The Governing Body of Oriel College will launch an Independent Commission of Inquiry into the statue of Cecil Rhodes placed above the gates of college. They state that they “wish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes and the King Edward Street Plaque”, and that this would be their recommendation to the Commission.

In addition to deciding on the statue’s fate, the Commission would “deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st Century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past”. Carole Souter CBE, the Master of St Cross College, will chair the Commission.

This decision comes after the Rhodes Must Fall movement was reignited in light of Black Lives Matter and broader discussions about racism and colonialism. Over the past weeks, two protests have been held in front of Oriel college, drawing crowds of hundreds.

The Oriel JCR and MCR passed motions calling for the removal of the statue, and over 180,000 people have signed a petition on Change.org calling for the statue’s removal. The Oxford City Council also has condemned the statue.

Rhodes Must Fall responded to the statement, calling it a “potentially epoch-defining moment for our institution.” They thank “all of those who have, over the years, contributed to the development of this decolonial and democratic social movement.”

They state further, however, that “we have been down this route before, where Oriel College has committed to taking a certain action, but has not followed through: notably, in 2015, when the College committed to engaging in a six-month-long democratic listening exercise. Therefore, while we remain hopeful, our optimism is cautious. While the Governing Body of Oriel College have ‘expressed their wish’ to take down the statue, we continue to demand their commitment.

“Until such time as the Rhodes statue ceases to adorn the facade of Oriel College on Oxford’s High Street, we will continue to galvanise the goodwill and energy seen across the University, particularly among an astonishingly wide variety of academics.”

The Oriel JCR President told Cherwell: “I couldn’t be happier to see the Governing Body state publicly their wish to remove the Cecil Rhodes statue and open an enquiry. This result is testament to the years of hard work and time invested by the Rhodes Must Fall movement. I am incredibly proud that our students and graduates participated in this movement so wholeheartedly and that we were able to make our voices heard in this debate. This is only the beginning and I look forward to our continued engagement with this discourse and in this journey towards the removal of the statue.”

Susan Brown, the Leader of the Oxford City Council has also welcomed the news. Previously the City Council had reached out to Oriel, asking them to submit a planning application to take down the statue. Now, Brown states, “I welcome the news that Oriel College have come to the view that they would like the statue and plaque of Cecil Rhodes to be removed.” She also congratulated the Rhodes Must Fall campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement “who have reinvigorated this debate about our history and how it should be recognised”.

The Oxford University Chancellor Lord Patton had criticised the RMF movement. Oriel itself had previously issued a statement saying: “We will continue to examine our practices and strive to improve them to ensure that Oriel is open to students and staff of all backgrounds, and we are determined to build a more equal and inclusive community and society.”

The Universities Minister also stated earlier today that she rejected calls to remove the controversial statue, as it would be “short sighted” to try to “rewrite our history”.

The full statement from Oriel College reads: “The Governing Body of Oriel College has today (Wednesday 17th June) voted to launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue. 

“They also expressed their wish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes and the King Edward Street Plaque. This is what they intend to convey to the Independent Commission of Inquiry. 

“Both of these decisions were reached after a thoughtful period of debate and reflection and with the full awareness of the impact these decisions are likely to have in Britain and around the world. 

“The Commission will deal with the issue of the Rhodes legacy and how to improve access and attendance of BAME undergraduate, graduate students and faculty, together with a review of how the college’s 21st Century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past. 

“At today’s meeting, the Governing Body also approved the appointment of an independent Chair for the Commission of Inquiry, Carole Souter CBE, the current Master of St Cross College and former Chief Executive of the National Lottery Heritage Fund, who in turn will approach a number of individuals drawn from the worlds of academia, education policy, law, politics and journalism. The commission is intending to draw upon the greatest possible breadth and depth of experience, opinion and background. 

“The Inquiry will, in turn, invite submissions from a broad range of stakeholders from Oxford itself and the country as a whole; the students, representatives of Rhodes Must Fall and Oxford City council, as well as alumni of Oxford and Oriel and citizens of the city. Written and oral evidence will be requested. It is intended that some oral evidence sessions will be held in public, with similar rules of engagement to that of a parliamentary select committee. 

“By setting up this commission, Oriel governing body is demonstrating that it is willing to be guided by all its stakeholders. The Governing Body believes that this decision will allow a serious, appropriate and productive resolution of a complex series of issues. Ms Souter has insisted on a thorough process – but conducted at pace – and set to report to the Governing Body by the end of the year.”

Image credit to Wikimedia Commons.