On the Rhodes statue controversy - Charles Conn

Rhodes House Warden says he is personally against selective editing of historical viewpoints and artefacts that offend our values today

The Warden of Rhodes House at Oxford University, Charles Conn, has finally weighed in on the controversy over the statue of Cecil John Rhodes at Oriel College. This follows Oriel College’s announcement in mid-December last year that it would be applying for planning permission to remove a plaque to Rhodes on one of its buildings, and would be embarking on a sixth month listening exercise about removing a statue of Rhodes from another. Rhodes was former student of Oriel College and donated a large sum of money to the College on his death.

As the Warden of Rhodes House, Conn is the global CEO of the Rhodes Trust and the Rhodes Scholarships, which were established through a massive endowment from the late British mining magnate and empire builder in terms of his 1902 will and testament.

In a letter to current and former Rhodes Scholars, dated 20 January 2016, Conn responded to queries as to why the Rhodes Trust had not commented more publicly on the controversy. The full text follows below:

Rhodes in the News: Beyond Statues

Dear Rhodes Scholar,

With all the noise in the press, a number of you have asked me why the Rhodes Trust has not commented more publicly on the debate about the statue of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College.  Let me take some time to address this issue with all of you.

We haven’t spoken publicly because we are not the guardians of Cecil Rhodes’s views, actions, or political legacy; Rhodes belongs to history. The Scholarships are no more “about” Cecil Rhodes than the Nobel Prizes are about the arms manufacturer Alfred Nobel.  The Trust is the beneficiary of Rhodes’s great idea of the Scholarship, and our focus is on the Rhodes Scholars.  This includes the work of building the Trust for its second century, including the new services & leadership development program, the alumni Rhodes Scholar Network, firming up the endowment, convening Rhodes Scholars of all ages on world challenges, and expanding the Trust geographically.  We are focused on helping Rhodes Scholars fighting the world’s current fights.

Because our focus is on the Scholarships, the Trustees have encouraged us to avoid entering the noisy battle going on over the statue, which could obscure the good work of the Scholars.  As you will have noticed, the commentators have been overwhelmingly against removal of socio-cultural artefacts of history, including this statue.  Nearly all that might be said on both sides of the issue has been said.  Speaking purely from my own personal perspective, I am against selective editing of historical viewpoints and artefacts that offend our values today.  There is no logical end to that (since there is endless material to offend within history), at least not one any of us would want.  I believe our role as Scholars is to understand history’s lessons and work toward a better world.  Statues, paintings and place names can act as milestones to tell us how far we have come, and how far we have left to go - talismans of an old world as we create a new one.  I like Nelson Mandela’s approach to history when he partnered with the Rhodes Trust to create the Mandela Rhodes Scholarships for Africa.  He called it closing the circle of history.  But that is my personal opinion.

Each of you will have your own view of the statue question, and of Rhodes’s complex legacy.  Each of you will decide what that means in your life.  We value and encourage the debate among Scholars, including on the Rhodes Scholar Network.

In fact there never has been any orthodoxy of view imposed on Scholars by the Will or the Trust.  From the very beginning many Rhodes Scholars such as Norman Manley, Rex Nettleford, Lucy Banda, and Bram Fischer have been at the forefront of the fights for colonial independence, social justice and racial equity.  And thousands of other Rhodes Scholars have found their own way to better the world as they see fit.

Some of you have been concerned about the role of current Scholars in the public debate, including as members of Redress Rhodes (an internal group of current Scholars who encourage an understanding of Rhodes) or Rhodes Must Fall.  I hear you.  But I have to tell you, researching the forthcoming book on the Scholarships in Oxford, it is clear to me that there is nothing new here!  Rhodes Scholars have noisily fought for change around the admission of women to Oxford colleges and the Scholarship, the lack of black Scholars from South Africa, against apartheid, and dozens of other campaigns in the 60s, 70s, 80s, and every other decade. 

I think that a lot of the recent press coverage has actually served to distract from key issues such as curriculum evolution and increasing staff and student diversity in Oxford. But I also know that we want our younger compatriots to take risks and take stands for what they believe.  This is the essence of being a Rhodes Scholar.  As you know, one of ours, Ntokozo Qwabe, has been singled out for violent hate speech for his positions.  It is my duty as Warden and as a person of conscience to stand with him against these abhorrent attacks, even though I do not agree with all of his views.

On a separate issue within the Rhodes Community, there has been a discussion with the 2015 going down class about the toast we make at dinners.  The American Oxonian has recently published a special edition on this issue, with a variety of views.  So that all nationalities of Rhodes Scholars can be part of that interaction, with permission of AARS we will publish that issue of the American Oxonian on the Rhodes Scholar Network in the week ahead.  We will not have unanimity on this question either - and that is perfectly all right and indeed expected.  This is a diverse community with diverse viewpoints.

I cannot predict when this news cycle on the statue will pass, but it will.  Individuals and groups within the university administration are already working together on a way forward in Oxford. I suspect this will be a combination of captioning or contextualising history, and enabling more facets of the historical narrative to be portrayed - showing more faces and voices in the public spaces of this ancient place.  I hope to be an active part of these pragmatic approaches, but we will not seek attention for that, given what I said at the outset. Later on this year we expect to have a series of positive stories for the press on the Rhodes Scholars and Scholarships, and those will be welcome indeed when they come.

Best wishes from Oxford,

Charles Conn
Warden of Rhodes House


20 January 2016