Why did Oriel screw up so badly over #RhodesMustFall?

Oriel College was never going to take down the statue of Cecil Rhodes, never in a million years. There was little support for the idea and I doubt that even the #RhodesMustFall campaigners believed that they would succeed in their aim.

That doesn’t mean that the campaign was wrong. On the contrary, it was a publicity coup, drawing attention to some real issues of racial inequality at Oxford.

Oriel’s response to #RhodesMustFall was to launch a six-month consultation (six months!) which they then rapidly curtailed once it became apparent that furious alumni were threatening to cancel millions of pounds of donations. The U-turn was announced in the impersonal, constipated language that is all too familiar to those of us who work in universities. Oriel has emerged from the affair looking shifty, panicked, untrustworthy and insensitive to the wider issues of racial inequality raised by the campaign. Its students are angry and so are its rich alumni.

To an outsider, this is baffling incompetence. To someone who has spent three years in academia, it is incompetence that is comprehensible (though not excusable) once certain aspects of academic life are understood.

1 Academics like committees

Universities are run by committees, which deliberate with archaic formality. Committees lead to compromised, fudged, sometimes botched solutions.

2 Things move slowly in academia

Six months to decide whether or not to take down a statue (when you already know you’re not going to) is objectively insane. But in academia it counts as speedy decision making. Process matters enormously: there must be consultation, reviews, reports. To take less than six months would suggest, to a certain kind of academic, that you weren’t really taking the matter seriously. Senior civil servants tend to be like this too and the Provost of Oriel was previously a senior civil servant.

3 Universities are cautious

You have not understood what it means to be risk averse until you have sat in a meeting in which an academic administrator glimpses some potential hazard, no matter how distant, small or improbable. Bucks will be passed, issues referred upwards, cans kicked down the road. Inaction is always preferred to action. Indecision is a virtue to an academic administrator: better to do nothing than to be wrong. Senior civil servants tend to be like this too and the Provost of Oriel etc etc

4 Student protest is seen as a good thing

Academics like it when students protest, almost irrespective of the issue. We want students to challenge authority and received wisdom, to be, in our jargon, ‘critical thinkers’. It also makes us nostalgic for our own youthful rebellions. One of the great things about universities is that we see ourselves as communities: the student voice matters. To dismiss demands out of hand feels unsympathetic and authoritarian.

5 Academics are extremely sensitive about issues to do with race

As a group, we tend to be socially liberal and don’t enjoy being on the wrong side in these debates. We’re also conscious that, to our students, our institutions (and often our teaching) can seem monocultural and out of touch. Oxford has an embarrassing deficit of non-white students. This may not be entirely, or even principally, its own fault but it can only add to a sense of institutional guilt.

6 We haven’t got to grips with the idea of students as customers

Students pay us £9,000 a year in tuition fees and they understandably think of themselves as customers. Academics struggle with this. To say “Yes, you are customers and the customer is always right,” is reductive and, in some cases, damaging (sometimes teachers do know what’s best). On the other hand, students are adults who are paying large sums of money: the response of one of my colleagues who yelled “I refuse to think of these kids as customers” isn’t good enough any more. In the next few years consumerism is going to rewrite a lot of assumptions that underpin academic life and we’ve got to try and figure out how to make it work, academics and students together.