Debate Over Racist Symbols on College Campuses Spreads to England

Oxford students want to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes, a British imperialist whose estate funds a prestigious scholarship.
The statue of Cecil Rhodes on the facade of Oriel College in Oxford, England. (Photos: Eddie Keogh/Reuters)
Jan 14, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Samantha Cowan is an associate editor for culture.

U.S. President Bill Clinton. MSNBC host Rachel Maddow. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker. Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott. These prominent figures make up a fraction of the 8,000 students who studied at Oxford University thanks to a scholarship bearing the name of Cecil Rhodes. Along with Rhodes’ educational philanthropy, his legacy is also peppered with violent imperialism—creating a divide between Oxford officials and students over a how to handle a statue bearing his likeness.

“Maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere,” Chancellor Chris Patten said in an interview with BBC Radio 4 of the students calling for the removal of the Rhodes statue at Oriel College, one of 38 colleges that make up Oxford University. Previously, the administration agreed to consider removing the statue.

A student group called Rhodes Must Fall has been campaigning for the statue to be removed since last year, taking a cue from the University of Cape Town. Students going by the same name protested the presence of a Rhodes statue on the South African campus, covering it in excrement and paint until it was removed in April.

Patten defended Rhodes’ presence on the Oxford campus, noting that thousands have benefited from his financial contributions and that Nelson Mandela partnered with the Rhodes Trust to create a scholarship for African graduate students. He also said Rhodes’ views were common to his time and that history shouldn’t be rewritten.

“One of the points of a university, which is not to tolerate intolerance, to engage in free enquiry, is being denied,” Patten told the BBC. “People have to face up to facts and history, which they don’t like, and talk about them and debate them.”

Students say there’s a difference between honoring history and exalting a controversial figure. “This statue is an open glorification of the racist and bloody project of British colonialism,” reads a petition calling for the statue’s removal. “As long as the statue remains, Oriel College and Oxford University continue to tacitly identify with Rhodes’ values.” The petition also declares that the statute violates the university’s policy of fostering an inclusive environment.

“This isn’t just a campaign against Cecil Rhodes,” Oxford student Daisy Chandley told The Guardian last December. “It’s a campaign against racism at Oxford, of which the Rhodes statue is a small but symbolic part.”

Students at American universities have proposed similar changes. At Yale and Princeton, students petitioned to strip campus buildings of their associations with controversial figures. Yale has a building named after U.S. senator and slavery supporter John C. Calhoun, while Princeton features a dormitory named after pro-segregationist President Woodrow Wilson.