In response to the petition organised by the Rhodes Must Fall In Oxford movement, Oriel College has released a statement setting out its position on the legacy of Cecil Rhodes. The statement pledges to improve the College’s BME provision and remove a plaque commemorating Rhodes, and to conduct a listening exercise to consider what might be done about the statue of Rhodes.
Released online on the 17th December, the statement sets out the three key positions of the College: that “the representation and experience of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students and staff in the University of Oxford, including Oriel College, need to improve”; that “the College does not share Cecil Rhodes’s values or condone his racist views or actions”; and that the College will “commit to ensuring that acknowledgement of the historical fact of Rhodes’s bequest to the College does not suggest celebration of his unacceptable views and actions, and… commit to placing any recognition of his bequest in a clear historical context.”
The online report goes on to announce that the College is “starting the process of consultation with Oxford City Council this week in advance of submitting a formal application for consent to remove the Rhodes plaque on No. 6 King Edward Street”. The statement describes the plaque as a “political tribute” to Rhodes, but Oriel cannot remove it immediately because it is in a conservation area. The College will also “put in place a series of substantive actions to improve the experience and representation of ethnic minorities in Oriel”, including greater equality and diversity training, and “fund and support a series of lectures and other events examining race equality and the continuing history of colonialism and its consequences.”
Regarding the statue of Cecil Rhodes, which this term’s protests have centred on, the statement acknowledges that “it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of a controversial figure, and the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents”; it also notes, however, that “any changes… would require planning consent.” The College has therefore resolved to conduct a six-month listening exercise, consulting students, staff, alumni, heritage organisations and Oxford residents on the future of the Grade II listed statue. In the meantime, the College will put an explanatory notice in the window beside the statue.
Commenting to Cherwell, Charlotte Ezaz, organising member of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, said as follows: “We are pleased to see Oriel has acknowledged the harm caused by symbols of Rhodes, which they have accepted are inconsistent with the values and ethos it claims to foster. Their consideration of our petition, and subsequent response with altered positionality, is a testament to how social activism seeking to decolonize can galvanise change at an institutional level. The hard work of our members and the turn out at our Protest last term has been central in bringing about this engagement, that has finally put an end to the use of violent languages of ‘patron’, ‘businessman’, and ‘benefactor’ to describe Rhodes, a genocidal colonialist. The removal of a plaque openly venerating Rhodes is the first step in a process of decolonisation. It is an obvious contradiction in consistency to accept our arguments, remove the plaque, but not the statue. Therefore momentum of RMFs demands will be maintained until the decision is made to imminently remove the statue of Rhodes. We do not believe that six months is an acceptable amount of time for a process of “listening” or surveying; our petition is testament to the overwhelming amount of opinion in favour of the removal of the Rhodes statue, as it was surveyed with this exact purpose of gauging support.”
In Saturday’s edition of the Daily Telegraph, a group of academics led by Frank Furedi, Professor of Sociology at Canterbury University, have warned that pressure from student movements such as Rhodes Must Fall threatens free speech on university campuses. In an open letter, they note “Few academics challenge censorship that emerges from students. It is important that more do, because a culture that restricts the free exchange of ideas encourages self-censorship and leaves people afraid to express their views in case they may be misinterpreted.” The academics identify a “small but vocal minority” of student activists who exert intimidating pressure in favour of censorship, and conclude the letter by stating that “students who are offended by opposing views are perhaps not yet ready to be at university.”