St John's College

"Verging on criminal" ... the goings-on at St John's College.

When I was approached this week to speak about my reasons for resigning from St John's College council my initial feelings were fear and uncertainty. Probably much the same feelings that any first-year student would have when asked to take part in any of the initiation rituals at Australia's oldest Catholic college.

I became a member of the college council after it enrolled women for the first time about 11 years ago. There have only ever been a maximum of three women on the council of 18 fellows. I was asked to join it after I did a consultancy on the feasibility of bringing women into the college in 2001. But I resigned in disgust from the St John's executive earlier this year because I was ashamed to belong to such a group.

I was told by my fellow council members that I was ''over-reacting''.

But I have been involved in universities for 40 years and I've never seen anything like the offences taking place at St John's that are verging on the criminal.

I respect the principles of good governance, and one such principle is respect for the confidentiality of board proceedings. For a while I resisted breaking the confidentiality of the board. I questioned myself, is this a resistance worth listening to? Not when confidentiality masks criminality - as I believe it did when a teenage girl was left in hospital after an initiation gone wrong. Not when people continue to suffer because silence is serving a malevolent cause. Satisfied on all counts and mindful of the effects of an insider story, I agreed to speak out again this week.

I would urge you not to send your children to St John's until we see cultural change at this once great college.

Leadership and governance are key themes in modern corporate and institutional life. We urge organisations to articulate their values and stand up for them. What does it really mean to do that at an age-old institution like St John's? How can we educate young people in particular so they are well prepared to take a stand when something is wrong? Leadership is about a commitment to enhancing society and doing difficult things. Surely all the leaders who are alumni of St John's know that.

When you speak out - as I am doing and as some students of St John's are doing now - you take a stand and face possible ostracism, ridicule and worse. But it is time to break the silence about what is going on within the ''hallowed'' walls of this 150-year-old institution. Whistleblowers may be victimised, but they will survive if a critical mass of good people come forward and pledge support. When you first speak up there may be a vacuum before support is mobilised, but in good societies, good people find and affirm their own.

In whatever sphere of influence you function, part of the price of being a truly good leader is speaking out. From the number of people who have contacted me telling me their own college initiation humiliations I know speaking out is the right thing to do. They now feel that their unpleasant stories are no longer a lost cause. They can tell their stories - of cruelty and ritual debasement along with betrayal of trust in institutions - and stand up and say that was wrong. Sure, college initiation has been around for decades, and sometimes in retrospect former students have felt complicit in their own humiliation. They wonder why, and - with the benefit of maturity - how they could have made things different and better. They can't see a way forward unless someone takes a stand and says this is wrong.

I am seizing an opportunity to influence societal change to try to end the cruelty that's taken place at this University of Sydney college. I have learnt from a fitness training regime that often I don't feel like training but I do it anyway, and then it gets easier. That's what leadership is about too: you train for the tough calls in life. Sometimes you will feel you have no alternative but to get on your feet, find your voice and speak quietly but insistently. Then, unexpectedly, an orchestra of good people begin to sing your tune. It's time for the good people of St John's to join the leadership chorus.

Roslyn Arnold is an education consultant and an honorary professor at the University of Sydney.