Our unis need to stamp out sexual assault. This is what the ADF can teach them.

Australian universities can learn a lot from the Australian Defence Force — and not just how to apply the Art of War to the boardroom.

Like the ADF, the universities are about to have to deal with the fallout of damning results of a report by the Human Rights Commission (HRC). Similar to the ADF, the universities also had ample warning of the cultural issues that allowed the abuse to occur and failed to heed the warnings. They will now be faced with impending furore and media frenzy. But with great challenges comes great opportunity.

Even before the results of the HRC survey of 39,000 students into instances of sexual harassment on campuses are released, it has already caused quite the stir. There have been allegations of everything from unconscionable research to the ethics of ‘mining students for stories’.

Watch: There’s a stark difference in how men and women ‘avoid’ sexual violence on a daily basis:

Video by MWN

When the HRC said they weren’t going to publicly release the data on individual universities, it was met with uproar. “How dare these institutions shelter behind a commission to protect their funding,” we surmised.


But let’s be brutal here: sexual assault and sexual abuse within institutions isn’t a new thing. In fact, some may say it’s rife. Even with the best intentions, it will never be stamped out. But what we can all do in every community is make it easier for the people impacted to come forward and be supported through the process.

I’ve been working with survivors of sexual assault, rape and abuse for many years now. As a lawyer who specialises in assisting survivors to gain access to justice, I have heard some pretty gut-wrenching and alarming stories of failure in management that allowed the abuse to occur. But there are many things I have been fortunate enough to learn from survivors of abuse – and one is courage. Courage to stand up and be heard. Courage to challenge the institution itself. Courage to bare all and disclose intimate details aware of the risk that it could become public, and the courage to face being judged.

Sydney University (image:istock)

The last time the HRC undertook a commission to research and address victims of sexual abuse was with the Australian Defence Force. The Commission made a series of recommendations as part of that research and as a result, the ADF was able to start effecting change within that particular institution. But there are many more institutions, and there is much more work to be done.

In my experience working with survivors, there are four things survivors want from the process: acknowledgement, apology, assurance and assistance. They don’t see themselves as the problem, but indeed part of the solution.

I believe it is the universities who have the greatest capacity to influence change, even much more than the ADF does. I think the ADF have done an admirable job at addressing the wrongs of their past and creating a stronger, safer institution in the process.

You see, it’s the universities who are themselves already catalysts for change. They are the precise institution which in itself lives by the values of lifelong learning, embracing challenges and growth. They have a momentous opportunity that has been presented to them. They have the opportunity to lead the change in how institutions and society acknowledge the issues, address them, and work together with the survivors to deal with sexual harassment and assault.


Listen: This CEO has a sexual harassment claim against her. (Post continues after audio.)

All 39 of the universities who participated in the research have now committed to individually releasing their own data mid this year. And that’s something I think they should be commended for because, at the very least, it indicates a sure-footed step in the right direction. What is also a very good sign is the way the universities are putting aside their differences to forge a unified front in confronting the cultural change that is necessary to reduce the risk of assaults occurring and increasing the level of support for those that survive abuse.

As someone who has been close to hundreds of these survivors through my work, I have this to say to the universities: don’t be scared of the stories which will come out, and don’t hide behind what has happened. The only way we as a society can ever bring about meaningful change is by understanding the failures of the past, acknowledging the wrongs that occurred, and tackling the issues head on.

The Australian Defence Force has been able to learn from the institutional failures of its past and they have grown and developed their practices and policies as a result. They are now stronger for it. The ADF have gone to considerable lengths to thank survivors for speaking up. They have met survivors with compassion, rather than resentment. Just the same way that they have owned the heroics on which the ADF has been forged they have also owned its failures of management in protecting and supporting survivors of abuse and the organisation is stronger for it.


Australian universities now have their opportunity to be global leaders in creating the best practice for how academic institutions around the world should deal with sexual harassment and assault claims.

Let’s hope they are up to the challenge.

If you, or anyone you know, are experiencing sexual violence, Mamamia urges you to call 1800 RESPECT.

Adair Donaldson is an ambassador for the Full Stop Foundation and managing partner of Donaldson Law, which help survivors of abuse to seek justice and bring about institutional change.

Adair has represented hundreds of survivors subjected to abuse within institutions such as the Australian Defence Force, religious institutions and schools. After twenty years’ experience in the law, Adair founded Donaldson Law to focus on a non-adversarial approach to achieving holistic legal solutions for his clients following a growing realisation that aggressive litigation was not serving his clients best.