Oriel College Oxford has been accused of putting the money of big donors before students' free speech after it announced that it would not remove a statue of the imperialist mining magnate and politician Cecil Rhodes.
Last month, the college said it would remove a plaque to Rhodes and launch a six-month consultation about the future of the statue. However, days before the consultation was due to begin, the college has announced that both the statue and the plaque are staying where they are.
“Following careful consideration, the college’s governing body has decided that the statue should remain in place and that the college will seek to provide a clear historical context to explain why it is there,” it said in a statement.
Rhodes Must Fall Oxford (RMFO), which had campaigned for the statue to be removed, denounced the decision as "outrageous, dishonest, and cynical" and promised that its campaign would go on. According to internal college documents leaked to the Telegraph, the decision followed threats to withdraw up to £100 million (€131 million) in pledged donations.
Inspired by a successful campaign to remove a Rhodes statue from Cape Town University, the group argued that the statue's prominent position in Oxford was an affront to black students.
Rhodes, who gave his name to Rhodesia, the forerunner of Zimbabwe, was a white supremacist who pursued his colonial and business interests in southern Africa with brutality. A former student at Oriel, he left the college a large sum of money on his death and also left a massive endowment to fund the Rhodes Scholarships. His statue stands above the main entrance of Oriel's Rhodes Building in the centre of Oxford.
Oriel’s announcement last month that it would consider removing the statue spurred many of Britain’s most prominent public figures and commentators to intervene in the debate, almost all of them condemning the student protesters.
Oxford's chancellor Chris Patten suggested that the Rhodes Must Fall campaigners were trying to shut down debate, suggesting that they should embrace freedom of thought or "think about being educated elsewhere".
Cambridge classicist Mary Beard dismissed the campaign as "in many ways a foolish enterprise, which probably did more harm to our understanding of history". Observer columnist Will Hutton, defending the legacy of the British empire in southern Africa, accused the campaigners of neglecting the need for "an open mind, freedom of debate and unobstructed access to facts".
"Not since the question of the Scottish referendum was being debated have we seen the British establishment come together as one on an issue as we have on the issue of Rhodes's statue," said Richard Drayton, Rhodes professor of imperial history at King's College London, and a supporter of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
“I think the issue of Rhodes’s statue has touched on a very profound nerve in the British political unconscious, which is the way in which the idea of Britain as an imperial power retains some kind of a complicated but important role in the constitution of British national identity.”
Prof Drayton believed the debate had exposed a generational divide, noting that an Oxford Union debate last week saw a majority of students voting in favour of removing the statue. He said the response of those in their 40s, 50s and 60s also reflected an anxiety about cultural changes in Britain, including some surrounding racial issues.
He suggested, however, that some of those who spoke up for the Rhodes statue were motivated by an admiration for the British imperial past itself, which was often reflected in an interventionist approach to foreign policy today.
“I think there’s actually a reach backwards to an earlier period and I think there’s a kind of return to what were the kinds of Whiggish assumptions in British historical and public life in the early 20th century, which essentially connected the idea of Britain with the idea of the spread of a kind of liberal democratic order and of particular forms of humanitarianism and anti-slavery,” he said.
Rhodes Must Fall Oxford will spend the weekend considering its next move but Prof Drayton is confident that the movement will continue and that the issue of the Rhodes statue is not yet resolved.
“I would have proposed that that statue go into a museum where its particular meaning and context in 1911 would be explained, because it is indeed a historical document of a kind. But objects simply because they are old don’t necessarily have a perpetual right to public space,” he said.