More than 150 Oxford dons are boycotting Oriel College and refusing to teach its students in protest at its decision to keep the Cecil Rhodes statue, The Telegraph can reveal.
It is the latest incident in the culture wars engulfing British universities and comes amid a growing fallout over a decision to remove the Queen’s portrait at neighbouring Magdalen College.
On Wednesday night, the higher education watchdog chief and four former education ministers hit out at the boycott, with one accusing the academics of attempting to "blackmail" Oriel.
The rebel dons say they will refuse to give tutorials to Oriel’s undergraduate students and discontinue any assistance they give the college with its outreach work, including interviewing undergraduates. They have also pledged to withdraw from all talks, seminars and conferences sponsored by Oriel and halt their involvement in recruiting fellows or any other appointments at the college.
It comes three weeks after Oriel’s governing body ruled that the controversial statue of Rhodes will not be taken down from the college’s main facade.
Following the decision, some of the university’s geography academics published a statement saying it was a "source of shame" for Oxford that Rhodes was still "honoured" with a statue. But the initiation of a boycott is the most drastic action that any dons have yet taken over the issue.
Demonstrators in Oxford call for the removal of the statue at a protest last month
Credit: Laurel Chor/Getty Images Europe
Lord Wharton, the chairman of the Office for Students, led criticism of the boycott and said it would be "utterly unacceptable" if it led to any current or prospective students being "disadvantaged in any way".
Robert Halfon, the Tory chairman of the education select committee and a former skills minister, urged Oxford’s vice-Chancellor to "make it very clear" that academics should be "doing their job".
Mr Halfon questioned the priorities of the academics who signed up to the boycott, saying: "Is it political posturing or is it looking out for students paying over £9,000 a year to study at their university?"
Tim Loughton, a former education minister, accused the dons of displaying "unbelievable arrogance", saying: "This is academic blackmail by a group of academics who think their own political views should trump everyone else’s, and if they don’t get their own way then any innocent students who happen to fall within their boycott will become the victims."
MP Chris Skidmore called the boycott "deeply unprofessional", adding that academics "should know better". The former universities minister pointed out that their salaries were paid by the fees of students who "deserve to be taught", adding that this "clearly demonstrates they put their ideology ahead of teaching and learning".
Sir John Hayes, the chairman of the Common Sense Group of Conservative MPs and a former minister, said: "To short-change undergrads on the basis of political posturing is fundamentally irresponsible". Sir John said the academics’s pay should be "reduced accordingly".
Danny Dorling, the Halford Mackinder professor of geography at St Peter’s College and one of the signatories, said the action was intended to demonstrate to Oriel that academics were "not very happy about what’s gone on".
He said: "The extent of the upset is probably larger than what they predicted and it is possible that they may not realise the strength of feeling about this. This is a way of making it obvious in case it’s not clear. Having your university associated with a statue of a racist is deeply upsetting and puts a smear on the whole university."
Other signatories of the boycott statement include Prof Kate Tunstall, the interim head of Worcester College, Robert Gildea, an emeritus professor of history, and Miles Larmer, a professor of African history.
But other Oxford academics criticised the move, calling it "pathetic" and "ludicrous". One don said: "The petition is clearly bonkers and the grown-ups around Oxford should know better. It is crazy to take out their virtue-signalling on the Oriel undergraduates."
The "statement of a boycott of Oriel College", published on Oxford’s internal communication system with a list of signatories, says the university "can only effectively and credibly work to eradicate racism and address the ongoing effects of colonialism today if all the colleges do so".
The statement says Oriel’s decision to keep the statue "undermines us all", accusing the governing body of "ignoring" the recommendations of the independent inquiry it set up last summer.
"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," the statement adds, saying the boycott will remain in place "until Oriel makes a credible public commitment to remove the statue".
Students began campaigning for the Rhodes statue to be taken down in 2015, but the toppling of a statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter demonstrations reignited the "Rhodes Must Fall" protests.
Rhodes, a British imperialist who founded Rhodesia and served as prime minister of the Cape Colony in the 1890s, donated a huge sum to Oriel in his will. He was not a slave trader but supported apartheid-style measures in southern Africa.
A year ago, Oriel’s governing body said it was their "wish" to remove the statue and it established an independent commission to examine the key issues surrounding it.
Last month, the commission concluded its inquiry, saying it backed the college’s original wish to remove the statue. But Oriel’s governing body has decided it should stay for the time being on the basis that it would take too long and cost too much to remove it.