Oriel College voted on Wednesday to launch an independent commission of inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue. A spokesperson said in a statement that they had “expressed their wish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes … This is what they intend to convey to the independent commission.”
The statement continued, “These two decisions were made after a long period of debate and reflection and with full awareness of the impact these decisions are likely to have in Britain and around the world.
“The commission will deal with the issue of the heritage of Rhodes and how to improve access to and use of BAME [black, Asian and minority ethnic] undergraduate, graduate and faculty members, as well as a review of how the college’s commitment to diversity in the 21st century can more easily integrate into its past. ”
The governing body has appointed Carole Souter CBE, the current mistress of St Cross College and former executive director of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, to chair the commission.
Inspired by student activism in South Africa, hundreds of Oxford students campaigned for the resemblance of Rhodes, who supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa, to be removed from the facade of the college in 2016. The campaign also called for a university curriculum to be changed to reflect the diversity of thinking beyond the Western canon and for better support for BAME students and staff.
A campaign spokesperson said he was cautiously optimistic after the announcement. “We have already taken this path, where the Oriel College committed to taking a certain measure, but did not follow up: in particular, in 2015, when the college committed to engaging in an exercise of democratic listening for six months. Therefore, although we are hopeful, our optimism is cautious. While the governing body of Oriel College has “expressed its wish” to demolish the statue, we continue to demand their commitment. ”
Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African politics at the University of Oxford and founding member of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign, said: “This statement is somewhat similar to the first statement released in 2016, but it includes the additional crucial details the governing body itself voted to remove the statue. I think this is a substantial change in their position. “
He added, “But that leaves room for ambiguity. This is not a final victory, it is a sign of progress in the right direction. I think this is a paradigm shift, I think the amount of pressure on Oriel College from different constituencies was much greater this time. I think there has been more time to delve into the broader anti-racist and anti-colonial arguments that underlie the thinking of Rhodes Must Fall. I think all of these things fueled the discussion that took place. ”
Layla Moran, Liberal Democrat leadership candidate and MP for Oxford West, said it was “the right decision” and asked that the statue be placed in a museum where it could help educate people about the Britain’s past. She added: “I hope this is a turning point and that other institutions will follow Oriel’s example and bring down statues of slave traders and white supremacists. ”
Robert Gildea, professor of modern history at the University of Oxford, announced earlier that the governing body of Worcester College had voted to have the statue taken down and put in a museum. The Guardian understands that another college also voted to remove the statue.
Gildea said: “Oriel is to be congratulated for taking this first decision to dismantle this statue, so that we no longer have to pay homage to a centenary symbol of colonialism and white supremacy … It is a historic moment to enjoy. ”
Three Oxford University directors, Valerie Amos, the new mistress of University College, Roger Goodman, director of St Antony’s College and Kate Tunstall, provost of Worcester College, all came to support the campaign last week. The graduate student body of Oriel College also voted this week to remove the statue.
Michelle Donelan, the minister of universities, called the “shortsighted” campaign to remove the controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college. She said we should “remember and learn” from history rather than “change” the past.
In 2016, Oriel said the statue would remain, with modifications that “draw attention to this story [and] do justice to the complexity of the debate ”. He had been warned that he could lose around £ 100 million in gifts if the statue was taken down, but insisted that financial implications were not the main reason for his decision.
The announcement came after another day of growing pressure on university officials. Earlier, black and minority ethnic staff expressed support for the Rhodes Must Fall and Black Lives Matter campaigns, expressing to Vice Chancellor Louise Richardson their concern over the “inadequate messages on tackling institutional racism” from the ‘university.
A letter from the BME staff network said he “stands in solidarity with the worldwide protests of the Black Lives Matter, as well as the Rhodes Must Fall movement at the University of Oxford … As these movements have shown, [BAME] staff and students are grossly underrepresented in UK higher education and face institutional racism in many forms. ”
The group said it wanted the university to recognize and support its BAME staff after the trauma and protests that followed the murder of George Floyd. “This would imply recognizing that the university is also an accomplice of racism, and that even if our work [BAME] staff are put forward as proof of diversity, there are few support mechanisms within the institution in solidarity against racism, “the letter said.
The letter was published a week after members of African and Caribbean university society declared themselves so disappointed with Oxford’s inability to combat racism that they are no longer working on its outreach programs to attract other black students.
An Oxford spokesperson said the university had received the letter and will give a full response. “The university has recognized that it has, like Britain, a history marked by colonialism and imperialism. While we cannot change this fact, we must continue to create a truly diverse and inclusive university community in which students and staff feel respected and safe.
“We are determined to fight systemic racism wherever it is found, including within our own community,” said the spokesperson.