Selwyn College apologises, shuts down obscene voting ceremony

One of New Zealand's oldest university halls of residence, Selwyn College, has banned what it calls a "nickname ceremony" - an annual practice in which students are given offensive nicknames based on their personality or physical appearances.

Otago University made the ban public on behalf of Selwyn College on Thursday, after Newshub approached it with the story of a former student who came forward to share how the 'Animal Channel' award for her shyness has affected her life.

The woman, now 22, requested anonymity, but told Newshub she was awarded the accolade at the college's 2014 Annual General Meeting (AGM). 

Selwyn College's Board of Governors has now categorically apologised for the behaviour - shutting down the award ceremony.

Run by a committee made up of both male and female second-year students, the tradition happened each year at the Selwyn College Students' Association AGM.

The committee secretly votes and awards first year and other second students with the awards.

Code names were given to each student regarding the nature of the award - including:

  • Black Rabbit, meaning Best Rack
  • Burgundy Lemur, meaning Blowjob Lips
  • Animal Channel, meaning Awkward Chat
  • Dark Fox, meaning Drug F**ked
  • Condom Officer, given to people on each floor deemed least likely to have sex during the year
  • Condom Sergeant, given to one person in the entire college deemed the least likely to have sex during the year
Selwyn College apologises, shuts down obscene voting ceremony

Newshub understands the tradition has been happening year on year since at least 2009.

Otago University confirmed it happened this year - something they were "extremely disturbed" by.

"To get that is pretty hurtful; [they suggest], 'We're not going to actually call you those names because that would be rude, but we will give you a nickname for exactly that definition, and that's fine'," the woman told Newshub.

"I think that a lot of people found those quite hurtful, but you don't show it in front of everyone.

"The attitude is you have to take it on the chin - everyone gets joked at, but the humour was always at someone's expense."

The AGM is compulsory for all students - you even have to get permission not to go, the woman said.

While the committee drinks, the rest of the students are hand-picked and brought up to the front of the group to be presented with their award.

Selwyn College apologises, shuts down obscene voting ceremony

"The entire college is watching, [and] to be told in front of 180 people you're the most awkward person... to hear that in front of everyone, you put a smile on and stand there so you don't cry," the woman said.

"People just laughed and clapped and I didn't really know what it's for, and then a second-year told me what it meant and he said, 'If you've ever watched the Animal Channel [or] the Discovery Channel and you see two animals going at it, that's how people view you - they just kind of want to switch you off.'"

The whole ceremony was seen as the funniest thing, but instead it was extremely hurtful, she said.

 "It was seen as okay because we were doing it in front of everyone and if no one speaks up then there's no harm in doing it.

"For example the best rack one, I don't know how many people have seen [Netflix TV series] 13 Reasons Why, but just to put a title on someone, it's just horrible."

The series' main character Hannah Barker is rated the person in her college with the "best ass", and is targeted for it. She later commits suicide.

"It just makes you think every time you leave the room, that's what people are saying behind your back.

"I wasn't remembered because I did something nice, I was remembered for something to target me for."

Selwyn College apologises, shuts down obscene voting ceremony

'Best rack' winner speaks out

Former student Monica Nelson, who first spoke out about the awards, was awarded the Best Rack prize in 2014.

"As a first year, Selwyn was a pretty overwhelming environment to be in and I didn't really dwell on my 'award' at the time," she told Newshub.

"I did, however, find it pretty disconcerting to know that there was a roomful of second-years objectifying and labelling us, largely on appearances.

"Looking back, though, I see it as a totally unnecessary, disingenuous, and generally unkind practice. Our society deems laughing at someone else's expense as mean, does 'tradition' make that okay? No."

She said it was frustrating when people defended the practice as "a bit of light-hearted fun".

"While l appreciate the sentiment that the committee members select nominees who they think will take it fine, how can you know what underlying issues a person could be dealing with only half a year after meeting them?

High Court judge QC Simon Moore, Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson, former All Black captain David Kirk and former Prime Minister Bill English are all Selwyn College alumni.
High Court judge QC Simon Moore, Anglican Archbishop Philip Richardson, former All Black captain David Kirk and former Prime Minister Bill English are all Selwyn College alumni.

College vows to change

Otago University does not own Selwyn College - it is an affiliated college run by the Selwyn College Board of Governors on behalf of the Anglican Church. 

On Thursday, the Selwyn College board of governors chairman Aaron Douglas confirmed the college's leaders and board were "extremely disturbed" to discover the Selwyn College Students Association committee held its AGM this year and awarded first-year students with such nicknames.

"Both the board and college leaders have been crystal-clear this behaviour cannot continue," Mr Douglas said.

"The student association president gave the Selwyn College board of governors during its recent meeting a strict assurance the nicknaming will never happen again.

"[It] has agreed to have college staff leaders as observers at their future AGMs to ensure no more students are faced with inappropriate behaviour."

This student committee is being told any meetings held without consultation could result in possible dismissal from the college.

Selwyn College apologises, shuts down obscene voting ceremony

In 2016, Selwyn College requested management support from the university. 

The board appointed Ashley Day as an interim warden, who remains as the college's current warden.

Mr Douglas said Mr Day has spoken to all students who received nicknames this year to check on their wellbeing, and will take any appropriate action. 

"The association president is going to write letters to all those given nicknames this year and apologise for any harm or upset these may have caused.

"The activity had been passed on from the previous student committee, and no thought had been given to the possible consequences."

Bullying in any shape or form is not tolerated at the college, Mr Douglas says.

The woman who spoke with Newshub said on Thursday she was "blown away" by the college's response.

"I'm pleased they are doing something to stop it - some things need to stay in the past. Old doesn't necessarily mean it's good.

"The fact that they're getting rid of the awards is a step in the right direction."

However more could be done to ensure the elitist culture of Selwyn is eliminated, she said.