A statue of British businessman Cecil Rhodes is seen on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, on 5 February 2016. (Photo by ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP via Getty Images)
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E Pluribus Unum?

View From Oxford: A tale of two Presidents

The latest View from Oxford precipitated immediate correspondence; it was particularly interesting to receive copies of two recent communications sent to the members of the Junior Common Room of Oriel College. The first was written by the present JCR President, Harry Edwards; the second, perhaps surprisingly, was a statement issued by his predecessor, Kate Whittington. It has been illuminating to compare their responses to the Rhodes Commission’s request for further submissions.

In circulating Carole Souter’s letter, Mr Edwards wrote the following accompanying email to the JCR, which speaks for itself.

I have attached a document from Mrs Carole Souter CBE and the Rhodes Commission. The Commission is keen to ensure that Oriel students are given ample opportunity to offer any thoughts or views that might assist the Commission in their enquiry. As most of you will be aware, the JCR has tried to involve itself in the decisions surrounding the Rhodes statue at Oriel, and I urge anyone who would like to contribute to the work of the Commission to do so before January 17th.

The document specifies three questions that might helpfully direct our submissions. This is a really important time for the College and as Oriel students we are in a unique position which the Commission will benefit from understanding. If you have any questions about the Rhodes statue, its recent history, and the JCR’s involvement and actions regarding the statue, please do not hesitate to contact me. I hope this gives all those who wish to contribute to the Commission the chance to do so.

This might almost be regarded as statesmanlike, given the circumstances; Mr Edwards comes across as affable and mature beyond his years. It is notable for what it does not say; it seems to be the considered writing of an elected official who recognises that he leads a divided Common Room, all of whose members he represents, regardless of whatever his personal views may be.

Thank heavens that this is only student politics

Furthermore, Mr Edwards is also known to have issued an apology, early on in his term, to at least one individual whom Miss Whittington had publicly and officially encouraged the JCR to condemn for not being sufficiently aligned with her view of the world. He acknowledged that “the statement published by our then-President has a regrettably accusatory tone,” and assured the same student that “going forward, Oriel JCR will ensure that its publications are unbiased.”

Miss Whittington does not appear to have received that particular memorandum, for Mr Edwards’ email to the JCR was followed by an eleventh-hour encyclical, promulgated by his predecessor on 16 January. It is not clear in what capacity she issued it; it is not the custom for former JCR Presidents to continue to serve in any kind of representative capacity when their term of office comes to an end, and the position of Eternal President has yet to be established.

Undeterred by such details, Miss Whittington swiftly resurrected her theme of the summer as she addressed Mr Edwards’ members.

As you may know, last year in Trinity [T]erm our JCR voted in favour or removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes displayed on the college’s [H]igh [S]treet front. After much discussion, the governing body voted the same, and as a result the Rhodes Commission was set up to advise and review before the final choice is made. I just wanted to follow up Harry’s email with a final reminder that the deadline for your submissions is tomorrow (Sunday 17th) at 5pm!

If you are currently a first year and therefore did not participate in the discussion at the time—and particularly if you are a student who has been made to feel alienated or uncomfortable by the presence of a white supremacist on the college building—please know that your opinion is also so valuable and important and don’t hesitate to submit your thoughts […] If you’d like to know more about the debate, what we worked on, or the BLM subcommittee, just message or email me and I’d be very happy to discuss.

If the Freshers knew what was good for them, they’d have meekly followed instructions from someone for whom they never voted, in order to demonstrate their acceptable views about a debate in which they had had neither voice nor franchise. It would have taken a very brave eighteen-year-old to ask Miss Whittington for a nuanced assessment of historical facts, and to risk the kind of public denunciation that has been handed down in the past.

It is hard not to sympathise with Mr Edwards, who presently possesses the mandate that Miss Whittington can no longer claim. A new President, apparently committed to a measured approach that recognises the breadth of a divided electorate, facing the challenge of working in the shadow of a predecessor—one who continues to attempt to exercise public influence, and seems determined to promote and protect a divisive and controversial legacy, come what may.

One can only imagine what that must be like. Thank heavens that this is only student politics, then, and that it could never happen in the real world.

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