Towards a more inclusive Worcester
On the evening of the 17th June, many of Worcester College’s staff and students shared with others across the university a feeling of relief at the news that Oriel College had expressed a willingness to remove the statue of Cecil Rhodes at the meeting of their Governing Body. Earlier that day, in the College’s own Governing Body meeting, Worcester had passed a motion calling on Oriel to remove the statue, expressing an official College position that echoed our Junior and Middle Common Room’s motions calling for similar action from Oriel passed at their own most recent committee meetings, and the solidarity the two common rooms had expressed with the Black Lives Matter movement in the statements they made in the immediate aftermath of the racist killing of George Floyd.
Although we recognise the strong symbolic nature of the statue of Cecil Rhodes and the important position it has held as a focus of student decolonisation efforts both now and in previous years, the work that is needed to make Oxford University a wholly inclusive place and to recognise the myriad ways that the institution preserves the legacy of colonialism at a number of levels is far from limited to the removal of a statue. This symbolic gesture is not enough, and we are committed to the broader institutional changes that will be required to oppose systemic racism and discrimination in all its forms.
For the last year the College has been working towards a wholly inclusive environment and supporting our community’s anti-racist education through events organised as part of our Community, Equality and Decolonisation fund, and more recently through the creation of the position of Equalities Officer on our Governing Body. This work has been a priority for the College for some time, but these past weeks have brought a renewed reminder both of its importance and of its urgency. At yesterday’s Governing Body meeting we committed to a further important action in this area: the creation of an action group on Equity and Inclusion in the College, which will put forward a range of actions for implementation in advance of our students’ return to term-time study in October of this year. Many of these actions will no doubt arise from suggestions made in recent weeks by the BME staff network of Oxford University, and by student societies such as the African Caribbean Society and anti-colonial movements like Common Ground.
The matter is a deeply personal one for many of us. In recent days, many of our teaching and administrative staff (including the Interim Provost) as well as students and alumni have taken part in the protests in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and in support of Rhodes Must Fall. But it is also an organisational priority for the College. The equal representation of BAME students and in particular Black students within our student body has for some time been an important focus of our Access and Outreach work. We hope to have made some significant progress on this in the changes we made to our thinking around admissions in support of fair access earlier this year (just as we have for other under-represented groups), but we do not yet have access to the race and ethnicity data that would allow us to evaluate this for our most recent admissions round.
As well as seeking to increase the number of Black students (and students from other under-represented groups) studying at Oxford, we have been listening very carefully to concerns that students have shared with the University over the last week about the prevalence of racist incidents at many of Oxford’s colleges. We understand that access work is not limited to inviting applications from and admitting larger numbers of certain under-represented groups of students, and renew our commitment to ensuring that all of our students can thrive at Worcester. To this end we have tasked our new Equity and Inclusion group with immediately considering such issues as specific welfare provision for certain under-represented groups of students, anti-racist training for all of our College community, working to oppose the under-representation of BAME academics among our teaching and research staff, and other concrete actions that can be put into effect immediately to create a more equitable environment and community.
Although we may not have a symbolic statue that we can agree to take down, we recognise that we are not outside of the legacies of colonialism and the inequalities that sit at the heart of many of this country’s institutions and are in evidence across the education system at all levels. As an educational establishment we are committed to engaging with those legacies and inequalities, and taking the concrete anti-racist actions that will be required to oppose them, and to working towards a College that is representative, inclusive, fair and welcoming to all of its students.