University College was founded in 1249. Its history is part of a wider English, British and world history. Therefore, it is also part of the history of empire and colonialism. Our past continues to shape our present in manifold ways: through the material landscape of our college and whom we record and commemorate; through the impacts of those who left resources in order to sustain it, and those who, through their labour, contributed to the College’s endowments. But our present is also shaped by the values we currently hold and the wider national and international contexts in which we operate.
The College has benefited from the insights of several grassroots movements, such as Rhodes Must Fall, Black Lives Matter, and campaigns for curriculum reform, which have encouraged us to begin the task of critically reflecting on our history. University College accepts that the first step to engaging with its colonial past and addressing systemic racism is to admit that there is a long way to go. The College’s past and how it informs the present must be confronted and difficult questions need to be asked.
The College’s stated principles are inclusive. Our priority is to create an environment in which people who have been marginalised within, or excluded from, our community are welcomed, supported and celebrated. We pursue this aim in the context not only of our own history, but also in the context of what the British government refers to as ‘a hostile environment for illegal immigrants’. This serves to increase racial discrimination and creates a climate that presents difference as a cause of fear or hostility. Such a culture is inimical to our aims as a College. In seeking to engage with our colonial past, and to take concrete and effective action to address the legacies and existence of racism in a meaningful way, we reaffirm our commitment to creating a culture in which people of all backgrounds will flourish.
University College is taking steps to highlight aspects of its history that have so far been obscured and to start conversations about racism in our community. We detail two types of initiative below. First, in response to Black Lives Matter in June 2020, and to subsequent appeals made by the student body to address institutional racism, Univ established a working party on racism and anti-racism, and, subsequently, a new Committee for Equality, Diversion and Inclusion. Second, the College has begun to address its practices of memorialisation and discriminatory aspects of its built environment. One project begins to celebrate previously hidden histories while another contextualises a racist sculpture in the College Chapel. It is worth highlighting that these two projects were initiated by two women of colour and executed on their own time, with formal support and sponsorship of the College provided only later in the process. For this reason, we note the importance of acknowledging not just the outcomes of these investigations, but the stories about how these issues came to the attention of our community in the first place. The College hopes and expects that the new committee devoted expressly to addressing racism and discrimination will allow it to move more nimbly to support such projects in future.
While Univ is making gradual advancements, we hope that these initiatives mark the beginning of much-needed further work to come.
1. Our culture and community today
The Black Lives Matter protests following the unlawful killing of George Floyd, along with the sustained work of Rhodes Must Fall, the Oxford African and Caribbean Society and others, have made clear that the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford must do more to uphold our anti-racist values and to understand and address the legacies of colonialism in our communities. The call for institutions within Oxford to address systemic racism is not new and requires urgent attention; we are committed to ensuring that Univ will now be a leader in this regard.
University College makes clear in its written policies that it opposes and deplores racist behaviour or language of any form. It has made a public commitment to be ‘pro-active in eliminating discrimination’1,and it ‘aims to provide an inclusive environment that promotes equality and values diversity’2. Nevertheless, the College recognises that we need to do more to embed and reflect these commitments in our practices. This is imperative both because it is the right thing to do, and because it will help us to achieve our academic goals.
Univ students prompted the College to do more to tackle racism. Their efforts led to the creation of a working party on racism and anti-racism, which met in 2020 and included students and staff3.
Since its establishment in the summer of 2020, the working party has solicited advice and contributions from a wide variety of college members and identified a number of issues which required attention. This process emphasised the burdens that fall disproportionately on BME staff and students to share, and educate others about, their experiences. We are deeply grateful to those students and staff members for being willing to participate in this process. We also recognise the need to ensure that those in the most precarious positions in our community are a part of our ongoing conversations.
As a result of this consultation, we have now appointed a Fellow for Racism and Anti-Racism and established a new Committee for Equality, Diversity and Inclusion to help us make progress in this work. We have also established a new reporting system, which enables this committee to understand the experiences of students and staff with regard to racism and discrimination, and to use that information to both address problems where they are reported and confirmed and to undertake concrete actions to help make our community a more inclusive place. These are initial steps in our commitment to a long-term process of reflection and reform.
