Senior conservative politicians have condemned a partial boycott of an Oxford university college that refused to remove a statue of “racist” colonial administrator Cecil Rhodes.
Universities minister Michelle Donelan and Lord Wharton of Yarm, chair of the Office for Students, on Thursday said graduates should not be disadvantaged by the refusal of more than 150 academics to do additional work at Oriel College.
University staff are protesting against the college’s decision to keep the statue, seen as a symbol of colonialism and institutional racism, despite demonstrations and an independent commission agreeing that it should be removed.
Donelan said she welcomed the outcome, which comes after the government announced laws requiring that statues be “retained and explained” rather than removed.
“We fully believe in protecting academic freedom, but this apparent boycott is a ridiculous threat,” Donelan wrote on Twitter.
It is the latest twist in a long row over the statue, which was installed in 1911 in honour of Rhodes, a major donor to the college.
A chief architect of empire, he believed the British to be the “finest race in the world” and oversaw a violent expansion of colonial territory. He also founded the De Beers diamond company, which pioneered racial segregation and internment of migrant labourers.
Simukai Chigudu, associate professor of African politics, who has committed to undertake only mandatory work, said many colleagues objected to the statue because it embodied a “veneration of colonial past” and reinforced “forms of institutional racism” that “shape the character and ethos of the university”.
“A part of this is about a community of people in an institution, figuring out what our collective identity is and how we can live together,” he said.
The statue came under fresh scrutiny last summer as the focal point of protests in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement for racial justice.
At the time, Oriel’s governing body ruled it should be removed. But last month it backtracked, saying the timeframe and cost of removal meant it was preferable to keep it and focus instead on “improving educational equality, diversity and inclusion”.
More than 150 Oxford academics have pledged to “work-to-rule” at Oriel.
Until Oriel commits to removing the statue, signatories will refuse to give tutorials to Oriel undergraduates, help with admissions interviews or speak at college events. They will continue “non-discretionary” work, including supervising graduate students and examining students.
“Faced with Oriel’s stubborn attachment to a statue that glorifies colonialism and the wealth it produced for the college, we feel we have no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations,” they said in a joint statement.
Conservative peer Wharton said it would be “utterly unacceptable” if students were “disadvantaged in any way” because of the action.
Oriel College said in a statement it had taken a rigorous review and followed the recommendations of an independent commission. It said it was saddened academics had “chosen not to respect the decisions of our governing body”.
Lord Neil Mendoza, provost of Oriel College, was last year made a Conservative peer and appointed commissioner for cultural recovery and renewal, overseeing the impact of Covid-19 on the cultural sector.
Danny Dorling, a signatory of the partial boycott, said the continued presence of the statue meant some academics would probably have declined offers regardless of any formal pledge. “They don’t particularly like having statues of racists . . . above their building,” he said.
Oxford Student Union last month said it was “disappointed” the Rhodes statue would not be removed.