The students behind the movement to remove a statue of Cecil John Rhodes at the University of Oxford have called the administration’s decision to keep the statue in place “outrageous, dishonest and cynical” -- and on Monday issued a new list of demands related to racial issues on campus.
The debate at Oxford over the legacy of Rhodes, the benefactor behind the elite Rhodes Scholarships who made his fortune in diamond mining in southern Africa and served as imperial governor of Britain’s Cape Colony, mirrors similar protests at American institutions about links to historical figures like Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson and is part of the broader student movement to rectify perceived racial inequities on university campuses. As the Rhodes Must Fall movement at Oxford has put it, “The statue of Rhodes is symbolic of all we hope to change at Oxford. As long as the statue stays, it remains a celebration not only of the crimes of Rhodes himself, but of the racist imperial legacy on which Oxford University has thrived, and continues to thrive."
As protests have spread and student demands have escalated, administrators at various campuses have struggled to respond. But the announcement by Oxford’s Oriel College last week that it would reject the student protesters’ demands and keep the Rhodes statue (at right, in photograph courtesy of Jerry Pattengale) and a plaque paying tribute to him in place came as a surprise, not least because it contradicted the college’s own previous commitment to seek permission to remove the plaque and to embark on “a six-month listening exercise” in which it would solicit the views of students, employees and others on the statue's fate.
In an earlier statement, issued in December, Oriel College said it would seek consent from Oxford City Council to remove the plaque, erected in 1906 by a private individual, and said its continued display on Oriel’s campus was “inconsistent with our principles.” (The college said it required the city government’s consent to remove the plaque because -- though it is not listed on the historic registry -- it is located in a historical conservation area.) As for the statue, which is on the facade of a building listed on the historic registry, the college said that its future “raises complex issues, which cannot be resolved quickly.”
Yet the college resolved them ahead of its own schedule on Thursday when it announced the governing board’s decision that the statue and plaque would both remain in place. The Telegraph subsequently published an article on a leaked report, prepared for Oriel's governing board, warning that the college could lose many millions of dollars in expected donations from wealthy alumni angered by the college’s willingness to consider the statue’s removal. According to The Telegraph’s reporting, the college feared that a proposed £100 million (about $144 million) gift was in jeopardy. About £1.5 million in donations ($2.2 million) have already been canceled.
Oriel College referred questions to the news and information office at Oxford, which did not return multiple requests for an interview on Monday. Last week’s statement about the decision to keep the plaque and statue in place did not directly address threats of withdrawn donations. The statement said that the college had since December received “an enormous amount of input including comments from students and academics, alumni, heritage bodies, national and student polls, and a further petition, as well as over 500 direct written responses to the college. The overwhelming message we have received has been in support of the statue remaining in place, for a variety of reasons.”
The "listening exercise" promised in December is being repurposed to “focus on how best to place the statue and plaque in a clear historical context.” Oriel maintains that “the recent debate has underlined that the continuing presence of these historical artifacts is an important reminder of the complexity of history and of the legacies of colonialism still felt today. By adding context, we can help draw attention to this history, do justice to the complexity of the debate and be true to our educational mission.”
The Rhodes Must Fall movement issued a statement in response on Monday pointing out “the sharp contrast” between Oriel’s December and January statements and criticizing its decision to back away from its original plans for a six-month consultation, which was to formally begin this month.
“A decision has been made about the statue without consultation of the Oriel student body and even before this structured listening exercise was meant to begin,” the group said in a statement posted on its Facebook page. “Students and others who expected to be given an opportunity to speak over the coming six months have not had their voices heard. The listening exercise never started.”
“Instead what has occurred is a dictatorship of a small number of donors. It is clear that Oriel has been influenced significantly by the threats of donors keen to maintain symbols of Cecil Rhodes, as has been demonstrated in a report written by Oriel’s development director. Oriel has challenged the claim that funding threats influenced its decision. However, if Oriel faced no funding pressures, why not wait until the end of the six-month listening process? Oriel has been rushed into this decision by the irresponsible threats of wealthy individuals.”
“Put simply, Oriel sold out,” the students' statement said. “It sold out when Cecil Rhodes first poured his blood money into the college. And it sold out again when it decided that the voices of wealthy alumni were more important than the voices of the students committed to their direction, protection and care.”
The Rhodes Must Fall protesters said they would not back down from their call to remove and relocate the Rhodes statue and outlined seven new “demands.” These include “a decolonized curriculum” and “an immediate end to the outright racism people of color face on campus.” The group is calling for “implicit bias training” for academic staff and workshops on race for all incoming students. They are calling for “a reckoning. We want Oxford to acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing physical and ideological violence of empire. This requires an apology and increased scholarships for black students from southern Africa.”
Oriel College has already announced plans to increase outreach initiatives for black and ethnic minority applicants, provide more support and training on equality and diversity-related issues for students and staff, and raise money for graduate scholarships targeted toward students from specific African countries. The college also said it would fund a lecture series on issues of race and colonialism.
