The college’s governors said they had “voted to launch an independent Commission of Inquiry into the key issues surrounding the Rhodes statue.” In a statement, Oriel College’s governing body, made up of faculty, said they had “expressed their wish to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes” and a plaque to him, adding that “this is what they intend to convey to the Independent Commission of Inquiry.”
Rhodes made a fortune in the late 19th century from gold and diamond mines where miners labored in brutal conditions. He was an education benefactor whose legacy includes Oxford University’s prestigious Rhodes scholarships, which have been awarded to international students for over a century.
Famous Rhodes scholars include former U.S. President Bill Clinton and feminist writer Naomi Wolf. His statue was removed from the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015 after students led a “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign.
A similar campaign has sought the removal of his statue in Oxford. The movement had gained new momentum since the death of George Floyd spurred anti-racism protests worldwide and a renewed debate on colonialism and its legacy in Britain.
Other historical monuments and statues around the world, honoring figures from Christopher Columbus to Belgium’s King Leopold II, have since become flash points in protests. Earlier this month, Black Lives Matter protesters pulled down a controversial statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol and threw it into the harbor. Colston was prominently involved in England's slaving company, the Royal African Company, which transported tens of thousands of Africans across the Atlantic Ocean.
Oriel’s governors said the new commission would include people from academia, education policy, law, politics and journalism. The commission aims to look into how to improve access to black and ethnic minority students and faculty, and review “how the college’s 21st-century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past.”
The Rhodes statue will stay up until the inquiry finishes its work later this year. In a statement, the Rhodes Must Fall campaign group said it welcomed Oriel College's intention to take down the statue, but demanded a stronger commitment to follow it through.
“This is a potentially epoch-defining moment for our institution, the University of Oxford. We can, potentially, offer a powerful example of the decolonial project in higher education in the U.K. and beyond," the group said.