Cecil Rhodes statue will stay at Oxford college for now despite renewed campaign

The governing body of an Oxford University college will not take down the controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes at this stage due to “regulatory and financial challenges” presented by its removal.

Oriel College’s decision comes after a long-running campaign demanding the removal of the British imperialist’s monument gained renewed attention amid the Black Lives Matter movement.

An independent inquiry to examine Rhodes’ legacy was set up in June last year after the governing body of Oriel College “expressed their wish” to remove the statue from outside the college.

A majority of members on the Commission supported the college’s original wish to remove the Rhodes’ statue.

But a statement by Oriel College on Thursday said: “In light of the considerable obstacles to removal, Oriel’s governing body has decided not to begin the legal process for relocation of the memorials.”

It added: “The Commission backed the College’s original wish (made in June 2020 and reaffirmed again by the College yesterday), to remove the statue, whilst acknowledging the complex challenges and costs presented by its removal in terms of heritage and planning consent.

“The governing body has carefully considered the regulatory and financial challenges, including the expected time frame for removal, which could run into years with no certainty of outcome, together with the total cost of removal.”

Education Secretary Gavin Williamson welcomed the College’s “sensible” decision not to remove the statue as he warned against “censoring history”.

The College said it will instead focus its time and resources on “improving educational equality, diversity and inclusion amongst its student cohort and academic community”.

The governing body has agreed to:

– Create the office of Tutor for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion
– Fundraise for scholarships to support students from southern Africa
– Have an annual lecture on a topic related to the Rhodes legacy, race, or colonialism
– Have an annual student prize on a topic related to Rhodes legacy, race, or colonialism
– Provide additional training for academic and non-academic staff in race awareness
– Introduce further outreach initiatives targeted at BME student recruitment

The independent Commission was due to publish its findings in January, but the report was delayed due to Covid and the volume of submissions received.

A statement from Oriel College said most of the submissions to the Commission backed the retention of the statue, but Commission members did not make specific recommendations on the issue.

The report acknowledged the considerable planning and heritage considerations involved in removing the statue from a Grade II* listed building.

The governing body of Oriel College has agreed to contextualise the Rhodes legacy and memorials, including both physical elements at the site and virtual resources, and it will commission a virtual exhibition to provide an arena for contextualisation and explanation of the Rhodes legacy.

Black Lives Matter protests
Protesters in Oxford city centre, Oxford, during a protest calling for the removal of the statue of 19th century imperialist, politician Cecil Rhodes from the Oriel college, Oxford, which has reignited amid anti-racism demonstrations (Joe Giddens/PA)

Lord Mendoza, provost of Oriel College, said: “It has been a careful, finely balanced debate and we are fully aware of the impact our decision is likely to have in the UK and further afield.

“We understand this nuanced conclusion will be disappointing to some, but we are now focused on the delivery of practical actions aimed at improving outreach and the day-to-day experience of BME students.

“We are looking forward to working with Oxford City Council on a range of options for contextualisation.”

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In 2016, Oriel College decided to keep the controversial statue in place following a consultation despite protests from campaigners.

Last summer, demonstrations took place outside Oriel College, calling for the statue to be removed from the High Street entrance of the building, as well as anti-racism protests, following the death of George Floyd in the US.

Mr Williamson tweeted: “Sensible & balanced decision not to remove the Rhodes statue from Oriel College, Oxford – because we should learn from our past, rather than censoring history, and continue focussing on reducing inequality.”

Dr Samir Shah, vice chair of the centre-right leaning think tank Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project, said: “Oriel has followed what looks like a very rational and thoughtful process, not always obvious in the many hundreds of decisions we have catalogued at Policy Exchange over the past year.

“The college allowed many voices to be heard.

“It is especially notable that most people consulted opted for a retain and explain approach.”

He added: “In short, Oriel has rightly decided not to spend time on a fruitless effort to change the past, but to plough resources into trying to change the future, especially for ethnic minority young people.”