Cecil Rhodes statue inspires debate: How did Oxford decide?

Oriel College at Oxford was alarmed by international protest after students asked to remove a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes, and officials announced Thursday that the historical monument will stay, but with additional context.

Eddie Keogh/Reuters/File
A woman rides a bike next to the Oriel College building with the statue of Cecil Rhodes on its facade in Oxford, southern England, Dec. 30, 2015. Oriel College at Oxford was alarmed by the international protest after students asked to remove the statue and announced Thursday, Jan. 28, 2016, that it would stay.

An Oxford college has ended international debate over the fate of its Cecil Rhodes statue by announcing Thursday that the monument to the college's imperialist donor will stay.

The controversy mirrored similar debates over historical figures whose views are racist by modern standards in the United States, but Oriel College said in a statement that the gavel had come down on the side of keeping the Rhodes statue while providing historical context and increased support to minority students. The underlying issues, however, were similar to those of movements in the US, says Megan Armknecht, an American currently studying for a masters at Oxford.

"I think the issues in the UK and the US are relevant to both nations and the arguments for and against keeping names or statues are very similar – a lot of it comes down to questions of free speech, offense, and the power of the past on the present," Ms. Armknecht told The Christian Science Monitor. "At Oxford many of the officials say that Oxford students need to learn to deal with offense and embrace complexity."

The school denied that some of its reasons were financial, although Javier Espinoza reported for the Telegraph that alumni angry with the college over the "embarrassing" episode had already removed the college from their wills and were threatening to cut as much as £150 million.

Sean Powers, the college official in charge of fundraising, wrote that reaction to the college considering the statue's removal has been both overwhelmingly larger – and more negative – than expected, according to the Telegraph.

“The likely long-term impact on development and fundraising, assuming our current course of action regarding the statue, is potentially extremely damaging," Mr. Powers wrote in a report, according to the British newspaper. “The current situation is generating a media storm that is right at the limits of what the University can deal with, and support us in.”

The campaign group Rhodes Must Fall promised to meet this weekend and plan its next move after the college's decision to keep the statue, the BBC reported.

"This recent move is outrageous, dishonest, and cynical," the statement read, according to the BBC. "This is not over."

The college has tried to balance the conflicting concerns of sensitivity to both history and feeling, but perhaps it has acted differently than the United States in part because British history is so much longer than that of the United States.

"The significance of taking down the statue is simple: Cecil Rhodes is the Hitler of southern Africa," Brian Kwoba, a PhD student at Oxford, told the Guardian. "Would anyone countenance a statue of Hitler? The fact that Rhodes is still memorialised with statues, plaques and buildings demonstrates the size and strength of Britain’s imperial blind spot.”

The Rhodes Must Fall movement originated in South Africa, where students had a Rhodes statue removed on the grounds that his wealth had come from exploitation of the country's native people. In Britain, however, some have argued for keeping the statue partly on the grounds of what that wealth has accomplished, including the prestigious Rhodes Scholarship, which has enabled 8,000 international students to study at Oxford.

"You can't whitewash Rhodes out of history, but go on using his cash," wrote Mary Beard, a Cambridge classics professor and editor at the Times Literary Supplement. "If he was bad, then we have certainly turned his cash to the better... and maybe, to give him for a moment the benefit of the doubt, if he had been born a hundred years later even he would have thought differently."

But R W Johnson, an emeritus fellow at Oxford and Rhodes Scholar also made a darker comparison.

"I am comparing what the [Rhodes Must Fall] movement are doing with what Al Qaeda and ISIS are doing in places like Mali when destroying statues," he told the Telegraph. "The [Rhodes Must Fall movement] display the same disregard for history and hostility to it and that’s what makes it a perfectly acceptable comparison to me."

The debate has comparisons in the United States, where the presence of historic figures such as former President Woodrow Wilson, former University of Maryland president Harry "Curley" Byrd, and numerous key Confederates on campuses are in question. Unlike in the debate at Oxford, most debates over former American political figures deemed racist end with their removal from schools, as is the case of four schools in a Houston school district named for Confederate generals, the Houston Chronicle reported.

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