Joanna Rossiter

The shallowness of the Oxford dons’ Rhodes protest

The shallowness of the Oxford dons’ Rhodes protest
(Photo: Getty)
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Rhodes must fall. At least, that’s the conclusion of 150 Oxford dons who have joined a boycott of Oriel college over its decision to keep its Cecil Rhodes statue in place.

The protest may have made national headlines but who does it really serve? Certainly not the students at Oriel who will feel the brunt of the impact: the rebel dons say they will refuse to give tutorials to Oriel undergraduate students and will not assist the college with its outreach work, including interviewing undergraduates. In short, their chosen form of protest costs them nothing and punishes students who largely support the removal of the statue anyway.

As with so many other modern social justice campaigns, the Oxford dons have conveniently settled on a form of rebellion that grabs headlines but requires no personal sacrifice. If dons feel so strongly about Rhodes, why not take a collective pay cut and donate the funds to Oriel to cover the cost of the statue’s removal? Instead, the boycott reduces their academic workload whilst leaving their salaries happily intact – at a time when universities have been all but shut down by Covid for the best part of a year.

The idea that you might actually have to suffer for your political ideals is totally alien to the modern activist; everybody wants a hill to die on – just as long as there’s no dying involved. Oxford’s dons aren’t the only ones who want off-the-peg ideals where the onus for action is firmly placed on other people.

A glance at the signatories on the letter to Oriel is illuminating: they include Miles Larmer, a white professor of African history, and professor Kate Tunstall who boasts in her college biography of her ‘longstanding commitment to and strong track record in widening participation in higher education.’ It’s difficult to see how the withdrawal of tuition over a statue furthers that aim.

The boycott of Oriel is made worse by the fact that the cause is so facile. If the dons did succeed in persuading the college to remove the statue, would the lives of students be made better in any material and lasting way? Not really. The statue is rapidly becoming a means of showmanship – a way for progressive liberals to parade their values to the material benefit of absolutely no one.

When the Clapham Sect of the 19th century campaigned for the abolition of slavery, they did so at significant cost to their public reputations, ploughing personal wealth and resources into the cause. Their actions changed the course of history for the better. The efforts of today’s social justice warriors pale in comparison – the causes that rile them have no bearing on the lives of the disadvantaged. And the methods they deploy to try to achieve their aims amount to little more than armchair activism.

Haven’t students put up with enough disruption to their education without Oxford’s dons voluntarily disrupting it too? Incoming undergraduates, in particular, have had their exams and learning thrown into chaos by Covid. The last thing they need after two lockdowns and months of school closures is for university staff to be voluntarily removing tuition.

This protest is tin-eared and desperately out of touch with the impact of the pandemic. Oxford’s dons, who have enjoyed a high level of job security despite universities largely shutting down this last year, have no right to restrict young people’s access to education. If the dons feel so strongly about the removal of Rhodes, they should leave students well alone and find a way of putting their money where their mouth is.