Artillery Row

Dangerous Rhodes

Spare a thought for Oxford dons – they have every right to fear their students

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Big College Meetings take place on Wednesday afternoons; a relic of the days when the middle afternoon of the week was given to the young people for recreation. The most recent meeting of Oriel’s Governing Body, after which it released its statement responding to the latest manifestation of the Rhodes Must Fall movement, seems to have been no exception.

All University business has been driven online, so it was a shame that the Fellows of Oriel were deprived of a piece of atmospheric drama that would otherwise have attended their meeting as they sat in some elegant college room with their black gowns pulled around them. As they came to discuss the vexed question of the statue of Cecil Rhodes, an almighty storm broke over Oxford. 

There was thunder and lightning, and torrential rain; by 3 p.m. it was directly overhead. One wag wondered whether the Fellows might rise to find that the statue had been hit by a thunderbolt and vaporised, thus solving their problem for them. Another suggested that the meeting might be disturbed by heavy footsteps, followed by the door creaking open to reveal that the thunderbolt had instead brought the statue to life. 

It is to be regretted that the idea of this monstrous little Rhodes belonged to the fantastical, smouldering slightly at the edges while giving the Fellows of his college a piece of his mind, and perhaps squeaking as if having inhaled helium. After the tone of the debate in the preceding week, a touch of the supernaturally ludicrous might have been welcome relief. What emerged, instead, was the statement that Oriel released that evening. 

The Governing Body of Oriel College has today (Wednesday 17th June) voted to launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue. They also expressed their wish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes and the King Edward Street Plaque. This is what they intend to convey to the Independent Commission of Inquiry.

The full statement is on the college website for all to see; only time will tell what happens next. Old hands will recognise a masterly piece of Collegespeak, which commits Oriel to nothing in particular while giving the impression of earnest activity. To others it may well appear that the Fellows have caved to pressure from outside, and from their own hectoring students. Those who might wish to reach for the Prime Minister’s oft-quoted “great supine protoplasmic invertebrate jellies”, however, would do well to pause for thought.

Oriel’s predicament is indicative of a wider malaise in the University, which has manifested itself most recently in the almost totally unnuanced character of the debate that has surrounded the the college’s statue of its most generous benefactor. Measured engagement has been jettisoned in favour of clamour; peer pressure and fear of social reprisals have stifled dissent, with social media put to devastatingly effective use. This approach is hardly new, but it moves at a dizzying pace.

All that matters is whether or not you agree with certain students on the issues that they have chosen to focus upon this week—and heaven help you if you don’t

Three months ago the noise was all about climate-change; two months ago it was the NHS; this month it has been Black Lives Matter, to which Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford has hitched its most recent campaign. All may be regarded as worthy causes, perhaps, but an eco-conscious medical student working on the Covid-19 frontline might easily have been hailed a self-sacrificing and life-risking hero in May, and then called a racist in June for having expressed reservations about violent protest and criminal damage. Something doesn’t add up, but there it is.

The dons are prone to the same sort of treatment. Nigel Biggar has raised his head above the parapet again, but then he is a Regius Professor and a Canon of Christ Church—not to mention a former Chaplain of Oriel—and so can afford to do so from a position of tenured security. As he observed in Saturday’s Telegraph, in the context of the study of the British Empire, there are “far more academics with conservative views than ‘meets the eye’ but many are too fearful to make their views known.”

In an age where denunciations can be made at a drop of a hat, and passed around the world in seconds, this fear should not be underestimated. It is impossible not to sympathise with those who find themselves bombarded with emails from students demanding that Something Must Be Done, often using a circulated template for maximum effect. Everyone knows that an honest reply of an unfashionable stripe may well be “called out” on the internet within the hour.  

Things have reached a critical stage when those responsible for the educational formation of our young people are afraid of their charges. It speaks of a breakdown of the structures of a liberal educative framework, and of a topsy-turvy world in which students now demand that they be allowed to educate their teachers. It is not enough to be a world-class computer scientist, or a top philosopher, or an expert on French literature. All that matters is whether or not you agree with certain students on the issues that they have chosen to focus upon this week—and heaven help you if you don’t. 

In that light, there must at least be some sympathy for the Fellows of Oriel; away from corporate governance they too have careers to protect, many of them distinguished. What at first glance might look like a pusillanimous and total collapse of integrity and resolve may be better viewed in the context of the situation in which the University now finds itself. The question on everyone’s lips is how long this dystopia can realistically be sustained, without the damage it has already caused becoming irreversible. This year’s Long Vacation can’t come soon enough.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover