Knox Knocks. Who's there? Change.

Knox Knocks. Who's there? Change.

2012 looks to be a vastly different experience for residents of Knox College, following a review by the University of Otago and the New Zealand Presbyterian Church, which privately runs Knox in affiliation with the University. The review involved interviews with students to analyse the culture of the College and has resulted in a Commission being appointed by the Church “to oversee the governance and management of Knox College in 2012”.

Issues around alcohol consumption have been identified as the primary concern at the College, which has become widely known as one of the heaviest-drinking Halls of Residence affiliated with the University. Rev. Martin Baker, Assembly Executive Secretary of the Presbyterian Church in New Zealand, but not a member of the Commission, affirms that the Commission “are working through a number of changes, primarily around issues of health and safety [and] alcohol policies”. This follows hot on the heels of “the bath” being removed from the College grounds last year, amid health concerns about the water into which students in breach of traditional rules would be dumped.

The Master of Knox College, Bruce Aitken, has been placed on leave, and his role is being temporarily filled by Jamie Gilbertson, the Warden of Arana College. Rev. Baker and Mr Gilbertson were both unwilling to comment on the future of Mr. Aitken.

Mr. Aitken has also been unavailable for interview. However his relatives, James and Emma Aitken, have been heavily involved in an open Facebook group calling for letters of complaint and a petition to the Commission. Entitled “CALLING ALL EX KNOX COLLEGE STUDENTS” the group now has more than 1,270 members, and serves predominantly as a forum for those unhappy about the proposed changes to express their discontent.

On the 15th of February, a letter from Dr. John Kernohan, the Commission Chairperson, responded to the unrest by circulating a message to past and present residents about the changes, for “clarification and assurance”. In that message, Dr. Kernohan states that the Commission is simply “looking at ways to improve the physical fabric of the College”, (Critic suggests perhaps by using a gentler cycle, or possibly softener). He reminded residents that the Commission “is mindful of the rich history and special character of Knox,” and also reassured that “the Acting Master ... is working in close collaboration with KCSC [Knox College Students’ Club] to develop an exciting and informative orientation.”
Yet past residents have seen this message as having “so many words, so little substance”.

The student response has included a petition to the Commission, asking the Presbyterian Church to “Consult Your Community”. The petition has more than 500 signatures at the time of going to print. In the accompanying description, they admit that “some changes are necessary to ensure health, safety and responsible behaviour,” but go on to say that they are “concerned that such changes may sweep more broadly than is necessary to achieve these legitimate objectives.”

Residents and “exies” of the College have also voiced concern at the KCSC losing control of its budget this year. In the wake of last year’s controversial Voluntary Student Membership bill, the KCSC was absorbed by the College to keep recreational activities financially viable, but students see this as “breaking down the established hierarchy… [to] create a rift in tradition, culture, and behavioural patterns that can then be established anew.”

Despite all the feared changes, Knox College O-Week activities appear to have gone ahead as usual. One second-year resident confirmed that “I’m having the time of my life … nothing much has changed.” Other residents reported that another had to be taken to Dunedin Hospital to have his stomach-pumped, after he consumed two bottles of wine and was then challenged, and consented, to drink half a bottle of spirits on the Tuesday night of O-Week, when Knox had its own Toga Party-themed dinner at which the Commissioner of the recently appointed Council was present.

Knox Student President, Mr. Milne Riley, has demanded that residents not talk to the press, and has himself declined to comment until after O-Week.

Residents have, however, still been available for interview. One commented that “whether the impact the Commission is having on the College is good, or bad, is a bit subjective [based] on why you go to Knox … I get it for study reasons, but from a social perspective and the way that Knox traditionally is, it’s kind of bad.” Another commented that “whenever there’s less alcohol, there’s a better academic focus.”

There is also criticism among residents that the KCSC is “a little unorganized” and needs “to be more direct and strong-willed”. However, this has been difficult for the KCSC Executive because, when questioned, the new Master and Commission have “avoided all the questions”. Residents do, however, still feel that “Knox is awesome” and will maintain its special character.

When asked for comment, a University spokesperson said “As Knox is an affiliated College of the University of Otago and a home to our students, the University is naturally interested that Knox College residents can enjoy their time in a safe, caring environment. The University supports the Presbyterian Church in its moves to implement changes that provide increased support for College residents in this regard.”

The University also clarified that “there has been no request to reduce the number of second year students returning”, despite online claims by James Aitken to the contrary.

Among the changes “of a more minor nature” that the Commission are bringing is the renaming of certain roles and areas of the College. The Buttery is now “the Canteen”, and the Ab Epistulus has been renamed “the Administration Officer”. Rev. Baker said that these changes primarily concern “the clarification of purpose”, going on to say that most people couldn’t really be expected to know what “ab epistulus” actually means (it means “in charge of letters”, duh). The Buttery/Canteen has also had its licensed bar removed.

In the past, Knox College had required students to dress semi-formally for dinners. This has been loosened and students are now only required to dress formally for Sunday dinner, at which musical performances by residents will still be present.

Rev. Baker confirmed that some changes are still being negotiated, and former students “have been quite involved”. He also stated that “there’s a lot of discussion going on between the commissioners and those students who are back at Knox now”.
This article first appeared in Issue 1, 2012.
Posted 2:06pm Friday 24th February 2012 by Zane Pocock.