Mark Scott, the vice-chancellor and president of the University of Sydney, is a genuinely nice and gentle man. Or such is my personal experience. But also profoundly weak. And that’s a considerable flaw in the wake of Hamas’s attack on Israel on October 7 and the flow-on of this event to Australia.

I knew Scott when he worked at the one-time John Fairfax media empire where, for a time, he was managing editor of The Sydney Morning Herald.

And I kept in contact with him for a while after he became managing director and editor-in-chief of the ABC in 2006.

It was my view that Fairfax during Scott’s time (to be fair, he was one of a number of key executives) was essentially run by the staff rather than management. In other words, like the ABC, it was very much a staff collective. But I was prepared to discover whether Scott would take a different stance at the public broadcaster.

As it turned out, Scott phoned me and asked whether he could deliver his first key speech as ABC managing director to The Sydney Institute. I readily accepted and the talk was delivered in October 2006.

It was a fine address in which Scott indicated that he wanted to reform the organisation. He even advised that he had encouraged the ABC’s director of television to review the format of its Media Watch program “to ensure there is more opportunity for debate and discussion around contentious and important issues”.

Moreover, he indicated that ABC TV would run a current affairs program “that will ensure that on contentious issues of the day there is opportunity for the full range of opinions and perspectives to be heard”. Scott even conceded that, on occasions, “there actually is bias in an individual story” on the ABC.

However, in the event, there was less viewpoint diversity on the ABC at the end Scott’s term in 2016 than there was at the beginning. After a period as secretary of the NSW Department of Education, Scott took up the position of Sydney University’s vice-chancellor in July 2021.

In Australia, vice-chancellors are highly remunerated – some receive around twice the prime minister’s salary. But it is not an easy job. Soon after Hamas’s brutal attack on Israel – in which children, women and men were murdered, women raped and Israelis of all ages kidnapped – the pro-Palestinian left took action. The protests were directed at Israel – not at Hamas.

An early demonstration against Israel featured a group, led by Sydney University academic Nick Riemer, who declared: “We’re staff from Sydney University that support Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions against Israel.” He made no reference to Hamas’s war crimes on October 7.

In time, there were blockades on university campuses – most notably at Sydney and Melbourne universities along with the Australian National University in Canberra. At these events, Jewish students and supporters of Israel’s right to exist within safe borders were intimidated. And there was a strong whiff of anti-Semitism in the air. Yet, by and large, the response from campus administrators was one of weakness.

The longest encampment took place at Sydney University. It commenced in late April and ended recently – with an effective mini-surrender by Scott and his colleagues. Some at the blockades were students, many were not. Among the latter were members of Muslim extremist groups – some of whom were influenced by Hizb ut-Tahrir, which is regarded as a terrorist organisation in Britain and Germany.

Most of the demonstrators eventually abided by the administration’s belated demand that the blockade on the main lawn be lifted. But not the Sydney University Muslim Students’ Association. Its continuing resistance led to Scott’s abject surrender.

Last Saturday Noah Yim reported in The Weekend Australian that SUMSA members only packed up their tents after accepting an offer from Scott of a seat on the vice-chancellor’s working group reviewing the institution’s defence ties.

What a cop-out. In his weakness, Scott has conceded a place on an important committee despite the fact that some of the demonstrators were neither academics nor students. This will give one of the demonstrators the right to be involved in reviewing the policy of Sydney University with respect to its involvement with defence and security-related institutions.

Last Tuesday, former Defence Department secretary Dennis Richardson was reported in The Daily Telegraph as saying the university had failed to show leadership by allowing “a body that has displayed extreme prejudice” “to call the shots”. Richardson added that he was “puzzled as to why the university administration considers it appropriate to negotiate with the protesters; full stop”. Quite so.

Last Monday, Sky News’ Sharri program ran footage of a group of Muslim men chanting “Allahu Akbar”, celebrating Sydney University’s capitulation to SUMSA. A member of the group boasted that their “activism” eventually led the demonstrators “to negotiate with the highest executives of this university including the University of Sydney vice-chancellor and president Mark Scott”.

Despite the fact Sydney University is a hot bed of anti-Semitism, Scott did not talk with Australian Jewish leaders about his deal with SUMSA – which obtained concessions beyond the major one documented above. Did Scott not want to hear the views of Jewish Australian leaders?

On Thursday, the Executive Council of Australian Jewry – on behalf of itself and five other Jewish organisations – issued a statement. It expressed concern that Scott and his executive “rewarded” protesters who had been “allowed to menace the university and disturb campus life without challenge”.

It turned out that, belatedly, Scott offered a place to Jewish organisations to “review the university’s investment and research activities”. This offer was rejected – the statement declaring that “the process in our view is a sham and we will have nothing to do with it”.

Scott’s appeasement has opened the door to other aggrieved activists to make demands to achieve their ends – even if this means endangering national security. And he has done nothing substantial to address virulent anti-Semitism on his campus. It’s all very well to present as nice and gentle but it’s not leadership, on a university campus or elsewhere.