Yesterday was a tough day for students, staff and all those involved in Australia’s higher education sector. The Australian Human Rights Commission released the much-awaited results of the national university survey on sexual assault and sexual harassment, which was commissioned collectively by Australia’s 39 universities.

Sexual harassment and assault on university campuses is not unique to Australia. It is a global problem, which, though not limited to universities, is particularly accentuated on campuses, which represent an unusually high concentration of the most common victim group in the broader society. Australian universities have commendably taken the lead in finding the facts about this problem by commissioning what is by far the largest and the only national survey of this nature in the world.

As expected, the findings paint a disturbing picture of harassment and assault across our campuses. Some universities fair better than others, but there are no winners here because even one case of harassment or assault is one too many. The figures have been posted on the websites of all universities and elsewhere for all to see. Much has been written and said by many, including yours truly, about the results since yesterday. So, what more could I add? Please allow me to try.

Of all the statistics in the report, the ones that keep jumping out at me are that among the survey respondents who stated being harassed, only one per cent at UC and four per cent nationally sought support and assistance from their university after the most recent incident. Further, 60 per cent of those who reported being harassed or assaulted had little or no knowledge of where to go within the university to make a complaint, and around half didn’t know where to seek support or assistance.

There are multiple ways to interpret these unacceptably high numbers but, for me, they keep conjuring up the words of one of my favorite inspirational speakers, Benjamin Zander:

“Who am I being that your eyes are not shining?”

Let me take some liberty with Zander’s words to rephrase the question in the present context, “Who am I not being that your eyes are not shining?”

Who – as a university administrator – am I not being for my own students that such a high percentage of them are not making me aware of one of the most offensive experiences they are likely to have experienced during their studies under my watch?

Sexual and interpersonal violence have no place at our University. Here at UC, we all have the right to a respectful and supportive environment where we can study, work and live safely. It’s up to all of us to make sure we work together to keep our University and our community safe.

The report shows that there is work to do and the results will help us inform how we can work harder to improve our education programs, our support services, policies and practices.

To the students that took part in this survey- thank you. Your personal stories will guide us in stepping up our efforts to prevent and address sexual harassment and assault in our community.

Knowing and confronting the facts about an ugly problem is the first and essential step towards fixing it and we have a series of initiatives already in place to prevent sexual harassment and assault, and to support those who have been affected. However, please don’t automatically assume that I know it all, or should know it.

As we now get down to the complex work of figuring out how to eliminate the scourge of sexual harassment and assault on our campuses – and in turn lead a change in the broader society – let me begin by urging you to tell me what it is that I must do to make you feel comfortable about reporting sexual harassment or assault to the university?

Sexual harassment is never ok and it is up to all of us to make sure we work together to keep our University safe.

I welcome your feedback and/or suggestions by emailing ovc@canberra.edu.au

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