From 2002-06 I had the pleasure of studying at Otago University. I also taught there in various roles as a researcher, tutor and fill-in lecturer for the Theology, Philosophy and Law schools. Otago was an intellectually rigorous and stimulating place; it’s reputation for being the one of the best Universities in New Zealand and the best in my own fields of Philosophy and Theology is well deserved.
One thing I discovered first hand, however, was the darker side of the student culture, particularly from undergraduates. At Otago my wife and I dared speak out against some of the actions and stances promoted by the Otago University Students Association (OUSA). The reprisal was merciless.
At the time Madeleine was battling obesity (a medical condition she has since overcome having lost around 55kg), the student newspaper, Critic (a subsidiary company of OUSA), found a link to her weight-loss support site that showed progress-pictures of her weight-loss (despite her name never featuring on it) and encouraged students to visit the site and laugh at her. They published pictures of fat women eating hamburgers on their website and said it was her and regularly permitted comments about her allegedly stuffing her face to be published.
Critic also published false comments about my wife flashing her “bush” in public. It also published discussions of what it would be like to have sex with someone as "hideous" as her. She was repeatedly referred to as “middle-aged” and a “mother” in a derogatory manner.
Then came the obsession with her breasts; someone in Critic claimed falsely that Madeleine had accused a Labour MP of fondling her breasts. I informed them this was false, offered to show them what Madeleine had actually said (they had originally reported it almost accurately) but it was to no avail. They continued to run with the breast story, making reference to it several more times throughout the year, culminating in nominating her breasts for an end of year award and published false claims that she deliberately thrust her breasts in front of people.
When Critic nominated Madeleine as the New Zealander of the Year they cited, as one of the reasons, her success at managing “to distance herself … and her young daughters from [Graham Capill’s] penis.”
When, as a student, I formally complained about all this to the University I was told it was not their jurisdiction as the student newspaper was not part of the University. Complaints to OUSA were dismissed on the grounds that this was just good humour; something I was apparently lacking. Of course it all ceased to be funny when later the same year an issue of Critic was banned by the chief censor for its infamous date-rape article, an article in which the author laughed at and mocked the rape of women who are overweight and Christian. I found the coincidence rather eerie.
Towards the end of my study the infamous riots broke out on Castle Street. Critic defended the students claiming it was the police getting out of hand. When the University suggested a code of conduct for students, OUSA threatened legal action if anyone was expelled under it.
I remember discussing the issue with a crowd of students that I regularly met with in the Union building. The response I got from one was telling, when it was suggested that maybe some of the ridiculous drunken antics shouldn’t be tolerated, there was a gasp followed by: “what’s the point of being a student then?” My response of “maybe to study and get a degree” seemed fairly novel to my interlocutor.
Living in this environment all the time perhaps dulled my perception. However, when I graduated PhD in 2006 the way many locals saw things became apparent. I had no immediate employment and so had taken a night-shift job stacking shelves at the local 24 hour supermarket. On my first night, I was ridiculed by drunken students in the wee hours of the morning. Some students approached me (a complete stranger) in the store and mocked me for being “so thick” that I had to work at the supermarket. I was informed that if I was smart as them then I could go to Uni and get a degree but I was obviously too stupid to do this. My supervisor informed me this sort of thing was common and he regularly issued trespass notices to students for this sort of behaviour. I later witnessed one student and his girl friend try and take a joy-ride with a forklift. Another of the staff was indecently propositioned. I only worked there for a few weeks before coming to Auckland yet the management told me that this sort of thing was common from students.
I recall a conversation I struck up once with a local. He told me how the streets around the University used to look when he was younger. He went on to tell me how gradually residents moved further away from the University due to the behaviour of their student neighbours and how now the area was a dump. He wasn’t wrong about the latter claim, the student quarter featured fifthly flats, beer bottles and pizza boxes and other rubbish littered all over the place. His story appeared to be one many locals could tell. During Orientation Week the town became full of smart-arsed, disrespectful jerks who had no respect for anyone.
Given all of the above, I was not at all surprised to see the news about Otago’s annual toga party getting out of control. I was even less surprised to hear the OUSA President on tonight’s TV3 news trying to convince the country that the problems were mostly caused, not by students, but by passers by throwing objects at students. Please spare me. One angry resident stated "Why should we tolerate this here? I don't think there would be anywhere that this would be tolerated." I often wondered this myself when I was studying there too. Let’s hope we don’t see more Otago University TV commercials telling us to “get over it.”