Dr Jenna Mead is an academic who closely supported the two students in the Ormond College affair. She told Karen Kissane she does not want Helen Garner’s book on the scandal to enter the public record unchallenged.
FOR THREE years now Jenna Mead has warded off mainstream media’s invitations to talk. She does so in a quiet, insistent voice, pleasant but firm. She has often found, when it is a male journalist who has called, that by the end of the exchange he has blurted out, “I thought you’d be such an aggressive bitch, but you’re not like that at all!” “I think they mean it as a compliment,” she says, smiling, wincing. “I tell them I’ll try to take it that way.” The Ormond College affair has left weals on Jenna Mead’s life, too.
Those who see the Ormond case as a witchhunt against Dr Alan Gregory view it as a feminist conspiracy; people looking for an eminence grise tend to point to Jenna Mead. Dr Mead, 42, who now teaches English and women’s studies at La Trobe University, was a tutor at Ormond when the scandal broke. She was one of the first people to whom the students came for advice and was also intimately informed about the college’s thinking on the issue, as she was on the Ormond College council.
Except for an interview in the literary journal RePublica, she has barely told her side of the story until now.
The conspiracy notion, she says, is a complete fantasy. “I was certainly accused of that, from very early on in the piece, and I reject that imputation and accusation as strongly now as I did then.
“Presumably Dr Gregory sought advice. Presumably Ormond council sought advice. I do not see that being in a position of being approached by students for advice, seeking advice yourself and then conveying it, is being a feminist conspirator.
“I mean, what is going on here? How is it that two young women, who are only students, suddenly become hugely powerful larger-than-life figures who can command the resources of conspiracy? Was it really the case that these two young women hopped out of bed one morning and said to each other, `Today we’re going to ruin a man’s career?’ ” In fact, she says, not a shred of organised support was offered to the students by the college of which they were members. “What does this say about the situation of those women as members of a community in which they were supposed to have equal rights?” The Ormond controversy has been reignited by the recent publication of the book The First Stone by the noted writer Helen Garner. In the course of her analysis, Garner criticises the students for their “ghastly punitiveness” and “puritan feminism”.
Garner was shackled in her research for the book by the refusal of the students and their supporters to speak to her. Dr Mead gave Garner an initial telephone interview but broke off contact when she discovered Garner had written Dr Gregory an impassioned letter of support. The women believed the letter showed Garner did not have an open mind.
In Dr Mead’s office, there are copies of other Garner books, Cosmo Cosmolino and The Children’s Bach, in the bookcase behind her desk. As a lecturer in women’s studies, Dr Mead might one day find herself teaching about The First Stone.
Dr Mead appreciates its literary merits but disagrees with its premises and says that as investigative journalism it is partial and inaccurate. “In many ways this book does what Helen Garner’s writing has always done. It’s terrific on dialogue, it’s economical, and it dramatises a social moment. This time it’s a moment of moral panic suffered by the establishment, with whom Helen Garner now seems to want to identify.”
In this case, the establishment is personified by the Ormond College council, to which the young women had complained.
Dr Mead is deeply critical of its response to the events. Some members were sympathetic to the students and troubled by how the issue was handled, Dr Mead says, but they were outvoted. In many ways she sees the dispute as a clash of cultures, a stand-off between older, conservative men and the young women whose presence at Ormond they had never quite come to terms with.
“When I sat on council men outnumbered women by about five to one, so we were almost invisible amid the dark suits of establishment Melbourne,” Dr Mead says. “Our concerns or those of women students barely rated a mention alongside the agenda items or the serious business of making connections. Members of the council addressed the meetings as `Gentlemen’ . . . What I saw on council was an old- fashioned Wasp elite comfortably enjoying its privilege.” Asked whether the establishment closed ranks to protect Dr Gregory, Dr Mead says: “When was the last time the establishment opened ranks?” DR MEAD says she was approached by five female students after the party at Ormond. She was living at the college as a tutor and director of studies for arts students and had been elected by the staff as their representative on the council.
It was not the first time that, as a prominent female fellow of the college, she had been brought stories of harassment. “In my experience of Ormond, it was not only women who were harassed,” she says. “Gay men were harassed, and students who were
racially or ethnically different were also harassed.”
She still believes she made the right judgment about the young women who came to see her and points to the students’ original position as evidence of their integrity. She says they wanted only three things: an acknowledgement that the alleged events had taken place, an apology from Dr Gregory, and procedures put in place to ensure it did not happen again.
“Pretty straightforward, really,” Dr Mead says. “And when you understand that they wanted that done confidentially, not outside the college, not in the law courts, I think that it was a pretty mature response.”
Dr Mead says she was not involved in the decision to go to the police. So why, as Garner keeps asking in her book, did the young women go to the cops? Why could they not handle themselves something that, if it occurred, boiled down to nothing more than a minor grope by an older man at a party? Wouldn’t a slap in the face have taken care of it?
Dr Mead says: “Helen Garner refuses to acknowledge the difference between what she wants to see as a nerdy grope by some `poor bastard’ at a party and a series of actions alleged to have occurred between a man holding a position of various responsibilities that included a duty of care, and two young women who, as students, were dependent on him.
