Oriel College has ruled out removing its controversial statue of industrialist and colonialist Cecil Rhodes following a meeting of its governing body, purportedly due to pressure from donors.
The Telegraph claims to have seen leaked documents that confirm that Oriel’s considerations and previous statement that it might be amenable to removing the statue have resulted in the cancellation of more than £1.5 million in donations, and “the College now fears a proposed £100m gift” might be in jeopardy.
The college has not confirmed that financial pressure was a major factor in the decision taken. The Guardian has claimed in an article published on its website last night that, “Oxford University confirmed that it had been warned of the possibility that it would lose £100m in gifts and bequests should the statue be taken down but a spokesman said the financial implications were not the primary consideration.”
The Telegraph added that Sean Power, Director of Development at Oriel College, told Governing Body that the college’s decision to remove a plaque with Rhodes’ name and consider the statue’s removal could be immensely damaging to Oriel’s long term finances.
According to the publication, Power said, “Pride in the institution is major currency when it comes to fundraising, and this has already been severally diminished. “The fact that Rhodes was the College’s most generous benefactor only compounds the issue; ‘is this how we treat our donors’ etc.”
The Telegraph wrote that as a result, “Oriel is now preparing to make redundancies among its staff because of the collapse in donations. And it has cancelled an annual fundraising drive that should have taken place in April. It could now make an operating loss of around £200,000 this year.”
Complicating the issue is that the Trustee Act 2000 imposes a duty of care on trustees of a charity, one of the most important of which is that the trustee avoids “exposing the charity’s assets, beneficiaries or reputation to undue risk” and makes “balanced and adequately informed decisions, thinking about the long term as well as the short term”. Accordingly, Oriel would be found to be breaching its duties if it did not follow through on those responsibilities.
Nigel Biggar, Professor of Theology at Oxford, told Cherwell, “Oriel’s Governing Body have been wise to stop pandering to the shouty zealotry of the Rhodes Must Fall group, and their unscrupulous manipulation of history. Maybe RMF’s claim that Oxford’s curricula should contain more non-Western material has merit, but the charge that Rhodes was South Africa’s Hitler is sheer fabrication.
“RMF needs to stop posturing and start learning the discipline of responsible argument. The rebuff that is Oriel’s reversal could help to teach that.”
The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) movement has argued that the statue is both symbolically and literally exclusive and creates an unwelcome environment for ethnic minority students, especially South Africans. They have claimed that the statue represents how the University of Oxford and is littered with vestiges of colonialism, for instance in its syllabi and the racial makeup of its staff.
When reached for comment, RMFO said, “We are not responding to media requests for now. We as a group need time to reflect on our strategy moving forward, and will respond when this decision has been made collectively.”
In a statement, Oriel said, “Over the past few months, there has been intense debate about how Cecil Rhodes is commemorated in Oxford, and particularly about the Rhodes statue on Oriel College’s High Street frontage. Oriel believes that this issue needs to be addressed in a spirit of free speech and open debate, with a readiness to listen to divergent views. The College’s intention, by releasing its statement in December was to open debate and listen to the response.
“Since that announcement we have 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.
“Following careful consideration, the College’s Governing Body has decided that the statue should remain in place, and that the College will seek to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there.
“The College will do the same in respect of the plaque to Rhodes in King Edward Street. The College believes the recent debate has underlined that the continuing presence of these historical artefacts 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.”
With additional reporting by Dan Sutton and David Lawton.