Minister slaps down rebellious academics over Cecil Rhodes statue

‘Oxford dons should get on with teaching’: Minister slaps down rebellious academics after 150 write petition to Oriel College REFUSING to tutor its students or collaborate until it topples statue of donor Cecil Rhodes that ‘glorifies colonialism’

  • Staff urged to stop holding tutorials for Oriel students until monument removed 
  • They will deny 300 undergraduates the chance for small in-depth discussions
  • Today minister Greg Hands urged left-wing academics to focus on teaching

A government minister today told Oxford dons to ‘get on with focusing on their teaching’ rather than threatening a boycott after 150 academics wrote a petition to Oriel refusing to tutor its students until the college removes its statue of Cecil Rhodes. 

Trade minister Greg Hands’ slap down came as the university descended into civil war after dons led by Professor Kate Tunstall – the head of another Oxford college – called on staff to stop holding tutorials for Oriel students until the monument to the colonialist is toppled.

More than 100 academics had signed up last night, saying the statue ‘glorifies colonialism’. 

While they will still give lectures, the ‘work to rule’ will see staff deny the college’s 300 undergraduates the chance for in-depth discussion in small groups or one-to-one sessions.

Trade minister Greg Hands’ slap down came as the university descended into civil war after dons led by Professor Kate Tunstall – the head of another Oxford college – called on staff to stop holding tutorials for Oriel students until the monument to the colonialist is toppled

In an unprecedented move, dons led by Professor Kate Tunstall – the head of another Oxford college – called on staff to stop holding tutorials for Oriel students until the monument to the colonialist is removed

Asked for his opinion on the boycott by LBC’s Nick Ferrari, Mr Hands said: ‘Well look, I was just hope that universities get on with their actual job which is teaching students and making sure students get the best possible degrees.

‘I’m not following all the ins and outs of everything that’s going on at every university, but I do wish that our focus was on learning.

‘A lot of students are paying a lot of money on tuition fees and on living so I’d hope universities would focus on their core mission.’   

It came as a senior don slammed the boycott threat, telling the Daily Mail: ‘This is despicable and mean-minded. It is unprecedented for the head of one college to attack and detract from the teaching of students at another college. 

‘This is politics based on ignorance and bias, and should have nothing to do with Oxford or any other university, where the principal aim should be to educate students and not damage their learning through left-biased agitation.’

One of those supporting the anti-Rhodes campaign is Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History at Worcester College. 

He said he would stop teaching Oriel undergraduates – although he will continue supervising graduates – in a bid to ‘put pressure’ on the college. 

Describing Oriel’s decision last month to reject calls to tear the statue down,’ he said: ‘It’s not acceptable to many other colleges who are making huge efforts to increase diversity and inclusion. 

‘Queen’s College across the High Street recently appointed the first professor of black British history. 

‘All this work is going into outreach to deprived and minority communities to get more and more people to apply to Oxford, so there is plenty that is done it is just that Oriel college seems to be out on a limb.’

The academic suggested he would be happy if the statue was ‘contexualised’ with a plaque describing Rhodes’ colonial career, and also endorsed sculpture Antony Gormley’s suggestion to turn the monument around so it faced the wall.

While they will still give lectures, the ‘work to rule’ will see staff deny the college’s 300 undergraduates the chance for in-depth discussion in small groups or one-to-one sessions. Pictured: Dr Kate Tunstall

The storm is the second to hit Oxford in as many days, after students at Magdalen College voted to remove a portrait of the Queen from their common room because she ‘represents recent colonial history’.

Last month saw Oriel reject calls to tear down the statue of Rhodes, after an independent commission produced a 144-page report on the isssue following a long-running Rhodes Must Fall campaign.

An Oxford student in the 1870s, Rhodes left money to Oriel on his death in 1902 and his statue stands on the college’s building on Oxford High Street. An imperialist, businessman and politician, he played a dominant role in southern Africa in the late 19th century, driving the annexation of vast swathes of land.

More than 1,400 people wrote to the independent commission with their views, including alumni who said removing Rhodes’s statue would amount to ‘censoring the past’ and ‘erasing history’.

The commission ultimately recommended that the statue be removed – but also highlighted how challenging it would be to conduct such work on a Grade II listed building. In addition to the cost, such changes would also require permission from Robert Jenrick, the Communities Secretary.

Previous vows from ministers to protect statues from ‘baying mobs’ suggest any moves to remove Rhodes would be blocked by the Government.

Following Oriel’s decision to keep the statue, college provost Lord Mendoza insisted any money needed to pay for its removal – and associated legal challenges – would be better spent on students. 

But Professor Tunstall, interim provost of Worcester College, is among Oxford academics who invited colleagues to sign a ‘statement of a boycott of Oriel College’. 

Their joint declaration states: ‘Faced with Oriel’s stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it produced for the College, we feel we have no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations.’

 Demonstrators hold placards during a protest arranged by the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in June 2020 

Signatories agree to ‘refuse requests from Oriel to give tutorials to Oriel undergraduates’. They will also refuse to interview prospective students, nor will they speak at Oriel talks and conferences.

The incendiary petition

The Collegiate University can only effectively and credibly work to eradicate racism and address the ongoing effects of colonialism today if all the Colleges do so. 

Oriel College’s decision not to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes undermines us all. 

Faced with Oriel’s stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it produced for the College, we feel we have no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations. 

With regret, then, we, the undersigned, agree that until Oriel makes a credible public commitment to remove the statue, we shall:

  •  Refuse requests from Oriel to give tutorials to Oriel undergraduates; 
  • Refuse to assist Oriel in its outreach and access work, including undergraduate admissions interviewing;
  • Refuse to participate in recruitment and assessment processes for Fellowships at Oriel and other Oriel College appointments;
  • Refuse to attend or speak at talks, seminars, and conferences sponsored by Oriel.

The petition has been spearheaded by Professor Tunstall, who has previously attempted to scrap the saying of grace before meals. Other apparent authors of the boycott statement include Sneha Krishnan, an associate professor in human geography at Brasenose, and two academics from St Antony’s College: Miles Larmer, professor of African history, and Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African politics.

The college is establishing a ‘task force’ to look at how to ‘retain and explain’ the statue, by making the public aware of the context and history behind it.

A likely option is to add a plaque, but dons are also considering creating a ‘digital museum’ about the statue, which could be accessed around the world.

But the Rhodes Must Fall campaign called it a ‘slap in the face’ and vowed to carry on fighting.

Responding to the campaign, a senior Oxford don said: ‘This is despicable and mean-minded. It is unprecedented for the head of one college to attack and detract from the teaching of students at another college.

‘This is politics based on ignorance and bias, and should have nothing to do with Oxford or any other university, where the principle aim should be to educate students and not damage their learning through left-biased agitation.’

Lord Wharton, the chairman of the Office for Students, told the Telegraph the boycott was ‘utterly unacceptable’ if it led to students being ‘disadvantaged in any way’.

Tory MP Tim Loughton added: ‘This is academic blackmail by a group of academics who think their own political views should trump everyone else’s, and if they don’t get their own way then any innocent students who happen to fall within their boycott will become the victims.’

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