Current Affairs

Oriel College launches inquiry backing the removal of Rhodes’ statue

The governing body of Oriel College has released a statement recommending the removal of its controversial statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, following an investigation into his relationship with Britain’s colonial past.

The College announced that it was launching an “independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue” with Carole Souter CBE, the current Master of St Cross College and former Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, appointed as the independent Chair of the inquiry.

As well as attempting to address “the issue of the Rhodes legacy”, the inquiry will also explore “how to improve access and attendance of BAME undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the College’s 21st Century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past”.

The statement added that the inquiry would approach several individuals from the fields of “academia, education policy, law, politics and journalism” adding that “the commission is intending to draw upon the greatest possible breadth and depth of experience, opinion and background”.

This statement comes amidst recent protests over the statue as part of the global Black Lives Matter movement, which has been reinvigorated in the wake of George Floyd’s death at the hands of American police last month. Protests have also called for the removal of the King Edward Street plaque, which likewise commemorates Rhodes.

The statue itself was erected after Rhodes donated a considerable sum of money to the college as part of his will. Today’s statement from the Governing Body marks a significant departure from previous stances adopted by Oxford University authorities on the topic as Oriel college refused to budge in the face of sustained student pressure in 2016.

Whilst speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme last week, the university’s Chancellor, Lord Patten, accused protestors of “hypocrisy”, based upon the Rhodes Trust’s history of funding student scholarships with a “a fifth of them from Africa”. The Prime Minister himself suggested last week that it would be unwise to “seek to censor or edit our past”.

This decision marks the culmination of a five-year campaign by students and follows votes in favour of the statue’s removal in both the college’s JCR and MCR. A change.org petition on the issue has received more than 188,000 signatures (at the time of publication).

The statement from Oriel College reads as follows:

“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. 

“Both of these decisions were reached after a thoughtful period of debate and reflection and with the full awareness of the impact these decisions are likely to have in Britain and around the world. 

“The Commission will deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st Century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past. 

“At today’s meeting, the Governing Body also approved the appointment of an independent Chair for the Commission of Inquiry, Carole Souter CBE, the current Master of St Cross College and former Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, who in turn will approach a number of individuals drawn from the worlds of academia, education policy, law, politics and journalism. The commission is intending to draw upon the greatest possible breadth and depth of experience, opinion and background. 

“The Inquiry will, in turn, invite submissions from a broad range of stakeholders from Oxford itself and the country as a whole; the students, representatives of Rhodes Must Fall and Oxford City council, as well as alumni of Oxford and Oriel and citizens of the city. Written and oral evidence will be requested. It is intended that some oral evidence sessions will be held in public, with similar rules of engagement to that of a parliamentary select committee. 

“By setting up this commission, Oriel governing body is demonstrating that it is willing to be guided by all its stakeholders. The Governing Body believes that this decision will allow a serious, appropriate and productive resolution of a complex series of issues. Ms Souter has insisted on a thorough process – but conducted at pace – and set to report to the Governing Body by the end of the year.”

This article has been co-authored by Adam Thompson

Kanengo Diallo

Kanengo Diallo is the Senior Global Affairs & Outreach Editor at The Oxford Blue. She's a second-year student studying English Language & Literature at St Hugh's College. Outside of her studies, she has a keen interest in development journalism and exploring heritage in postcolonial societies. She enjoys writing about the intersections of race and culture in socio-political phenomena.