Oxford University scholars refuse to teach under Cecil Rhodes statue


A long-standing controversy at Oxford University over a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British imperialist considered by many to be an architect of apartheid in South Africa, gained new momentum this week after more than 150 academics said they would refuse to teach students at the college where the monument is located.

The academics sent a letter to the college saying they would deny applications from Oriel College, one of the 39 autonomous entities that make up the university, giving tutorials to its undergraduates and attending or speaking at college-sponsored events, among other measures.

“In the face of Oriel’s stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it has produced for the College, we believe we have no choice,” they wrote in the letter seen by the New York Times.

The boycott is the latest high profile protest in a complex calculation unfolding in Britain and several other European countries over their colonial and slave trading past. In museums, public spaces and schools, a long-standing discourse that colonizing forces brought “civilization” to African countries is changing, with many critics saying too little is being done to confront the past.

Some students at Magdalen College at the University of Oxford on Wednesday removed a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II, the reigning monarch, arguing that the British monarchy represented colonial history.

The UK government has mainly resisted such calls, and a cabinet minister earlier this year vowed to “save the British statues of the awakened activists”.

“What has been around for generations should be considered thoughtfully, not deleted on a whim or at the behest of a barking crowd,” Robert Jenrick, the minister, said in The Telegraph.

In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, thousands of protesters gathered in Oxford last June to demand the disassembly of the statue of Rhodes. Protesters across Britain also targeted monuments dedicated to Winston Churchill, and in Bristol, protesters toppled a statue of slave trader Edward Colson, whose profits played a significant role in building the city . The statue, which was thrown into the city’s harbor, is now on display in a museum.

Cities like Bristol in England or Bordeaux and Nantes on the Atlantic coast of France were forced to admit that they prospered thanks to the slavery and forced labor of many people. Belgium sent its “deepest regrets” to the Democratic Republic of the Congo for the millions of deaths and devastating damage it caused during decades of colonization, and local authorities in the city of Antwerp removed a statue of King Leopold II, who was at the origin of colonization. .

In Oxford, Oriel College has for years hesitated over the fate of the Rhodes Statue, which is a prominent feature of its main building on one of Oxford’s main streets. While the governing body of Oriel College has said it supports its removal, the college announced last month that it would not remove the statue, citing financial concerns and arguing that the operation “could last for years. years without certainty of result “.

Instead, he pledged to fundraise for scholarships for students in South Africa and to host an annual Rhodes Legacy conference, among other initiatives.

“We understand that this nuanced conclusion will be disappointing for some, but we are now focusing on implementing practical actions aimed at improving the awareness and daily experience” of black and ethnic minority students, the rector of the college, Neil Mendoza, told The Telegraph.

(In addition to being the university provost, Mr Mendoza sits in the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, as a Conservative lawmaker.)

Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African studies at the University of Oxford and one of the academics behind the boycott, said Oriel College’s counter-offers were insufficient.

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“For years, Oriel has been recalcitrant about the statue,” said Dr Chigudu. “They are not acting in good faith, so we will not participate in good faith activities with them.”

As part of the University of Oxford college system, undergraduates attend lectures, seminars, and small group sessions called tutorials, all set up by the college they are affiliated with. Although the professors are also affiliated with colleges, they can tutor students from different colleges as needed.

The boycott means that the 150 participating professors, who come from other colleges within the university, will not teach any of Oriel’s 300 undergraduates. They will also not participate in conferences or other events organized by the college.

(The boycott will not affect Oriel’s graduate students, as graduate students enroll in courses through their study department – law or philosophy, for example.)

A student representative from Oriel College did not respond to a request for comment.

Oriel College said in a statement Thursday, that the academics’ decision not to engage in teaching activities with college students would “have a proportionate impact on our students and the broader university community in Oriel, to whom we all owe a duty. of diligence “.

Rhodes ‘legacy was disputed at Oxford University even before his death: in 1899, 90 academics signed a petition against Rhodes’ visit to Oriel College to receive an honorary degree.

“I grew up in Oxford as a child, and I remember there were already problems around the statue in the 1980s,” said Danny Dorling, professor of geography at the university and signatory of the letter, which stated that the statue’s presence was a stain on the reputation of the university.

In 2015, students signed a petition and staged a protest against the monument, following the lead of students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, who had successfully demanded that a similar statue of Rhodes be removed.

Oxford University’s “Rhodes Must Fall” movement has since staged several protests against the statue, with renewed strength over the past year.

Born in Great Britain, Rhodes studied at Oriel College at the end of the 19th century before becoming Prime Minister of the Cape Colony, South Africa, in 1890. Through his diamond company, De Beers Rhodes annexed large tracts of land, and the settlers and soldiers he led killed thousands of civilians. Rhodes biographers and critics have highlighted his racist views, saying his discriminatory policies against indigenous residents paved the way for apartheid.

Rhodes died in 1902, and in his will he donated the current equivalent of nearly £ 12 million, or about $ 17 million, to Oriel College.

Dozens of international students also study at Oxford University each year through the Rhodes Scholarship, which was established by Mr Rhodes’ will. Previous recipients include Bill Clinton and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott.

Following the Oxford protests last year, the governing body of Oriel College appointed an independent commission to study options for the statue. He supported the removal of the statue, as well as a Rhodes commemorative plaque on another street in Oxford.

In a 144-page report, the commission reminded the college of Rhodes’ past: its policy in Cape Town “intensified racial segregation” and its actions were “responsible for extreme violence against Africans”, according to a quoted professor.

“Does the College wish to retain such a central symbol of racial segregation at a time when society and institutions such as the University of Oxford are working hard to decisively address this legacy?” William Beinart, professor emeritus of African studies at the University of Oxford, wrote in the report.

Professor Dorling, who signed this week’s letter, said the boycott was intended to display frustration at Oriel College’s inaction.

“You cannot keep the statue of a racist on the highest plinth of a university building,” said Professor Dorling, adding that its removal was a matter of time.

“The question is how many – months, years, decades. “

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