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Rhodes to stay at Oxford’s Oriel College

Image: Michael Day [CC BY-NC 2.0], via Flickr

Governors decide against removing Cecil Rhodes statue because of “considerable costs” and planning challenges

The University of Oxford’s Oriel College has decided to keep its statue of the Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes, citing planning costs and government priorities as major obstacles to its removal.

The college’s governing body said last summer that it wanted to take the statue down after campaigners called for it to go—notably during the Black Lives Matter protests—and it set up an independent commission in June to explore how this could be done.

Anti-racism campaigners in South Africa and the UK say Rhodes stole land and brutalised African people, and that his statues are visible reminders of past oppression and a colonialised education system at universities.

In its latest report, initially given to the governing body in confidence and dated April 2021, the commission—led by Carole Souter, master of St Cross College at Oxford—said that “a majority of commission members supported the expressed wish of the governing body to move [the statue]”.

But the college has now decided to keep the statue and an accompanying plaque in place. It said that the commission had highlighted the potential for “considerable costs” and “complex challenges” in the planning process, “particularly since the government’s policy, in relation to historic statues and sites which have become contested, is to ‘retain and explain’ them”.

Oriel’s governors said: “In light of the considerable obstacles to removal, Oriel’s governing body has decided not to begin the legal process for relocation of the memorials.” It will establish a taskforce to consider ideas for contextual information to be installed near the statue and the accompanying plaque.

‘A powerful symbol of colonialism’

The college explained that it had “considered the regulatory and financial challenges” associated with taking down the statue, “including the expected timeframe for removal, which could run into years with no certainty of outcome, together with the total cost of removal”.

But in June last year, amid calls for the statue to be removed, Oxford City Council’s leader Susan Brown said she had “a great deal of sympathy” with the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and that it would be “better for the statue to be placed in a museum…to ensure this noteworthy piece of the story of our city isn’t lost to history”.  

She invited Oriel College to apply for planning permission to remove the statue from its Grade II-listed building, as the removal would represent “exceptional circumstances”.

The campaign group Rhodes Must Fall issued a furious response denouncing the decision to keep the statue. “No matter how Oriel College might try to justify their decision, allowing the statue to remain is an act of institutional racism. The morality of the decision of whether to remove the statue above High Street has been subsumed into a cost-benefit analysis, one that does not take into account the human cost of letting the statue remain,” it said in a statement.

“We will continue to fight for the fall of this statue and everything it represents.”

At the time of his death in 1902, Rhodes left £100,000 to the college, worth around £12 million today. The commission admitted that Rhodes’s career was “controversial during his own lifetime” and that his legacy had “remained a powerful symbol of colonialism and attitudes towards Britain’s colonial past”.

Although the college will not take down the statue, the governors agreed to other recommendations in the commission’s report to improve access and contextualise Rhodes’s legacy, including fundraising for scholarships to support students from southern Africa, more outreach work targeting Black and minority ethnic students, and the enactment of “a 2016 decision to have an annual lecture on a topic related to the Rhodes legacy, race or colonialism”.

Oriel College provost Neil Mendoza said: “We understand this nuanced conclusion will be disappointing to some, but we are now focused on the delivery of practical actions aimed at improving outreach and the day-to-day experience of BME students. We are looking forward to working with Oxford City Council on a range of options for contextualisation.”