In an opinion piece published by Project Syndicate, chancellor of Oxford University has compared the Rhodes Must Fall (RMF) movement with the Chinese government, arguing that both would display similar mechanisms of suppressing free expression and critical discourse. Western students should not abuse the freedoms bestowed upon them, freedoms that Chinese students have to fight for or barely know in the first place.
Lord Patten has argued that students who demand ‘safe spaces’ in university life are merely trying to “be protected from anything that assaults their sense of what is moral and appropriate”. The debate over safe spaces at the university has drawn a significant amount of attention and criticism from Patten who posits that learning to think for oneself comes with being challenged by opinions one might not agree with. In his view, not giving dissent a platform in a debate is reminiscent of the situation in China, where the government has launched the biggest crackdown on universities since 1989 in the aftermath of the 2014 pro-democracy student protests in Hong Kong. After all, Lord Patten served as the last British governor of Hong Kong.
His experience with colonial rule might also lead him to dismiss the movement’s substantial claims about the legacy of controversial imperialist Cecil Rhodes by suggesting that to expunge controversial figures from our historical memory can easily lead into infinite regress. “How would Churchill and Washington fare” if we applied the same criteria of contemporary political correctness to them, Patten asks. However, he does not address RMF’s further claims regarding, among other things, significant curriculum biases and institutional racism at Oxford University, a topic which was even picked up by Prime Minister David Cameron recently in a much-noticed call for better university access in the UK. Patten’s argumentative emphasis lies on his perception of the circumstantial procedures of discourse surrounding RMF and the philosophical backdrop of freedom.
Given his profound experience with university chancellorship after having been appointed procedural head of all the universities in Hong Kong against his will, Patten emphasizes that a university should always champion freedom, regardless of its socio-cultural context. If it does not and if its academic self-governance is interfered with, it could hardly be a world-class institution. Such a development could be observed in Hong Kong at the moment. In light of RMF, Patten adds in that context that “if any denial of academic liberty is a blow struck against the meaning of a university, the irony today is that some of the most worrying attacks on these values have been coming from inside universities”.
In response to Patten’s deliberations, Femi Nylander, organizing member of RMF, declared on the movement’s behalf that while Oxford University has long neglected to do so, RMF has been promoting public debate and the imparting of new knowledge, two tasks that Patten deems crucial university responsibilities in his article. Patten also stresses the university’s role “to test the results of research with other scholars”, and Nylander suggests that it might fare better in that regard if it had “reading lists that are not full of dead and aging white men, and more than a handful of black professors”. Not only would Cecil Rhodes fail to meet today’s standards of political correctness, as Patten suggests, but even some of Rhodes’ contemporaries had “believed the proclamation of ‘I prefer land to nigger’ to have been in bad taste”. Nylander concludes that “to tell students who are angry at being horrifically under-represented in the curriculum and student life and who have been mandated by OUSU, the Oxford Union and various JCR and MCR’s that they should ‘think about studying elsewhere’, and compare them to the repression of the Chinese communist party is not just indecent, but racist. Lord Patten should think about going elsewhere. Sadly it’s unlikely he will be given another gig as a colonial governor any time soon…”