Just when we thought the debate surrounding the statue of Cecil Rhodes couldn’t get any more controversial, it just did. On Thursday night, Oriel College announced that the infamous statue of its benefactor Cecil Rhodes was to remain in place, following an extraordinary display of narcissistic egotism from its wealthy donors.
A report written by Oriel’s development director Sean Power, leaked to the Telegraph Newspaper, hints that College’s decision to cut short its six month process of “listening” was motivated by threats to withdraw bequests to the College worth over £100 million. The report stresses the damaging impact of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign on Oriel’s fundraising projects and a desire to put an end to the media attention surrounding the college’s decision to consider removing a plaque devoted to the colonialist as well as a potential application to remove the statute itself. In a particularly damning verdict the report states that ‘If the College continues on the path it has chosen to go down (…) this will be a serious issue for future fundraising at Oriel.’ Despite assuring its current students that the decision to keep the Rhodes statute based was based on ‘principled reasons’ and that the story run by the Telegraph was ‘speculative’ and ‘misleading’, in an email circulated to Oriel students, it is clear that financial pressure from alumni has played a major role in assuring that Rhodes remains on the front of Oriel college in all his glory.
I am both appalled and alarmed at this display of egotism from the alumni of Oriel college. The fact a few wealthy individuals have been able to financially coerce the college into submitting to their personal opinions on an issue as sensitive as the legacy of colonialism, in a supposedly inclusive academic environment, is unacceptable. These threats to disinherit Oriel serve to disrespect not only the staff and Governing body of the college, who up until this point have shown a genuine desire to discuss removing the statue and listen to a range of opinions over this issue, but also shows outright contempt towards the current students of this university and their opinions on the commemoration of Rhodes. We are witnessing nothing short of the politicisation of charitable bequests to an academic institution with the intention of derailing a prominent and intellectually stimulating movement that has helped to reframe how we should remember historical figures and the impacts of their legacy.
This is about more than just a statue. The Rhodes Must Fall Movement is committed to improving BME access, racial diversity and equality within the university and looking at the increasing the awareness of Oxford’s deep rooted relationship with our imperialist past. Opponents of Rhodes Must Fall frequently levy accusations that the removal of the statue constitutes the ‘erasing of history’. However, it is vitally important to remember that statues and memorials are not how we remember history: they are how we commemorate individuals. By having a statue of Rhodes facing out onto the high street, Oriel is commemorating Rhodes and his legacy. The money that he so generously bequeathed to the college, the reason why he is etched in stone, was the fruit of the exploitation of African nations and their natural resources, and this is why accusations of hypocrisy aimed at Rhodes scholars who support the removal of the statue are misguided and myopic.
Regardless of whether you believe Rhodes must fall or not, the responses of Oriel Alumni and their influence in an issue which affects current Oxford students today is shocking and illustrates a fatal misunderstanding of the values at the heart of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign. The leaked report stresses a clear ‘sense of shame and embarrassment’ on behalf of the alumni in response to the College’s decision to consider removing the statue. If mere discussion of the fate of the Rhodes statue by Oriel’s governing body, in response to petitions, protests and widespread debate throughout the media, embarrasses the patrons and former students of this College then I, a current student at Oriel College, am embarrassed to be associated with them. The sheer arrogance of these individuals who actively dismiss the democratic process of debate surrounding the commemoration of a man whose legacy runs counter to the values and the commitment of both the College and the University is, to me at least, unfathomable.
Whether or not the decision to keep the statue of Cecil Rhodes was the direct result of the loss of alumni donations or of other more principled factors, we cannot know for sure at this stage. But the very fact that wealthy donors possess the unaccountable power to even so much as influence the decisions made by the governing body of an educational institution over an issue as central as equality and the commemoration of colonialism is alarming to say the very least. Perhaps the most telling issue raised by these leaked documents is encapsulated in the question: ‘is this how we treat our donors?’ If the donors of our university colleges openly compare themselves and their legacies with that of Cecil Rhodes, and are more concerned with their own eternal veneration than the opinions and the well being of the University’s students, then I am ashamed to identify with them.