We will remove Rhodes plaque if we can - Oriel College

Future of the statue of benefactor raises complex issues, which cannot be resolved quickly however


17 December 2015

For much of 2015, the political legacy of Cecil Rhodes, and the significance of commemorating him, has been the subject of intense attention worldwide. Rhodes was a student at Oxford, and a member of Oriel College, in the 1870s, and left money to the College on his death. 

On 6 November 2015, Oriel received a petition organised by the Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford movement, calling for the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from the College’s High Street frontage. The petition said that its continued presence violates the University’s commitment to “fostering an inclusive culture which promotes equality, values diversity and maintains a working, learning and social environment in which the rights and dignity of all its staff and students are respected”.

Cecil Rhodes’s historical legacy includes the Rhodes Scholarships programme, which he endowed and which has so far given nearly 8000 scholars from countries around the world the opportunity to study at Oxford. But Rhodes was also a 19th-century colonialist whose values and world view stand in absolute contrast to the ethos of the Scholarship programme today, and to the values of a modern University.

Oriel’s Governing Body has considered the petition submitted by Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford, as well as the wider issues it raises, and its response is as follows.

The College’s approach reflects three key positions: 

We agree that the representation and experience of BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) students and staff in the University of Oxford, including Oriel College, need to improve and we are committed to being at the forefront of the drive to make Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds.

We affirm, as we have in our previous statements on this issue, that the College does not share Cecil Rhodes’s values or condone his racist views or actions. 

We commit to ensuring that acknowledgement of the historical fact of Rhodes’s bequest to the College does not suggest celebration of his unacceptable views and actions, and we commit to placing any recognition of his bequest in a clear historical context. 

We announce today the following steps that reflect these positions of principle:

1. We will put in place a series of substantive actions to improve the experience and representation of ethnic minorities in Oriel. We will work closely with BME students and staff to understand all the issues that need to be addressed. Our actions will include further outreach initiatives focused on potential BME applicants, more support and training on equality and diversity issues affecting students and staff within the College, and fundraising for graduate scholarships at Oriel targeted at specific countries in Africa. 

2. Starting in 2016, we will fund and support a series of lectures and other events examining race equality and the continuing history of colonialism and its consequences. The aim of this series is to complement other initiatives in the University and to respond to the desire expressed by many students and staff across the University to see these issues more fully acknowledged and discussed. 

3. We announce the following actions in relation to two physical memorials of Rhodes on College property:  

We are starting the process of consultation with Oxford City Council this week in advance of submitting a formal application for consent to remove the Rhodes plaque on No. 6 King Edward Street, an Oriel-owned property. This plaque was erected in 1906 by a private individual. Its wording is a political tribute, and the College believes its continuing display on Oriel property is inconsistent with our principles. The plaque is not listed but consent is required for its removal because it is within a conservation area. Our decision to seek consent to remove the plaque is without prejudice to any decision about the future of the statue of Rhodes, covered in the point below. 

The future of the statue raises complex issues, which cannot be resolved quickly. In the absence of any context or explanation, it can be seen as an uncritical celebration of a controversial figure, and the colonialism and the oppression of black communities he represents: a serious issue in a College and University with a diverse and international mix of students and staff, and which aims to be a welcoming academic community.

Any changes to the building – including the addition of a permanent information board to explain the history and context, removal or replacement of the statue, or the commissioning of new works of art – would require planning consent. The statue, and the building on which it stands, is Grade II* listed, and has been identified by Historic England as being of particular historical interest, in part precisely because of the controversy which surrounds Rhodes.

In view of these complexities, the College has decided to launch a structured six-month listening exercise on the statue, running from early February 2016, seeking the views and ideas of students and staff of the College and the wider University, alumni, heritage bodies, Oxford City Council, residents of Oxford, and other members of the public, as we seek a positive way forward. This is a commitment to seek views in as inclusive a way as possible on how controversial associations and bequests, including that of Rhodes to Oriel, and the record of them in the built environment, can be dealt with appropriately. 

In the short term, we have put up a temporary notice in the window of the High Street building, below the statue, clarifying its historical context and the College’s position on Rhodes. 

The steps we are announcing today are considered actions to address the contentious issue of physical memorials to Cecil Rhodes, and to improve the experience of BME students and staff. We hope that we will receive consent to remove the plaque in King Edward Street and look forward to hearing views and ideas in relation to the High Street statue during the listening exercise. The other actions we are announcing today demonstrate our continuing commitment to being at the forefront of the drive to make Oxford more diverse and inclusive of people from all backgrounds, and to address directly the complex history of colonialism and its consequences. We look forward to working with a wide variety of groups across the University and beyond to take these issues forward as part of our continued commitment to equality, fairness and respect for all.

Background Information:

BME experience

Oriel’s work to improve the BME experience contributes to a wider University effort, which includes the work of the Race Equality Working Group towards achieving the national Race Equality Charter Mark in 2017, increased staff training, a more diverse curriculum and a new lecture series on race and the curriculum. Further information about Oxford University’s race equality work can be found here.

The King Edward Street plaque

If consent for removal is granted, the Rhodes plaque from King Edward Street will be taken down and stored as a historical artefact.

Listening exercise

The College will conduct a structured listening exercise and will ensure that it achieves wide levels of awareness and input amongst those who may have a perspective.  

More information about the listening exercise will follow in the New Year, and we intend to work with a wide variety of groups throughout the University and beyond to take it forward.

Anyone wishing to submit views in advance of the listening exercise may do so to the following address: [email protected]

The Rhodes bequest, the High Street frontage and the statue of Rhodes

Cecil Rhodes was a student at Oriel College, intermittently, between 1873 and 1881.On his death in 1902 he left 2% of his estate to the College. This was principally used to fund fellowships and for the construction of a new building on Oxford’s High Street. When the building was completed in 1911, a statue of Rhodes was placed above the main entrance overlooking the High Street in recognition of his bequest.

The entire building, including the statues, is listed, and was upgraded to II* in 2011.

Temporary notice

The text of the temporary notice being placed on the High Street frontage of the College is:

This building, completed in 1911, was funded by a bequest from Cecil Rhodes. The statue of Rhodes was erected at the time of construction and is part of a Grade II* listed building. 

Many of Cecil Rhodes’s actions and public statements are incompatible with the values of the College and University today. In acknowledging the historical fact of Rhodes’s bequest, the College does not in any way condone or glorify his views or actions.

Statement issued by Oriel College, Oxford University, 17 December 2015