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Why University of Sydney vice-chancellor Michael Spence had to act

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Sandwiched between abhorrent college traditions and the social norms of the 21st century, the vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney had to act.

Older than the Australian federation, the colleges that make up the University of Sydney are institutions unto themselves.

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Protected by colonial acts of parliament, the sandstone walls produce prime ministers at the same time as they publicly shame sexual relationships over PA systems, burn gay-pride flags and invade brothels, all in the name of initiation.

While hazing has been a part of college life at many universities such as UNSW and ANU, nowhere has it been more public than at the University of Sydney.

For more than four decades Fairfax Media has reported on the scandals the have engulfed Australia's oldest colleges.

Many hundreds of students have passed through their walls without incident and been enriched by their experience, but many have suffered lasting trauma in silence because of a culture that rewards breaking down the individual in favour of the herd.


In 1977, St Paul's students lauded sexual assault and the humiliation of women. Two decades later students at Wesley were left at The Gap at Watsons Bay, stripped naked and left to find their way back to campus. In 2009, 30 students were suspended when a girl was rushed to hospital after she was forced to drink an alcoholic cocktail for accidentally walking along "the men's gallery".

Guilt by association has dogged vice-chancellor Michael Spence's eight-year tenure at Australia's largest university; many have said the university has not been strong enough in its response.

On Friday, he intends to draw a line in the sand by establishing the joint taskforce and forcing the colleges to the table with a fearsome former sex discrimination commissioner in Elizabeth Broderick, credited with turning around the culture of the Australian defence forces.

In his way stands the rum corps of Macquarie Street, businesspeople, barristers and politicians who fiercely protect college traditions as rites of passage.

As one insider said: "They had youthful high jinks and want their offspring to have youthful high jinks, but of course they had it outside the days of Facebook, party drugs, and camera phones."

Beyond the moral bubble of college culture, Dr Spence also has a budget to protect.

The activities of those colleges that have for more than a hundred years brought in millions of dollars in alumni donations have now threatened a much bigger pie, the reputation of the university in the $600 million international student market.

"When someone is sitting in Singapore reading these stories they see St Andrew's and the University of Sydney as the same institution," a senior source said

For students such as Kendra Murphy, who bravely became the public face of the sexual struggle of college life this week, the international implications of the repeated scandal are from front of mind.

"If I can be the first person to stand up and say, 'this happened', then it might encourage others to stand up, and we can have an army of voices," she said.

If the list of anonymous names in the decades of Fairfax Media coverage is anything to go by, Ms Murphy will be far from the last collegian hoping the taskforce can stand up to the weight of its ambitions.