Minister slaps down rebellious academics after 150 write petition to Oriel College over Cecil Rhodes
The government today warned that Oxford students could win compensation if they are affected by a planned teaching boycott by 150 rebel academics protesting over the Cecil Rhodes statue, as Jacob Rees-Mogg said, ‘We must not allow this wokeness to happen’.
Left-wing dons say they will still give lectures to Oriel College’s 300 undergraduates, but deny them the chance for in-depth discussion in small groups or one-to-one sessions until the monument to the colonialist is toppled.
Proponents of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign claim the small statue high up on Oriel’s main building ‘glorifies colonialism’, but the college last month decided it would stay following a backlash from donors.
Today a No 10 spokesman said universities had a duty to provide good-quality teaching and that the Government would expect ‘appropriate action’ to be taken if that was disrupted.
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg also weighed into the row, describing the academics concerned as a ‘useless bunch’, adding: ‘We must not allow this wokeness to happen.’
Proponents of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign claim the small statue high up on Oriel’s main building ‘glorifies colonialism’, but the college last month decided it would stay following a backlash from donors
Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg weighed into the row, describing the academics concerned as a ‘useless bunch’, adding: ‘We must not allow this wokeness to happen’
The rebel academics, led by Professor Kate Tunstall – the head of another college – have threatened not to assist Oriel College with its outreach work and admissions interviews, and they will refuse to attend or speak at talks, seminars and conferences sponsored by the college.
Asked about the row today, a Downing Street spokesman said: ‘Students rightly expect to get a good deal for their investment in higher education and we would expect universities to take appropriate action should any student be seriously affected by these actions which could include compensation.
‘We fully believe in protecting academic freedom but universities have a duty to maintain access to good-quality tuition as a priority especially given the disruption the pandemic has caused students already.’
Mr Rees-Mogg discussed the issue in the Commons after Tory MP Tom Hunt complained about the ‘wokification’ of Oxford following the Rhodes row and a vote by Magdalen students to take down a portrait of the Queen in their Common room.
Mr Rees-Mogg responded: ‘As for Magdalen College, it’s not exactly 1687/88, it’s a few pimply adolescents getting excited and taking down a picture of Her Majesty. It makes Magdalen look pretty wet, but it’s not the end of the world.’
Mr Rees-Mogg added: ‘As regards the academics refusing to teach, I’m half tempted to say you should be lucky not to be taught by such a useless bunch, but if they are that feeble, what are you missing and what are they doing there? Why don’t they have any pride in their country, our marvellous history and our success?
‘Rhodes is not a black and white figure, perhaps they’re not learned enough to have bothered to look up the history of Rhodes in any detail, which has been written about quite extensively now and as I say, he is a figure of importance and of interest and of enormous generosity to Oxford. Do they want to give the money back to the descendants of Cecil Rhodes, or are they intending to keep it to themselves?
‘So we must not allow this wokeness to happen, the idea of changing Churchill College, well perhaps we should introduce a Bill to rename Cambridge, Churchill and call it Churchill University and that would be one in the eye for the Lefties.’
The rebel academics, led by Professor Kate Tunstall – the head of another college – have threatened not to assist Oriel College with its outreach work and admissions interviews
Trade minister Greg Hands gave his view on the issue this morning, telling LBC’s Nick Ferrari: ‘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.’
One of those supporting the anti-Rhodes campaign is Robert Gildea, Professor of Modern History at Worcester College, who today suggested Oriel College should place a sign saying ‘Sorry’ around Rhodes’ neck.
Professor Gildea was one of the signatories of the petition, and said the boycott is a way of ‘putting pressure’ on the college after many alternatives had failed.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘One of the options offered by the commission was to retain and contextualise, so if the college put up a notice explaining who Cecil Rhodes was that would be fine.
‘If the college put a placard around his neck at lunchtime today saying ‘Sorry’ that would also be fine.’
Prof Gildea added that sculptor Antony Gormley’s suggestion that the statue be turned round to face the wall is also a ‘very interesting idea’.
A statement from the boycott organisers said: ‘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.’
It added: ‘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.’
Last night 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.’
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.
Demonstrators hold placards during a protest arranged by the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign in June 2020
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.’
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.
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 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.’
Today Oriel expressed ‘sadness’ at the boycott threat.
A statement said: ‘Oriel College undertook an extensive, academic and rigorous process advised by a ten-month long, independent commission of inquiry, established to consider the issues raised by the memorials and legacy of Cecil Rhodes.
‘The commission did not make a recommendation on the removal of memorials.
‘We note with sadness that some fellow academics from other colleges at Oxford University have chosen not to respect the decisions of our governing body, not least because of the commensurate impact on our students and the wider academic community at Oriel, to whom we all have a duty of care. ‘