Friday 28 June 2019 2:55pm
Knox College is working to address concerns about student safety and wellbeing, writes Knox College master Graham Redding.
Knox College has been in the news recently.
For all the wrong reasons.
It began with four former Knox residents alleging that sexual assaults occurred during their period of residency, and that complaints were poorly handled by college management and went undisciplined. Moreover, the culture at Knox at the time, it was alleged, was not conducive to sexual assaults being reported.
As local and national media outlets ran with the story and people started reacting to it on social media, Knox seemed to become synonymous with the phrase “rape culture”.
Even when articles focused on the broader issue of sexual violence in the tertiary sector, the articles were accompanied by a photo of Knox College. Sometimes the photo would be darkened to convey the impression of a dark, sinister institution.
When the allegations were first reported, I advised our current residents not to get defensive about Knox or try to correct perceived inaccuracies in the reporting or downplay the significance of the allegations.
Because the experiences of those women will resonate with the experiences of many, many women across many institutions around the world, including other residential colleges, not just Knox. Local and international research tells us that is the case.
My position has not changed. The issue of sexual violence in institutions across all sectors of society is only too real, and must be addressed.
To that end, I am proud that Knox College is affiliated to a University that is taking such a strong lead, especially through the establishment of Te Whare Tāwharau, a Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Centre, and the formulation of a new Sexual Misconduct Policy.
I am also proud that Knox College is owned by a church organisation (Presbyterian) that takes sexual assault allegations seriously, and has set up a process by which complainants can come forward at the Church’s expense to explore their options with an independent Dunedin-based law firm.
I have been gratified by many messages of support from residents, past and present, and their parents during this period of intense media scrutiny. The general tenor of those messages has been to say, without wanting to denigrate the views of those who have criticised Knox, that their own experience of living here has been entirely different.
They speak of a vibrant and inclusive college culture, of the high priority given to student safety, of the responsive system of pastoral care, and of the seriousness with which student concerns are taken.
Which begs the question: Who is right? Where does the truth lie?
Whilst anecdotal evidence is an important part of truth-telling, truth is more than the accumulation of personal stories, and anecdotal evidence is not immune from bias, distortion and error. Although it can paint a picture, it should not be relied upon to give a definitive picture.
That is why, in a University setting, we talk about the importance of evidence-based research, of which annual student surveys play an important part, especially in regard to describing the culture of an organisation.
So what do this year’s surveys (completed anonymously) tell us about the culture at Knox, as experienced by our current cohort of students?
One survey, conducted at the end of Orientation Week, asked our residents: At any stage were you (a) pressured to drink more alcohol than you were comfortable with, or (b) made to feel unsafe?
91 per cent of this year’s respondents answered no to the alcohol-related question, and 98 per cent of respondents answered no to the safety-related question. Nobody said they felt unsafe at the hands of a fellow resident.
An independent and more comprehensive survey, conducted in May, asked students to rate their experience from 1 (excellent) to 5 (poor) across nine categories of college life. The lower the rating, the better the result.
In the categories of Safety and Security, and Welfare and Wellbeing, two areas of relevance given recent media attention, the average scores were 1.46 and 1.65, with 72 per cent of respondents giving Safety and Security the highest rating of 1 (excellent).
A big tick, then, for student safety and wellbeing from our current cohort of students.
But that does not mean we can rest on our laurels, or that Knox is immune from the risk of sexual violence.
No institution is.
In recent years, winds of change have been blowing though Knox College.
Traditions that once seemed benign or harmless fun within the context of their times, but are now regarded as demeaning, offensive and hurtful, have been, and are, subject to review.
Also reviewed have been our Residents’ Handbook (which outlines behavioural expectations), procedures for responding to student concerns, and our residential leader training programme.
Finally, we have launched several initiatives, including a bystander workshop run by Te Whare Tāwharau with our returning residents, who were encouraged to draw on their experience in considering how potential sexual harm in the college might be minimised and the safety of residents strengthened.
All these things combine to paint a picture of an institution that is responding to the winds of change not by hunkering down and waiting for the winds to abate, but rather by trimming its sails.