, with more than a quarter of 30,000 uni students surveyed suffering some form of sexual harassment on campus or at university-related events in 2016.
At the event, National Union of Students women’s officer Abby Stapleton said she had raised the issue with the university last year, and had received just “talk about a completely meaningless, baseless module that universities are putting in that would do nothing to eradicate or address the problem”.
Students were being attacked or harassed daily on campus, and Monash was doing nothing about it, she said, addressing Prof Elliott, who is also Monash Vice-President (Education).
“You will acknowledge that there is a problem, but you will not acknowledge that you are 90 per cent of the problem.”
Ms Stapleton said almost none of those responsible for the assaults were kicked out of the university, and that was unacceptable.
As the exchange grew more heated, Prof Elliott said Ms Stapleton’s actions in “screaming” at her were harassment.
Monash had worked hard on the issue for several years, she said, and had established a unit to deal with sexual harassment and assault in 2008, among other actions.
Prof Elliott said almost all cases of sexual misconduct against students were fuelled by drunken behaviour, so banning alcohol at campus-related events or even having gendered dormitories could serve as deterrence.
“I can get rid, probably, of sexual assault on campuses by saying, ‘residents, you can’t live with anyone of the gender to which you are sexually attracted’,” Prof Elliott said.
She said almost every sexual assault reported to the university had occurred “in the setting of excessive alcohol”.
“Clearly we’re not going to take alcohol from you, clearly we aren’t going to take sex from you, it’s one of the best things about being an adult,” she said.
“But how else can we control this behaviour on pub crawls and on student camps unless we agree to a fundamental change in culture, unless we agree that men and women perpetrators completely change how they behave to people in this way,” she said.
“We are working really hard. We are in our ninth year of the safer communities unit, set up for sexual assault and sexual harassment.”
Ms Stapleton responded: “And it has clearly failed students.”
Ms Stapleton also accused Universities Australia (UA), who commissioned the report – Change the course: National Report on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment at Australian Universities 2017 – of taking credit for the work of student activists in the past few years.
“This survey was in existence before UA came into the process so the Hunting Ground Australia Project and the Australian Human Rights Centre had already committed to designing this survey.”
Prof Elliott said that was untrue, that she was at the meeting when UA commissioned the report, and that the university had been involved from the earliest stages.
The meeting descended into chaos after Ms Stapleton claimed the report found “51 per cent of students are harassed at university”. In fact, the report found 26 per cent of students reported incidents at university-related locations and events, while the 51 per cent figure related to the number of students reported being harassed in any setting in 2016.
Prof Elliott corrected Ms Stapleton, but Ms Stapleton accused the professor of not having read the report and repeatedly said she was lying to students.
“I’m not going to be told that I’m lying,” Prof Elliott said, and left.
The university provided responses to a number of questions on this issue on Prof Elliott’s behalf, and these are available on Monash’s Respect. Now. Always. page, which you can find here.
Monash Student Association women’s officer Shreeya Luthra said current laws at the Monash were not clear-cut.
“A few of the methods were outdated but Monash has accepted it and we are currently working on new ones and making sure our staff are trained to advise students, look out for signs as well as telling them where to go (for help),” Ms Luthra said.
“Particularly important are the laws around sexual harassments and assaults, as it was very hard for us as a union to find them so I would imagine it to be even harder for students,” she said.
According to the Monash student handbook, harassment and assault are classified under general misconduct but it does not clearly state what punishment will be meted out for those found guilty.