OUSU condemns Oriel over Rhodes statue

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On the evening of Wednesday, 3 February, the Oxford University Student Union (OUSU) Council—Oxford’s highest decision-making body—voted to hold Oriel College accountable for its failure to follow through on its ‘listening campaign’ to Oxford students regarding the status of the Rhodes statue.

The emergency motion, entitled ‘Holding Oriel College Accountable’, was proposed in light of Oriel College’s statement released 28th January, which stated that the College had received ‘overwhelming support’ in favour of leaving the Rhodes statue in place above High Street, and that it intended to do so. The motion was proposed by Eden Bailey of Magdalen College and seconded by Hilal Yazan of St. Hugh’s College, who noted that given the brevity of Oxford’s eight-week terms, it was appropriate to bring forward the issue as soon as possible.

On 17th December 2015, Oriel College leadership had stated that “the continuing display” of Rhodes’ private plaque “is inconsistent with [the College’s] principles” and represented a “political tribute” to Rhodes. The statement confirmed that Oriel was in the early processes of obtaining local Council consent for the statue’s removal, and established that the College would begin a six-month “listening exercise” during which it would seek the “views and ideas” of Oxford University students, staff, alumni, and the wider Oxfordshire community and members of the public.

With the release of Oriel’s follow-up statement on 28th January, it became clear that only one month after its original statement, the College had announced its intention to leave both the Rhodes statue and plaque in place without further dialogue or consultation. As the OUSU motion notes, “the listening exercise therefore never started. Students and others who expected to be given an opportunity to speak over the coming six months were not given the promised opportunity to have their voices heard”.

The OUSU Council believes that “it is unacceptable for any College not to follow through on a commitment made to its students, and Colleges should be held accountable for doing so”. The motion called Oriel College’s failure to uphold its commitment “both unfair and dishonest”. Notably, Oriel had previously stated that the College had “a commitment to seek views in as inclusive a way as possible on how controversial associations and bequests, including that of Rhodes to Oriel, and the record of them in the built environment, can be dealt with appropriately.” The College’s later decision, allegedly made following communications with large donors to the College, has been perceived by many students as a retraction of Oriel’s commitment to listening to the opinions of the Oxford community.

Ultimately, the OUSU Council’s decision condemned Oriel College’s “failure to follow through on commitments made to students which primarily affect those in already marginalised and oppressed groups”. The Council’s vote, passing by 81 to 5 with 11 abstentions, is the most significant indication thus far of the Oxford student body’s discontent with Oriel’s decision. Other official student bodies, however, have voted similarly.

Early on 4th February, Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) Oxford stated publicly that despite Oriel’s announcement, the movement is “growing stronger every day”. It noted, “[The OUSU Council’s vote] continues the wave of official student bodies that have voted in favour of RMF, against Oriel, or to overturn motions antagonistic to RMF”. These motions are proof, according to RMF, that “Oriel’s laughable suggestion that there was ‘overwhelming support’ for its decision to retain the Rhodes statue wears thinner by the hour.”

On 1 February, the Balliol College Middle Common Room (MCR) voted in support of Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) and endorsed all of the seven demands that RMF had released following Oriel’s statement of 28th January. On 2 February, the Oriel College Junior Common Room (JCR) condemned its own governing body for failure to undertake its previously announced “listening exercise” with students prior to making its decision. On the same evening, the St Peter’s College JCR held a similar motion, voting unanimously to “condemn Oriel’s lack of adequate consultation”.

Regarding the JCR’s decision, an anonymous student from St Peter’s College stated, “I was pleased with the outcome of the motion. The debate was comprehensive and well-received; lots of questions were asked and debated with the JCR voting decisively in the end to back Rhodes Must Fall’s campaign, which a number of students at St Peter’s have taken part in”.

The OUSU Council’s decision, like those of the Oriel and St Peter’s JCRs, does not directly implicate the Rhodes Must Fall movement itself. Rather, the motion sought to bring to light important concerns about the manner in which Oriel has interacted with university students and taken their sentiments and opinions into account during the development of its decision pertaining to the Rhodes statue.

“Oriel College has a duty to support the education and wellbeing of its current students first and foremost, before honouring the wishes of alumni”, the OUSU Council stated.