Social climate bureaucracy is not the way to improve behaviour on campus

Compulsory modules on good conduct risk causing more problems than they solve, says Binoy Kampmark

October 19, 2021
A person ticking boxes
Source: iStock

Australia is a country big on online university modules that instruct staff and students to behave in certain ways.

Students are required to undertake them before starting their undergraduate courses. Staff are prevailed on to endure them if they are to engage in teaching or research. Even for senior managers, resistance is futile.

Nor is Australia unique. Writing about student and staff activism at the University of California, Berkeley, Neil Gilbert, Milton and Gertrude Chernin professor of social welfare and social services at the institution, observes that recent decades have seen the creation of a “social climate bureaucracy” rooted in the idea that the academy is a “dangerous environment” requiring numerous mitigations and safe spaces.

Australia’s own contribution to this bureaucracy began with Universities Australia’s Respect. Now. Always campaign. When it was announced in 2016, it was seen as a daring, pioneering initiative, a “world-first, sector-wide program” that aimed to “prevent sexual violence in university communities and improve how universities respond to and support those who have been affected”.

Meanwhile, the Guidelines for University Responses to Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment, published in 2018 by Universities Australia, are filled with frothy aspiration, proclaiming that universities should “be guided by the principles of compassion, providing support and assistance, protecting confidentiality and privacy, cultural competency and natural justice”. Staff with roles dealing with students must “have the skills to respond to disclosures and reports of sexual assault and sexual harassment with compassion and care”.

Indeed they must. Responding to something as serious as sexual assault in a university environment, as in any other, should be a matter of grave seriousness. Reports, complaints and investigations should be pursued with terrier-like vigilance, as should standards of natural justice and procedural fairness. And calls to address current and past failings are not without merit; as Gilbert notes, measures to improve a university’s social climate can be an “estimable objective in the abstract”. But his research also found troubling conflations: an unwanted kiss or unwanted proximity in dancing, for instance, was too easily linked to rape, inflating assault numbers while diluting “the meaning of sexual violence”.

It is very good to instil in the student and teaching body some measure of good conduct, but not at the expense of tying people up in yet more institutional red tape that, in reality, creates more problems than it solves. The process, as things stand, has been farmed out and bureaucratised, delivered in sessions that almost seem to make a point of ignoring the specific nature of the studying, research or learning process. Hence, they are more likely to alienate attendees than to enlighten them.

The Respect initiative has become part of a broader campaign that has flooded Australian universities with sessions of contrived self-reflection, scolding and faux training. Monash University, for instance, has developed “a bystander action seminar”, which enables participants to “learn how to intervene and support others who are experiencing sexist behaviour”. And a “peer-led program for first year students” called Sexpectations has several learning objectives related to “fostering a culture of inclusion and respect”, knowing sexual rights and “engaging in safer sex practices”. For students living on campus, the session is mandatory.

The University of the Sunshine Coast (USC) also warns students that completing its Respect module is mandatory. “Completing your modules before classes begin will set you up for success in your studies so you can apply the learnings throughout the semester,” it says. But “you’ll notice a hold on your account in USC Central and you won’t be able to access your final grades or unofficial transcript until you successfully complete the module.”

Similar heavy-handedness has recently been resorted to by another Australian university heavy with administrative parasitism. For reasons that should be clear to the reader, naming names might lead to the sort of nasty retribution that has become second nature to such freethinking institutions. Suffice to say that wailing emails were circulated at the end of September telling academics supervising students that they had to complete a two-part course on “respectful relationships”, comprising a “self-directed online module” and a two-hour webinar.

The webinar would be held at the busiest time of semester: the final week of classes. But anyone who regarded themselves as having better things to do than attend will not be allowed to supervise students next year. Forget their experience of having seen any number of students to completion of higher research degrees with every measure of respect imaginable. Completing the module is what counts.

Australian institutions are also seeing the march of social climate bureaucracy encroaching on the process of learning itself. Courses have been targeted at the University of Melbourne for containing material with “transphobic rhetoric”, while the university itself has in train a draft “gender affirmation policy” that limits speeches and events that supposedly attack gender diversity. Melbourne philosophy academic Holly Lawford-Smith argues, with some persuasiveness, that there has been much “exaggeration or concept creep around what it means to be harmed or to be…‘safe’ on campus”, which has come to mean “not having your ideas challenged”.

The bureaucratisation of respect training has even displaced the maturity of learning itself. Substance is abandoned in favour of the multiple-choice quiz, as if complex human relationships can be managed via modules and clicks. This is ludicrous – and it shows no respect for those obliged to take such courses.

Binoy Kampmark is a senior lecturer in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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Reader's comments (2)

Thanks for this. I'm concerned that social-process is swamping content worldwide. It's become more important to young people, via what may for the sake of brevity be called soft socially-correct priorities throughout schooling, than to explore & study the technical & scientific material humanity must use to save itself. Eleven days before the commencement of #COP26Glasgow we even have governments - like Australia's not surprisingly - who sincerely believe Cat 5 storms, millennial floods, 60 degree summer days, dying oceans, desertified land and air pumped with 50 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide every year are, by and large, matters of opinion. And will defend to the death our right to speak freely on such matters & incite hatred and killings. You could say this is not a rosy picture for human society. Or life on earth. ..needs work. What we contrive or conspire to teach throughout schooling is critical. Which is tough to even get people talking about with the powerful inhibitions and sanctions - backed up with violence - surrounding frankly insane religious beliefs & superstitions mainstreamed & turbo-charged since the Trump atrocity. "Oh, he'll be back!" 500m young-&-dumbs cheerfully say. John, South Australia, Twitter @wired_we
People's unsocial behaviour should not be forced upon other students and staff, there should be basic levels of behaviour all students and staff should meet, if they can't agree to that then they should not be attending uni imo. Can't really see why this is a problem though I agree courses in behaviour can be problematical, so why not just get students to sign up to an agreed student charter at the start of the course and apply it consistently?

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