Colonialism is a ubiquitous and overwhelming presence in the power structures that have shaped British society for the past five hundred years, including the academic landscape of which Oxford and Somerville are a part. At Somerville, we do not seek to deny or downplay that influence. Rather, we hope that our students and academics will join us in evaluating the role we have had at different times in both perpetuating and challenging that influence.
The first thing most people know about Somerville is our founding ethos: we were created to include the excluded. This is relevant to a conversation about colonialism because people often assume that the ‘excluded’ referred exclusively to women, arguably the most conspicuously excluded demographic at the time in British universities. In fact, Somerville’s founders had the vision to stipulate that neither religion nor gender should be a bar to accessing an Oxford education, at a time when other colleges still insisted on Anglican conformism.
Perhaps as a consequence of this inclusive outlook, Somerville has been able to cultivate intersectional ties with minority groups since its inception. One of the pioneers of this inclusivity was Cornelia Sorabji (1889), who was the first woman to study law at Oxford and became one of India’s first female lawyers. Other Indian scholars followed, including the princesses and suffragists, Catherine Duleep Singh and Bamba Duleep Singh (both 1890), and former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi (1937).
Of course, given the era, it is true that many of these ties were often resolutely orthodox, with many of Somerville’s graduates going on to join the Indian colonial service. However, the work of reformers such as Sorabji in progressing the cause of women’s rights in India should not be discounted.
Today, the progressive side of Somerville’s Indian relationship sees its clearest fulfilment in the work of the Oxford India Centre for Sustainable Development. The centre brings a range of academic disciplines together to focus on sustainable development challenges facing India, with OICSD seminars and multi-disciplinary reading groups helping to encourage a focus on theory and literature emerging from the Global South.
The OICSD also hosts exceptional Indian scholars, many of whom apply their studies to the shaping of public policy in India and beyond. In 2016, the 150th anniversary of Cornelia Sorabji’s birth, the OICSD also launched a scholarship programme through donations from alumni, friends of Somerville and lawyers inspired by Sorabji’s determination to break barriers. In 2020-21, the OICSD welcomed five new scholars, including three under the Cornelia Sorabji programme, bringing the total of OICSD scholars for the year to 16.
Somerville also aims to foster scholarship which addresses the impact of colonialism. In 2020, we formed a partnership with the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities to create two Visiting Scholarships for BAME early-career academics. Following the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, Somerville library in conjunction with current students also sourced a new collection of decolonial literature. Also in 2020 ,we hosted our first programme of events to mark Black History Month, including conversations that considered practical steps towards decolonising the physical and mental landscape of the University. Finally, Somerville hosts Alternative Curricula, a discussion group exploring postcolonial and decolonial theory.