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The Undercurrent: Oriel’s blue-worthy mental gymnastics on Rhodes

Lucas Jones finds Oriel’s latest dodge of their moral obligation to make Rhodes fall so ridiculous that it defies satire. That didn’t stop him giving it a go anyway.

There’s failing to read the room, and then there’s Oriel College. The Governing Body have decided, contrary to the opinions of the people they hired to make the choice for them, that Rhodes will not fall. It’s too expensive, apparently, for a college that got a chandelier installed in its temporary dining hall and enjoys an endowment greater than Tuvalu’s nominal GDP. My working theory is that this is Oriel’s last, desperate attempt to shut students up by literally stunning them into silence.

The statement reads like an email you’d send to a tutor at 4:00 AM on the day of a deadline: “yeah, I would have loved to write the essay, and I actually got all my friends to work out whether I should write the essay, and they all said yes, but then I realised that I never really knew how to write the essay in the first place so, apologies, but I’m just not going to write it. But hey, I got a low 2.i for the essay I submitted three months ago, maybe take that into account!” 

Perhaps the statement would have more value if we read it as satire. Take their decision to establish a “task force to consider the recommendations for the contextualisation of the Rhodes statue within the commission’s report.” As an actual policy, atrocious . But as a commentary on Oxford’s obsession with bureaucracy? Genius. The text forces the reader to think “wait a minute… They’re suggesting setting up a commission in a statement about how they ignored the last commission! Perhaps this is not the effective measure that it appears to be at first glance…”

Unfortunately, it’s a genuine policy. I imagine the task force will have a budget which will definitely exceed the £108.56 it would take to buy a telescopic ladder and a demolition hammer from B&Q. In fact, if they’re looking for opportunities to raise money in light of their moral and financial bankruptcy, perhaps they’d consider auctioning opportunities for students to have a swing at the statue? I’m sure plenty of students would be happy to enjoy Rhodes in the context of the Cherwell river. 

The Oriel Governing Body’s statement has earned them a Blue in mental gymnastics, sacrificing any respect students had for them in the process. Rhodes Must Fall responded to their statement with a searing riposte that includes an outright rejection of their decision to maintain the statue. The Student Union, in one of their more inspired press releases, has also urged Oriel to remove the statue, while committing themselves to “wait eagerly for the University” to actually do something about it.

In contrast, Gavin Williamson, the Education Secretary,  has tweeted his support for Oriel’s decision, arguing that “we should learn from our past.” Williamson, who looks like the sort of man who’d become a vet solely for the opportunity to euthanise small animals, claimed only days ago that students should avoid “dead-end” university courses in the Humanities and Arts. It seems, therefore, that his commitment to the academic study of history starts and ends at keeping up statues of Britain’s vilest imperialists. His own career is a beautiful illustration of what happens when people ignore those subjects. For example, perhaps if dear Gavin had studied a Humanities degree he’d have said something more eloquent than “go away and shut up” to Vladimir Putin when he was Defence Secretary.

The college’s decision to keep the statue up has allowed the Government to claim a victory in its fabricated culture war, but it has also proven beyond contention that students are unable to trust Oxford’s institutions to deliver on their promises. Whatever happens next, I doubt it will be a PR victory for Oriel. I expect that they will set up a committee, whose conclusion will be passed to the aforementioned task force, who will amend it and take it to the Provost, who will promptly shred it in favour of a statement he wrote six months ago.

Image Credit: alf~commonswiki / CC-BY-SA 3.0

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