Academics and students across Oxford have united in condemnation of a controversial research project, accusing it of seeking to justify British colonialism.
Almost 60 Oxford academics have now signed an open letter that attacks Nigel Biggar’s ‘Ethics and Empire’ as “too polemical and simplistic”, while the Oxford Centre for Global History has sought to distance itself from his research.
But the University has again defended Biggar, emphasising the “fundamental importance” of academic freedom in its recent statement.
The open letter – written by Oxford scholars specialising in the history of empire and colonialism – claims the project “asks the wrong questions, using the wrong terms, and for the wrong purposes”.
They insisted “neither we nor Oxford’s students in modern history will be engaging with the ‘Ethics and Empire’ programme, since it consists of closed, invitation-only seminars”.
Professor Biggar – Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Christ Church – attacked the letter as “collective online bullying”, saying none of the academics had “the courage or sense of collegial responsibility” to raise their concerns in person”.
He added any of the academics would be at liberty to refuse an invitation to the exclusive workshops, but they “would not close the discussion down. They do not have the right to control how I, or anyone else, thinks about these things”.
The Oxford Centre for Global History said they were “not involved in Professor Biggar’s workshop or project”. Instead, they stressed that their programmes engaged critically with the “complex legacies of colonialism”, moving beyond “the problematic notion of a balance sheet of empires’ advantages and disadvantages”.
The Oxford University Africa Society also waded in, saying: “The Africa Society categorically rejects these latest attempt at colonial apologism, yearning and re-justification through the pursuit of dishonest scholarship by Biggar and associates.”
The society decried what they described as attempts to “rig these workshops by wholly excluding critical scholars”. They nonetheless clarified that they had no interest in attending “Biggar’s bigoted workshops”, as he had “already proved himself incapable” while defending Cecil Rhodes in a debate at the Oxford Union.
In response to the open letter, a University spokesperson said: “It eloquently illustrates an alternative perspective on empire taken by other University academics in related but different fields.
“Argument and differing approaches to topics are to be expected in an environment with many different disciplines and where the robustness and good health of academic freedom is fundamentally important.”
The furore follows the debate surrounding an article written by Biggar in The Times, entitled ‘Don’t feel guilty about our colonial history’, in which he claimed we should “moderate our post-imperial guilt”.
The article provoked a statement of opposition from student group Common Ground, which drew attention to Biggar’s joint leadership of the ‘Ethics and Empire’ project. The other academic in charge, John Darwin, withdrew from the project on Sunday for personal reasons.
The McDonald Centre – the University organisation which runs the programme – describes the project as “a series of workshops to measure apologias and critiques of empire against historical data from antiquity to modernity across the globe”.
As reported last week, a University spokesperson defended Biggar’s suitability for the role, stating that Oxford supports “academic freedom of speech”, and that the history of empire is a “complex topic” that must be considered “from a variety of perspectives”.
They said: “This is a valid, evidence-led academic project and Professor Biggar, who is an internationally-recognised authority on the ethics of empire, is an entirely suitable person to lead it.”
Professor Biggar said that participation in the project is by invitation only “so as to enable focused reflection and sustained discussion on important matters by a necessarily small and select group of relevant experts”.
He added that the “current illiberal climate” means that “such discussion is only possible in private, because the ideological enemies of free speech and thought would disrupt it, were it to be held in public”.