Rhodes Must Fall: what can Cambridge learn from Oxford?

Sriya Varadharajan 22 January 2016

The words ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ have very specific connotations. Starting in South Africa, the movement towards decolonising institutional space, curriculum, and institutional memory recently moved to Oxford and centered around the statue of Cecil Rhodes that presides over Oriel College. What is interesting about the mainstream press reaction to this movement is how quickly the group’s aims and intentions were misrepresented and derailed. ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ became about attempting to “erase history”, “challenging “free speech” and the idea that universities are spaces where only approved opinions can exist; spaces that no longer adequately challenge students intellectually. This response says more about mainstream journalistic priorities than the actual campaign itself.

It is intellectually dishonest to suggest that, by demanding that we recognise the atrocities committed by individuals and the violence that exists in allowing such figures the praise of iconography, we somehow tarnish or ‘spit’ on their legacy. Many of the responses led me to ask why we are so emotionally and intellectually invested in white-washing the past; in humanising individuals that history tells us were harmful and racist. Recipients of the Rhodes scholarship became ‘hypocrites’ for supporting legitimate criticisms of Rhodes whilst being funded by a scheme set up in his name. This is where conversations  about this movement reached the most ridiculous point – as if using the money and resources gained from a scholarship set up by a man who viewed you as less than human is anything more than a triumph. The irony is, there is often a refusal to acknowledge the role of history in shaping what our world looks like today. Rhodes’ impact is still felt in South Africa and pertains not only to issues of race, but class and educational opportunity. Instead of encouraging students to deconstruct this, issues are simplified until they become about ‘feelings’ – with little to no recognition of how structures of power, encouraged by an uncritical clinging to the past, have real world consequences for our lives and study. Many people used Rhodes to start thought-provoking conversations about how race operates at Oxbridge, claiming that what is most important is not the removal of the statue itself, but the fact that it prompted many to consider that race is still very much a barrier to success at our elite institutions.

Criticisms about how students campaign were merely a means of distracting the institution from actually doing anything about it. Yet, Oriel College responded by stating that it would launch a consultation into the statue’s future and removed a plaque to the colonial politician. There were also rumours that the university would take a more detailed look at matters of ‘diversity’ in the curriculum. Considering the vagueness of these statements, I was surprised by how quickly the college responded and was pleased that superficially there seemed to be intentions to change how it operates. This left me thinking what can Cambridge learn from a movement like this? There are plenty of small colonial remnants left in colleges, from Trinity to Selwyn, but activists in Cambridge have yet to find a focal point as widely accessible and recognisable as Rhodes in order to start our own round of conversations.Then there is the question of whether the movement to ‘Decolonise Cambridge’ will be recognized by the institution or lambasted as ridiculous just as ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ was. The university’s response to the BME Campaign’s petition to remove the ‘Dear World… Yours Cambridge’ video, starring David Starkey, was successful and so maybe there is space for student activists to be recognised for their efforts and prompt small shifts in change.

It is clear that activists in Cambridge can learn a lot from Oxford and perhaps going forward, solidarity between student activists in both institutions will be important. A united front is needed against attempts to realign the conversation to suit the needs of journalists. ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ and movements towards decolonisation are so much more than an example of how students are being ‘molly coddled’; they are pointed, well-researched critiques of power and privilege at the institutions we call home and should be treated as such.