“The campaign to remove Oriel’s statue of Rhodes has highlighted other challenges in relation to the experience and representation of black and minority ethnic students and staff at Oxford,” the college said in its statement last week. “Oriel takes these very seriously and, as previously announced, is taking substantive steps to address them.”
Oxford is under pressure from the country's top politician to do more to increase the representation of black students on campus. David Cameron, the United Kingdom's prime minister, wrote an op-ed in this week’s Sunday Times in which he criticized a lack of racial diversity at Oxford. “It’s striking that in 2014, our top university, Oxford, accepted just 27 black men and women out of an intake of more than 2,500,” he wrote. “I know the reasons are complex, including poor schooling, but I worry that the university I was so proud to attend is not doing enough to attract talent from across our country.” (Oxford told Times Higher Education in response that in 2015 it enrolled 367 U.K. undergraduates from ethnic minority backgrounds, representing a 15 percent increase since 2010. Sixty-four of these students were black, an increase from 39 five years earlier.)
The protest over the statue at Oxford comes at a time of widespread protests about race relations on university campuses, in general, and about the ways in which universities honor the legacies of controversial historical figures in particular. Students have pushed Princeton University to "acknowledge the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson" (who served as Princeton's president prior to becoming U.S. president) and change the name of programs and buildings bearing his moniker. Students at the College of William & Mary and the University of Missouri at Columbia have placed sticky notes with descriptors like “racist” and “rapist” on statues of Thomas Jefferson. Amherst College announced last week it would stop using Lord Jeff as an unofficial mascot for the institution -- Lord Jeffrey Amherst was a British general who in correspondence proposed the use of smallpox-infested blankets as a weapon against Native Americans.
The Rhodes Must Fall protesters at Oxford took inspiration from a successful movement to take down a statue of Rhodes at the University of Cape Town, in South Africa, which sits on land donated by Rhodes. Cape Town removed the statue of Rhodes from its campus last April after a monthlong student protest. The decision by the university's governing council to remove the statue followed an overwhelming 181-1 vote by Cape Town's Senate in favor of the action.
At Oxford the calls to remove the statue have been questioned by the university’s elected chancellor, Lord Patten, a former governor of Hong Kong. “Our cities are full of buildings that were built with the proceeds of activities, the slave trade and so on, which would nowadays be regarded as completely unacceptable,” Lord Patten told a BBC radio program. “The building on which the statue stands was put up with Rhodes money. So do you knock the building down? … What do you about other colleges which may have been founded by somebody who killed three of his wives? I mean, what do you do about our history? Any views that Cecil Rhodes had about the British empire, about race, were common to his time.”
Lord Patten told the BBC that “if people at a university aren’t prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history, if they’re not prepared to embrace all those values which are contained in the most important book for any undergraduate, Karl Popper’s Open Society … then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere.”
Tony Abbott, a former Australian prime minister and Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, is among those who have urged against removing the statue. “It’s a pity that Rhodes was, in many respects, a man of his times,” Abbott told The Independent. “We can lament that he failed to oppose unjust features of his society while still celebrating the genius that led to the creation of the Rhodes Scholarships. Rhodes was not a campaigner against racism but many of the scholars who are his legacy have been.”
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign responded to Abbott's remarks in part by rebutting "his use of the Rhodes Scholarships to provide some kind of moral counterbalance to Rhodes’ actions …. It goes without saying that the systematic exploitation of an entire nation of people cannot be forgiven because he left some wealth to a college in Oriel (wealth that was left to continue to the very same system of exploitation)."
Parallel to the Rhodes Must Fall movement, there has been a push within the ranks of Oxford’s Rhodes Scholars to grapple with the legacy of the benefactor behind the scholarship program.
A representative from Redress Rhodes declined an interview request on behalf of the group on Monday, but shared a statement of the group’s aims, which reads, in part: “Redress Rhodes is a group of Rhodes Scholars working within the scholarship community to advocate for dialogue and action on our collective responsibility to redress Rhodes’s legacy. We aim both to challenge the veneration of Rhodes as a historical figure and to highlight the imperialist agenda that accompanied his colonial ventures. We believe that such an honest appraisal of his legacy will enable us to reassess the narrative of altruistic white imperialism and begin the long journey to repair the damage that such a colonial project has wrought -- in Africa and elsewhere.”
Nearly 200 Rhodes Scholars have signed a petition defending a student leader of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, Ntokozo Qwabe, who has been accused of hypocrisy for having accepted a Rhodes Scholarship himself. “The scholarship does not buy our silence,” the petition reads.
“There is no hypocrisy in being a recipient of a Rhodes Scholarship and being publicly critical of Cecil Rhodes and his legacy -- a legacy that continues to alienate, silence, exclude and dehumanize in unacceptable ways …. Many among us (particularly scholars from southern Africa, scholars of African descent, scholars from the former colonies, scholars of color and female scholars) take a Rhodes Scholarship as a subtle act of reparations, knowing that Cecil Rhodes did not intend it for us when he wrote his will. Nor did he intend for any of us to use the scholarships in a way that was explicitly antithetical to the pursuit of empire and white supremacy.”
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