DOMINIC SANDBROOK: Pompous, posturing narcissism – and it’s also blackmail… How monstrous it is for 150 Oxford dons to put their own petty prejudices above the wellbeing of students
Although it’s almost 30 years since, trembling with nerves, I went for my first Oxford tutorial, I remember it as if it was yesterday.
The setting was Oriel College, which in recent years has been besieged by protests about its statue of the imperialist-turned-philanthropist Cecil Rhodes.
My tutor was the late Byzantine historian Mark Whittow, and in my mind’s eye I can still see him now, poring over one of his gigantic maps of the medieval Near East.
So began one of the great intellectual adventures of my lifetime, which I shall cherish forever.
It’s a rare privilege to learn at the feet of great thinkers at the cutting edge of their subjects, which is why so many youngsters work so hard to get into Oxford in the first place.
How monstrous it is, then, for some 150 Oxford dons to put their own petty prejudices above the wellbeing of Oriel’s students.
And how despicably self-indulgent to deny these young people the intellectual opportunities they once enjoyed themselves – and all because of a statue that barely anybody notices anyway!
In an unprecedented move, dons led by Professor Kate Tunstall called on staff to stop holding tutorials for Oriel students until the monument of the colonialist Rhodes (pictured) is removed
The background is probably well known by now. To cut a very tiresome story short, Oriel recently decided against taking down Rhodes’s statue, arguing – quite rightly, in my view – that it was better to put money towards African scholarships and other educational projects.
But that wasn’t enough for these posturing narcissists. Led by the provost of a rival college, Worcester, they have produced what is effectively a blackmail threat, warning Oriel that they have been left ‘no choice but to withdraw all discretionary work and goodwill collaborations’.
All 150 dons, therefore, will ‘refuse requests from Oriel to give tutorials to Oriel undergraduates’.
They will also refuse to interview prospective Oriel students, and will not even speak at Oriel talks and conferences until the college agrees to demolish Rhodes’s statue, pictured right.
You might be forgiven for wondering why this matters. Well, here’s the answer.
Oriel is one of Oxford’s oldest colleges. Its alumni include two Nobel Prize winners, the chemist Alexander Todd and the economist James Meade, as well as a host of judges, writers, doctors and public servants.
Demonstrators hold placards during a protest arranged by the ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ campaign, calling for the removal of a statue of British imperialist Cecil John Rhodes in June last year
But its students are a far cry from the Brideshead Revisited stereotype. Proportionately Oriel has one of Oxford’s largest state school intakes and runs regular programmes to attract black and Asian applicants, as well as those from deprived backgrounds.
Many of its students, in other words, have worked tremendously hard and made great sacrifices to win their places.
They did so to have the chance of working with specialists in their fields – which is where the 150 dons come in.
As retribution for Oriel’s refusal to toe the ultra-woke line, these self-righteous blackmailers propose to punish the college’s students.
So if, say, a teenage girl from Sunderland has always dreamed of studying with a world expert on Vichy France, that’s tough. She must suffer, so that Rhodes might fall.
I choose the French example deliberately, because that happens to be the specialism of Robert Gildea, who went on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme yesterday to defend the boycott.
An independent inquiry said Oriel College could fund two fellowships in subjects related to Rhodes’ legacy, create scholarships for students from Africa and hold an annual lecture on him
I remember Professor Gildea well from my Oxford days. He struck me back then as quite spectacularly pompous, even by academic standards, and I wasn’t surprised to hear that he hasn’t changed a bit.
As the interviewer pointed out, the only losers from this will be the students. To this Professor Gildea seemed entirely oblivious, merely droning on yet again about the statue. To him, it seems, the interests of Oriel’s young people are irrelevant.
For the last two years, these youngsters’ precious time at Oxford has been blighted by Covid.
While continuing to incur tuition fees, they have missed out on months of face-to-face teaching, as well as all the other joys and benefits of a normal university education.
Yet for Professor Gildea and his collaborators, none of this matters. Despite all their pious, self-congratulatory cant about their roles as educators, they clearly care nothing for Oriel’s interests, and they certainly don’t give a damn about the students.
The only thing they care about is their own freakish, virtue-signalling obsession with the statue of Rhodes – whose scholarships, by the way, have brought so many benefits to so many people.
This is the second scandal to strike Oxford in a few days. It follows the outrage at Magdalen students’ decision to take down a portrait of the Queen from their common room, supposedly because she is the incarnation of ‘colonialism’.
But while the Magdalen business is really a question of modish, Left-wing student silliness, the dons’ boycott is in an entirely different league.
To turn young people into collateral damage in their demented anti-statue campaign is simply unforgivable.
After two Covid-blighted years, the students deserve so much better. But Oxford’s dons are clearly so blinkered, so cocooned by their own self-righteous prejudice, that they just don’t care.
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