Oxford is caught between a statue and a hard place. On the one hand, the ancient university—older, remember, than the Aztec empire—is a place of great tradition: a honey-stoned, gown-sporting, river-punting institution with historic conservative benefactors and deeply felt rituals. On the other, it is a far-left, radical educational hothouse where dissenters are pilloried at dawn.
Last week, on Oxford’s winding main street, these two competing worlds collided. The clash centered on a statue of Cecil Rhodes—a historic donor to Oriel College and a controversial colonialist—which has become the subject of protests in recent years. Homemade banners have been flying below him since 2015, when the Rhodes Must Fall campaign denounced the monument as a totem of Oxford’s imperialist links.
The megaphones roared again in 2020, when Black Lives Matter protests swelled around the world. But now things are really heating up. In late May, the college decided not to remove the statue, and in response, on the Wednesday before last, around 150 lecturers officially announced a total boycott of Oriel—refusing to take part in any event in which the college is involved, or to teach any student who happens to attend it.
It is academic blackmail mingled with donnish virtue signaling—the most blatant attempt yet for the left-leaning professorship to stamp its worldview on the institution. The university’s vice-chancellor condemned the academics, saying she was “deeply disappointed” in their actions, while House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the dons as a “useless bunch,” proclaiming, “We must not allow this wokeness to happen.”
At the center of the mêlée sits Professor Kate Tunstall, the interim provost at nearby Worcester College, who has become a de facto leader of the Rhodes Must Fall cause. Dubbed “Red Kate,” the premier of the self-styled People’s Republic of Worcester College, she is known as the arch modernizer who attempted to tear down the long-held traditions of the institution—such as standing for dons and saying grace before formal dinners—until the student body itself admitted it was rather fond of the pageantry.
But her signature on the Oriel boycott has been regarded as a bridge too far. “It is extraordinary—there is no precedent for it,” one academic told The Telegraph. “It is not the business of one college to tell another college how it should be conducting its affairs.” Other ringleaders were accused of biting the hand that fed them—of forgetting, selectively, that it was the students themselves (paying $13,000 a year for their tuition) who largely bankroll their salaries.
Recently, around 150 lecturers officially announced a total boycott of Oriel.
By the end of the week, an unofficial challenge was underway. The Telegraph delved into the individual funding of each of the signatories and uncovered that several had received academic grants from the Leverhulme Trust—a fund created by a wealthy colonialist who built a soap empire in the Belgian Congo using slavery. In a book on the subject, historian Jules Marchal claimed that the appalling conditions in Leverhulme’s “private empire … reduced the population of Congo by half and accounted for more deaths than the Nazi Holocaust.” The rank hypocrisy was glaring.
“These boycotters occupy positions or hold grants made in the name of Rhodes or other imperialists, which they are happy to accept,” said Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford, “whilst berating the people who actually provided the funds.”
Professor Tunstall, a Clarendon professor of French, was also exposed. Her professorship is named after the first Earl of Clarendon, an English statesman heavily involved in the Carolina colonies, who facilitated trade between the province and the West Indies, and helped to sell the Indian population into slavery.
Not to be beaten, the student body has now begun to indulge in some monument culling of its own. Over at Magdalen College, set about 550 yards down the road from Oriel, a group of graduate students voted last week to remove a portrait of the Queen from their common-room walls—owing to the royal family’s historic links with imperialism.
House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg dismissed the dons as a “useless bunch.”
American student Matthew Katzman described how “the Queen represents an institution responsible for much of colonialism throughout history and the modern era, and these depictions cause some students discomfort.” The painting, he proposed, should be auctioned off—and the proceeds donated to a “charity working to improve the lives of those suffering the consequences of colonialism.”
Again, the academic outrage machine roared into action. Some saw it as the student body taking its common spaces rightfully into its own hands; others decried outsider Katzman as a meddler in a great British institution; many saw it as another symptom of a culture war spiraling out of control; but most just shook their heads at the petty earnestness of student politics in general.
But an uglier note was sounded, too. Staff members at the college—none of whom had anything to do with the vote—were said to have received personal threats and online abuse from students angered by the removal of the Queen’s portrait. Soon, Magdalen’s president had weighed in, telling the trolls that they might consider asking whether “that is really the best way to show your respect for the Queen. Or whether she’d be more likely to support the traditions of free debate and democratic decision-making that we are keeping alive at Magdalen.”
Culture wars of this kind are not uncommon in modern academia, but the fight has become particularly potent at Oxford in recent years. The academic body and, to a lesser extent, the students themselves are aware, on some level, that the institution they hold in such high regard could not exist without its historic founders and benefactors. The dreaming spires could not have been built without the riches of empire, and the university would not have garnered its acclaim without the patronage of royals, aristocrats, and complicated business magnates.
You can’t have the heritage without the history. And that cognitive dissonance is eating the place alive. F. Scott Fitzgerald—the author who rendered Jay Gatsby an “Oxford man” when he wanted to lend his character some credibility—said, “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” Oxford, a dysfunctional place with many first-rate minds, may now be poised to prove him wrong.
Joseph Bullmore is a Writer at Large for Air Mail