Universities are built to be places of critical thought, social reform, and advancement through education. Many have a proud history of challenging social and historical norms, encouraging students and academics to not simply accept things as they are, but to agitate and work towards what we want an ideal society to look like. We have seen this in many of the revolutionary social movements that evolved out of universities and changed societies forever, including the Freedom Rides for Aboriginal justice, the Vietnam War moratorium, and broader movements for feminism and LGBTQI rights at Sydney Uni over the last century.
Unfortunately, such struggles are often accompanied by a backlash, as we have seen in more recent times: incidents of Islamophobia, racist graffiti, religious intolerance, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia on campus are well-documented in these pages and elsewhere. Just a few weeks ago, threats were made against the SRC and individual students by members of an extremist group on social media, simply for providing a forum for discussing topics like religion, capitalism, and American imperialism.
These cases are obviously at odds with the values the university claims to espouse and be founded on, that it is the right of every person, regardless of their origins, to be educated to make a positive contribution to the progression of society. For many students, especially those not personally targeted by such incidents, they might seem like extreme outliers amongst a broader landscape of diversity and acceptance, committed by an angry few. But these acts do not occur in a vacuum.
Consider what we have seen over recent months regarding institutional responses to sexual harassment and assault on campus and in our colleges: a reticence to acknowledge the extent of the problem and take immediate, meaningful action to stamp it out, with a focus on preserving reputations rather than protecting victims. Consider the university’ refusal to publicly endorse marriage equality, or their unwillingness to act on ensuring that trans and intersex students can have the same rights as the rest of us, to be addressed by the name and pronouns they identify with.
We all must take individual responsibility for how we choose to engage with others. But we are also products of the world we live in. We’ve seen it in our parliament: when the people leading us express intolerance, overtly or not, or refuse to call out bigotry for what it is, it is a message that this behaviour is normal and tolerable. Students and staff need to start taking serious steps to ensure that the same effect is not repeated at our universities. We are building the next generation of leaders here, and we want them to lead us forwards, not back.