In 2015, a male ANU student sexually assaulted a female ANU student outside an event run by the ANU. The response to this incident, both immediately and in the longer term, by peers, the perpetrator and university administration, was disappointing and lacking in empathy and effectiveness. Repeated efforts to bring this story to the attention of the University were stifled and aggressively reframed by senior (and continuing) ANU staff members.
This story has played out a thousand times in any number of configurations; female students are assaulted and subsequently ignored or silenced with disgusting and depressing regularity at Australia’s Number 1 Ranked University. The discrepancy between the University’s public remarks and their documented responses reveals the University to be an irresponsible agent acting with a veil of feigned ignorance. Protecting the welfare of rapists is seemingly their priority.
The response of the University to 2017’s Human Rights Commission (HRC) Report almost had a tone of surprise and indignation – “This report gives us, for the first time, a real understanding of how sexual harassment and sexual assault affect university students. It is difficult reading. […] We should all be shocked.” If Nobel Laureate Brian Schmidt (AC, FRS, FAA), was shocked, it was in spite of the continued efforts of ANU students who attempted to bring the frequency of these incidents to the eye of the public. For every story that reaches the collective consciousness such as the incredible and continuing efforts of Codie Bell, the University brushed aside countless other opportunities to effect any degree of meaningful social change on campus.
From 2014 to 2016, I was the photographer and one of the interviewers for the Faces of the Australian National University Facebook page. Transparently inspired by the extremely popular Humans of New York, Faces of ANU held a niche as a student-run, staff-overseen snapshot into ANU life. Stories had to be okayed by staff, but were short, often irreverent to the activities of the usual intelligentsia, and in 2015, was reaching an increasingly larger cohort of the student population. It was in this climate that we decided to start work on an interview and profile of a survivor of on-campus sexual assault.
As this was before the publicity of the HRC Report, the problem of campus sexual assault was simmering in the undercurrent of student discussion. Most students knew a survivor, and many likely knew a perpetrator. While the toxic culture had been reported at various levels of exposure – from national surveys detailing its prevalence to Woroni articles highlighting the mismanagement of sexual harassment allegations – any efforts to gather valuable information or effect useful change had thus far been shelved by Australia’s top universities, at least partly “based on perception of reputational risk” as per the words of Dr. Damian Powell of the University of Melbourne.
Our feature was to be an attempt to broadcast a survivor’s story through an ANU-sponsored publication with a broad readership. A completely anonymised few-hundred-or-so words stripped of all identifiable details, the survivor’s story talked of the emotional impact of the on-campus incident, victim-blaming rhetoric present on posters and avoiding certain parts of the university to ensure she didn’t see her rapist. She felt that telling her story could be valuable for her and for others – “perhaps the only good that may come out of my experience is to raise awareness around the University.” This story was a vehicle through which a survivor could take her power back.
As the article went through the vetting process, it reached the desk of a senior ANU staff member who had never previously interacted with Faces of ANU. I received a request to meet from this extremely male collection of Directors-of and Senior Administrators; in recognition of the fact that two men were meeting to discuss a woman’s assault, I asked a female colleague to accompany me. The staff member’s (henceforth referred to as Rugen) immediate reaction was to ask my colleague to leave so that he could speak to me directly. He asked to reframe the article in line with a sanitized ANU Reporter piece which did not mention an incident or response, and responded to my claim that “we both know that sexual assault is a huge problem on campus” with “we’ll have to see the statistics before saying anything like that”. The meeting ended with a direction to hold off on publishing the piece.
In the following weeks, I received multiple requests for the survivor to speak with Rugen, ANU Counselling, ANU Reporter and other senior staff members about her experience, disrespecting her desire for anonymity. Conversely, although it was established that the perpetrator was known to the survivor, Rugen did not request information about a rapist that was still (and is still) a member of the student body, demonstrating a massive disregard for the safety of students. Rugen repeatedly established that the piece would not be published on Faces of ANU, and eventually by way of inadequate compromise we were permitted to publish a series during White Ribbon Day. This was a three-profile series, which included a male student’s (not a survivor) perspective, a male staff member’s (not a survivor) perspective and a piece from a member of the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre. The final series score was 0-3 towards our goal of telling a survivor’s story – we were swept in the first round.
In 2017, I approached a journalist with the intention of reporting and publicizing the aforementioned events. A series of events led to a separate senior staff member – henceforth referred to as Jesse – requesting a sit-down meeting with me. In carefully chosen and considered language, Jesse asked me to refrain from publishing the piece, established that “there may be consequences, ranging from a brief chat to a much more serious chat” if the piece were to come out, and that dealing with any fallout from the piece would be a distraction that would impede her from doing her job in helping students. Jesse and Rugen continue to be employed by the university, secure in their positions of not helping students.
The response of the ANU to the numerous allegations brought forward by students betray a focus on maintaining the university’s reputation above student welfare. When faced with an opportunity to confront a problem head-on, perhaps leading the way for other Australian Universities to address the growing issue, they chose to make a business decision rather than stand behind their students. In this context, the eventual response to the Human Rights Commission report was profoundly lacking. The Australian National University, via ineffectual and cowardly agents, let down a survivor trying to effect change. Again.
Woroni is committed to standing with survivors of sexual harassment and assault. If you or someone you know has been affected by this piece, please reach out to the support services below.
Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, Crisis Line
(02) 6247 2525
This is an over the phone counselling service. It is open from 7am to 11pm, seven days a week. You can also use this number for counselling related inquiries or to book face-to-face appointments with Canberra Rape Crisis Centre, including on ANU Campus. All services are free of charge. You do not need a medicare card to access this service. They will not tell the police or the university that they have spoken with you. Canberra Rape Crisis Centre can also provide advocacy support if you choose to formally report an incident to the police or the university.
(02) 6125 2442
This is the phone number to book an appointment with ANU Counselling. You can book a standard appointment (50 mins) anytime. To book an on the day appointment for urgent help (25 mins) call at 9am or go into the Counselling Centre just before 9am, as these appointments are first in first served. You can receive 6 free sessions per semester. You do not need a medicare card to access this service, but you must be an ANU student. They will not tell the police or the university that they have spoken with you.
1800 737 732
This is over the phone counselling and it is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. They can also refer you to local services. It is free of charge. 1800 RESPECT has a triage system, so the first person you speak to is not a counsellor. We recommend that you request to be put through to a counsellor straight away.
ANU Women’s Department
Contact the Women’s Officer, Laura Perkov:
The Women’s Department is part of ANUSA, and it advocates for and supports all ANU Women and non-binary students. As Women’s Officer, Laura can provide pastoral care, referrals to local support services, and give information about options for reporting within ANU and the support ANU can offer.
ANU Queer* Department
Contact the Queer* Officer, Matthew Mottola:
The Queer* Department is part of ANUSA, and it advocates for and supports all Queer* identifying students. Matthew can provide pastoral care, referrals to local support services, and give information about options for reporting within ANU and the support ANU can offer.