Chris Patten, the chancellor of Oxford University, has told students involved in the campaign to remove a statue of Cecil Rhodes that they must be prepared to embrace freedom of thought or “think about being educated elsewhere.”
Patten accused students who had criticized Rhodes, who regarded the English as racially superior, of trying to shut down debate. He said that by failing to face up to historical facts that they did not like, students were not abiding by the values of a liberal, open society that “tolerates freedom of speech across the board.”
The intervention by Patten, who oversaw one of the last vestiges of the British empire as the final British governor of Hong Kong, comes after nearly 200 international students at Oxford signed a statement saying the Rhodes scholarship they share “does not buy [their] silence” over the imperialist’s legacy.
Cecil Rhodes was a racist, but you can’t readily expunge him from history. Rhodes, who is remembered for beginning the policy of enforced racial segregation in South Africa, attended Oriel in the 1870s and left a large sum of money to the college in his will. Each year, 83 international students are selected to study at Oxford under the scholarship that bears his name.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaign seeks to persuade Oxford university authorities to remove a statue of Rhodes from the building of Oriel college and to spread awareness of his white supremacist views and the historic crimes of the British empire.
In his apologia for Rhodes, Patten evoked the spirit of the South African statesman Nelson Mandela, the country’s first black president after the end of apartheid, who, he said, endorsed the Rhodes scholarships.
“I think that we are giving them [the students] the respect of listening to their views, even when we don’t agree with them,” he told the Today program on BBC Radio 4.
“But if people at a university are not prepared to demonstrate the sort of generosity of spirit which Nelson Mandela showed towards Rhodes and towards history, if they are not prepared to embrace all those values that are contained in the most important book for any undergraduate, Karl Popper’s Open Society, if they are not prepared to embrace those issues, then maybe they should think about being educated elsewhere. But I hope they will embrace those issues and engage in debate.”