Addressing sexual assault on campus a collective responsibility: ANU VC Brian Schmidt

Professor Brian Schmidt
31 July 2017

On Tuesday, the results of the largest ever student survey into sexual assault and sexual harassment on universities campuses in Australia will be published. That survey has been run by the Human Rights Commission, commissioned by Universities Australia, but advocated for by our students who want to see real change.

For the first time, we will know the full extent of sexual assault and sexual harassment affecting young people at Australian universities.

The results will be shocking, and we should be shocked. They will tell us an ugly truth about how young people in particular are affected by sexual violence. It is not an issue that we can simply acknowledge, then move onto the next thing. It is an issue that we must deal with.

We know that for survivors and people who have been affected by sexual assault and harassment, the coming weeks will be very traumatic.

The attention being given to this issue on our campus, in the media, through social media and in discussion forums is likely to cause significant distress to survivors and people who have been through the difficult role of supporting survivors. For many who may not have yet told anyone what happened to them, it may be the catalyst for them to disclose their experience.

As a University it is our responsibility to make sure survivors and their supporters know that help is available and there are a number of support services they can access to receive safe and confidential counselling support.

At ANU, we have been working with our student representative groups to ensure we have engaged the right mix of resources on campus and off campus to meet the support and counselling needs of our students.

Two weeks ago, together with our students, we announced an extension of our long running partnership with the Canberra Rape Crisis Centre to ensure that there is a full time specialised rape counselling presence on campus, staffed by male and female counsellors.  

This new agreement supplements existing over the phone and in-person counselling services available to students both at ANU and off-campus.

But effecting real change is more than providing a safe and supportive environment for survivors and their supporters.

It's about addressing the cultural and social issues that prevent students from reporting and disclosing incidents. It's about encouraging bystanders to call out inappropriate behaviour and providing an environment where they feel supported and safe to do so.

It's also about supporting members of our community who intervene when they see or hear sexist and harassing behaviour.

We also have an important role in educating our community about respectful relationships and to help students understand what constitutes consent in a sexual relationship. Understanding consent may seem basic, but it really matters.

More than 2,000 ANU students have completed Consent Matters - a training program that helps young people understand consent and how to recognise situations where consent can and can't be given, whatever their gender or sexuality. This course has been a requirement for all first-year residential students to complete, and we aim to have all our students complete this training, and the sister training program for staff who deal with disclosures of sexual assault and harassment.

I've been asked why we wanted to be part of a survey that is going to tell us things that are not good about our campus. My answer is because it matters, and if we are going to change this we have to understand what our problem is and the full extent of that problem. It is an important step for real change.  It means we do have to become more comfortable with difficult conversations about sex, about consent and about what it means to have respectful relationships with our peers, our classmates, our colleagues and our friends.

It was important that we actively encouraged all students who were randomly selected for the survey to complete it, so that we would have an unvarnished and clear picture of what is happening on campus.

Guided by this data, and by the stories of students who have been subject to sexual harrassment and sexual assault, we can develop even better support services, education, policies and practices to help reduce these incidents.

Education and cultural change are key to preventing and more effectively responding to incidents of sexual assault and harassment on our campus.

Every member of our community has a right and expectation that we will provide an environment for work, study and living that is safe and respectful. They have the right to expect their college-mates, classmates and colleagues will treat them with respect.

Being part of our community means that students, staff and visitors take responsibility for their actions and behaviour.

To survivors and people affected by sexual assault and harassment, your voices and stories guide us to providing the right kinds of support, when you need it and where you need it. You are the catalyst of change.

We must - and we will - work together to help eliminate sexual harassment and sexual assault in our community.

Professor Brian Schmidt is the Vice-Chancellor of the Australian National University.

This comment piece was originally published in the Canberra Times.