Decision to keep Cecil Rhodes statue at Oxford college ‘a slap in the face’

An Oxford University college’s decision not to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes has been called “a slap in the face” by campaigners.

The Rhodes Must Fall campaign accused Oriel College of “institutional racism” after the governing body said it would not seek to move the monument at this stage.

The campaigners – which staged protests last summer over the statue of the British imperialist – are urging the college “to reconsider their position immediately” as they pledged to continue their fight.

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 statue.

But a statement by Oriel College on Thursday said: “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.

“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.”

The 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.

A statement from the Rhodes Must Fall campaign said: “No matter how Oriel College might try to justify their decision, allowing the statue to remain is an act of institutional racism.

“The morality of the decision of whether to remove the statue above High Street has been subsumed into a cost-benefit analysis, one that does not take into account the human cost of letting the statue remain.

“Pretending that this is a choice made due to financial costs is a slap in the face with the hand of white supremacy, fed by the value system of profit before humanity, the same value system that justified enslavement.”

The campaigners added: “We are disappointed at the refusal to listen to not only the voices of the people who have called for the removal of the statue of Rhodes for many years, but their own governing body and the recommendations of the independent commission.

“We will continue to fight for the fall of this statue and everything it represents.”

Black Lives Matter protests
Protesters in Oxford city centre during a protest calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the Oriel college (Joe Giddens/PA)

Councillor Susan Brown, leader of Oxford City Council, said: “I am personally deeply disappointed that Oriel College have chosen today to backtrack on their previous decision to remove the Rhodes statue and ignore the views of the commission on this crucial part of their work.

“For people in our city this was the most important action that Oriel College could have taken to show an acknowledgement of the discrimination of the past and they have failed to act.”

But Education Secretary Gavin 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.”

Meanwhile, Dr Samir Shah, vice-chair of think tank Policy Exchange’s History Matters Project, said: “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.”

Announcing its decision not to remove the statue now, the college said it will focus its time and resources on “improving educational equality, diversity and inclusion” among its student cohort and academic community.

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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
– 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.

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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.

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.”

An Oxford City Council spokesperson said: “We note the college’s decision not to remove the statue, but we are ready to progress any planning issues should they revise this decision.”

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.