Brand Management and Sexual Violence on Campus


Words || Angela Heathcote

It’s difficult to understand why a university wouldn’t want a comprehensive response to sexual violence on campus: it ensures the prevention and timely response to incidents, and can offer students additional support for negative experiences they may be confronted with on campus. But when you take a step back and see a university for what it is, it’s much easier to understand the contention between brand management and establishing effective responses to sexual assault and harassment.

In Australia, university education isn’t free. You are a consumer, and what the university offers in education and experiences is the product. When the time comes for prospective students to choose a tertiary institution, the last thing we want, or any consumer wants for that matter, is a faulty product.

Sexual assault and harassment on university campuses is an inconvenient truth for higher education providers. In late 2016 Alison Sandy, the Freedom of Information (FOI) Editor at Seven News, launched one of the biggest FOI requests in the history of journalism that detailed 575 formal reports of sexual misconduct cases in the past five years, of which only only six resulted in an expulsion.

This was an enormous wake-up call for universities around Australia. What Sandy found most revealing was that the approach of many institutions towards sexual misconduct was to “protect the brand”, which she criticises is the opposite of effective brand management.

“By refusing to talk to the media or covering up the information, people think the worst.”

Utilising the old journalism axiom, “it’s not the crime, it’s the cover up”, Sandy explains why such an approach is self-defeating. “I think it all comes down to being open and accountable. By refusing to talk to the media or covering up the information, people think the worst.” But does transparency and the numbers that come with it appeal to prospective students instead?

Not really. A more comprehensive response to sexual violence on campus makes it easier for people to report such incidents, and could potentially inflate the number of cases. So while it may look as if one university has few incidents of sexual assault or harassment this may be due to a lack of policy, while another university with a staggering number of incidents may be a sign of effective, easily accessible resources. For this reason, Sandy says that brand management can play a part in this process, but she imagines it being starkly different to its current role.

“We always go to the university and get comments in context of the information that we’ve received. They can say, “this is just because we have a proactive policy in place and there’s a streamlined, public procedure so victims now know where to go.” She says that this is the way forward.

What seems like an obvious solution still leaves behind a tired framework that will be difficult to deconstruct.

As recently as late 2016, Macquarie University’s SRC were offered risk and brand management training by the University before being offered any kind of training in the prevention of sexual assault and harassment. Given that the Committee hosts many of the social functions on campus, it seems like sexual harassment training should be a priority for the student representatives.

The meeting between Macquarie media and marketing and the student representative committee was prompted by many SRC members being approached by ABC reporters to comment on ‘Village Party Central’ – a Facebook group emulating the frat culture seen across US college campuses. The story was picked up by major news organisations merely a day after the University had screened The Hunting Ground on campus to usher in the Respect.Now.Always project, aimed at preventing sexual violence on the Macquarie campus.

Thanks to pressure from students and the Respect.Now.Always campaign, Macquarie is heading in the right direction in comparison to the major blunders of other universities, who are yet to take even baby steps towards preventing sexual violence on campus.

As we near the release of the results of the Human Rights Commission’s survey into sexual assault and harassment on university campuses, Macquarie is hosting a number of consultative events as part of the Respect.Now.Always. campaign. See below for details.

A Macquarie University Student Meeting is being held by Equity and Diversity and members of the Chancellery regarding sexual assault and harassment. This is in response to the upcoming release of survey results regarding sexual assault on campus. It will be held during O-Week on July 26th at E6B 149 from 12PM – 1:30PM.