“The master oversees employment and the distribution of scholarships. The provision of bursaries is `in his gift’. The confidential files on students are kept in his office . . . Why would a young woman assault a man on whom she is (so) dependent?” According to Dr Mead, the students went to court because they felt betrayed by Dr Gregory and the college council, which refused to see them as anything other than malicious, trouble-making liars. They wanted their truthfulness to be publicly established. And they chose from the start to pursue their complaints through formal channels rather than with Dr Gregory because harassment is different from other kinds of sexual insult and requires a response from the institution concerned.
Dr Mead says: “One of the things nobody seems to understand about this case is that when you go to the police and make a complaint, the police don’t just say, `Right, for sure, we’ll charge the guy.’ They investigate it thoroughly. In going to the police those young women were invoking a very stringent test of their own veracity. Now the criminal code has the reputation, rightly or wrongly, of not being particularly sympathetic to women. It was a very courageous act.”
As law students, being perceived as liars might have had professional as well as personal significance. How could they become established in a career that requires public probity if questions remained about their truthfulness? Dr Mead is impatient with claims that the young women have been sheltered by anonymity while Dr Gregory has been publicly crucified; in fact, she says, everyone who matters to their lives or their careers knows who they are.
Dr Mead argues that Garner has also failed to grasp that sexual harassment is not just about the alleged offence but the context in which it is committed. For it to qualify as harassment, there must be a professional, economic or institutional relationship between the parties, in which the victim could have been disadvantaged for refusing to tolerate the behavior; harassment procedures are about defining the nature of formal relationships. These were complexities that the Ormond council failed to grasp until too late, she says.
Dr Mead is also critical of the college’s sexual harassment procedures at the time. She had argued when the vice-master was first appointed sexual harassment officer that adequate procedures had not been set up, and that the vice- master did not have the necessary independence to handle complaints.
Dr Mead says the council next took a narrow, legalistic approach to the case to try to make it go away, but this misfired.
“The subcommittee (set up by Ormond council) was not to inquire into the complaints but to formalise them,” Dr Mead says. “They wanted the students to sign their statements so that they became legal documents. Most sexual harassment counsellors will talk about that dividing line between an informal statement, which can be the basis of conciliation, and a formal statement, which becomes a legal document and tends, then, to entrench positions.”
As she sees it, the council’s inability to understand what sexual harassment was led to it mishandling the case at almost every step.
JENNA MEAD came late to feminism. The second wave of the ’70s, which swept up many of her colleagues, left her untouched. As the child of Anglo- Indian migrants, she was more concerned with issues of race, and it was not until the feminism of the ’80s also began to look at the politics of difference ethnicity, class, sexual preference that it started to have meaning
In terms of the Ormond affair, “neither the young women who came to see me, or myself, regarded ourselves as feminist activists in a second-wave sort of way; nor were we moral crusaders,” she says.
“Feminism became important in this matter first as a way of analysing the events that took place. It was not the primary spur to the political activism.”
The case has been a rocky landmark in mainstream Australia’s journey towards the vision of the equal opportunity and sex discrimination laws passed in the ’80s, she says. But there have been big shifts in attitude since it occurred, Dr Mead argues. She points to the Terry Griffiths case in NSW and the new allegations recently made by a student against an Ormond staff member. Accusations were handled differently, she says; complainants were taken seriously and claims were quickly heard by independent conciliators.
She believes The First Stone does little to further the public debate on sexual harassment. “I think what it adds is a very personal view about the matter. The argument’s shaky, there’s no research here in terms of the literature about sexual harassment, there’s no engagement with other debates, no quotation of other cases . . . You couldn’t read the book and find out what sexual harassment is or isn’t. If you compare it to books like Susan Faludi’s Backlash, or Naomi Wolf’s work, or Camille Paglia’s or Katie Roiphe’s, all of a sudden you see that there’s no referencing and no analysis. It’s as though she hasn’t read anything about what feminism means now.”
What concerns Dr Mead most about the book is the possibility that it will deter other women from fighting back. “It would be appalling if all that the last four years had produced the effort, the commitment, the stress, the cost is a situation where nobody pursues a complaint of sexual harassment or abuse because they are afraid to make them. That would be the real tragedy.”
As for what she has learnt from the Ormond College affair Dr Mead pauses and grins. “That people who think that real life is outside universities and not inside universities are wrong.”
The background to the case.
DR ALAN GREGORY, formerly master of Ormond College, was forced to resign after a series of events that sprang from accusations that he had harassed two students at a college party in 1991.
One student alleged he had squeezed her breast while dancing, the other that he had locked the door of his study, made suggestive remarks, and touched her breasts.
Dr Gregory has always strongly denied the claims.
The women complained to the college council. It ultimately found that while the women had acted in good faith, the council maintained “its full confidence in the master”. The students then took their claims to court.
In the first trial, Dr Gregory was found guilty of one count of assault but the verdict was later overturned on the basis of insufficient evidence his oath against hers. In the second trial, he was found not guilty.
At no point were the students or Dr Gregory found to be lying, although one court case resulted in costs being awarded in Dr Gregory’s favor.
After an Equal Opportunity Commission hearing the college published an apology to the young women over its handling of the case, acknowledged they had acted honorably, and made them afinancial settlement.
First published in The Age.