Last year we celebrated the fortieth anniversary of the admission of women students to the College. For some, the reason to admit women was a matter of justice. For others, the motivation was the wish to ensure that Univ could draw on as wide a pool of talent as possible and attract the best possible students so that the College as a whole would flourish, grow, and not be limited by its past. Both types of argument support the case for giving our time and attention to ensure that we make Univ not only a College that will better attract applications from Black students and staff, and from students and staff of colour, but also a place where those members of our community may flourish to the same degree as everyone else, without facing obstacles or impediments due to institutional and social structures as well as individual behaviours that make their lives harder. A more diverse and inclusive College is, clearly, to the benefit of every member and a necessary condition of achieving our goals of excellence in university education, learning and research, as well as the pastoral care of our students. Equally important, achieving diversity within our ranks is a matter of long overdue justice.
We believe that if we are to remain a world-leading centre of academic excellence that can make worthwhile contributions to the world at large, then we cannot shy away from difficult questions about our past, present and future.
It is in this spirit we offer two examples of how Univ has begun to acknowledge and narrate a fuller history.
2. Memorialisation and our built environment
There are centuries of stories within Univ's built environment. A cursory glance at the portraits in Hall reveals that members of the College played a significant role in global colonization. There were various Univ-educated imperial and colonial officers in India and elsewhere, from William Jones to the late Prime Minister Clement Attlee, who oversaw partition in India.
These links have not, so far, been part of the story Univ tells about itself. Like many modern British institutions, the College has focused on celebrating certain figures to the neglect of a thorough interrogation of their actions and legacies. It has also left unacknowledged the contributions of members of its community whose work deserves to be brought to light.
In recent years, attempts have been made to understand a fuller history of the College. This includes remembering Christian Frederick Cole, the first Black African scholar at the University, and recognising the importance of Indian scholars and their knowledge in the widely revered achievements of Sir William Jones.
2a. Remembering Christian Cole
Christian Frederick Cole was the first Black African to be awarded a degree in Oxford and the first to practice law in an English court. He read classics and was made a member of University College in 1877.
However, it was not until 2017, 140 years later, that the College celebrated Cole and memorialised the historical significance of his life. That we did so was thanks to Pamela Roberts, a cultural historian, who encouraged Univ to bring Cole’s narrative into widespread view.
On a visit to Oxford, Pamela was struck by the absence of Black history. Suspicious of the claim that there had been no Black contributions or achievements in the University, Pamela undertook independent research to learn more, which led to the publication of Black Oxford: The Untold Stories of Oxford University’s Black Scholars. It was during this project that Pamela discovered Cole, with the support of Angela Unsworth, Univ’s Domestic Bursar, and Robin Darwall-Smith, Univ’s Archivist, in whose history of the College Cole had featured.
Pamela encouraged Univ to commission a plaque to celebrate the life of Christian Frederick Cole, which was unveiled in October 2017. The plaque can be viewed on Logic Lane. In addition to the plaque, Pamela has since produced a film about Cole’s life, and written several plays that explore the lives of Cole and other important Black scholars in Oxford’s history. One of the many questions Pamela has sought to answer is why the only picture we have of Cole is in the form of a parody, in contrast to the oil paintings and sketches produced of other academics at the time. The life of Christian Cole is now recognised more widely across the University, forming part of a diverse exhibition series and included on the Uncomfortable Oxford walking tour.
As well as helping Univ to remember Cole, Pamela gifted us with a renewed approach to exploring our built environment, where hidden histories are brought to the surface, and overlooked contributions are afforded due recognition. Indeed, it was Pamela’s work that inspired the College’s second major step in re-thinking the past – the retelling of the William Jones memorial.
2b. The William Jones memorial by Flaxman: Bringing the unseen into view
William Jones was a former undergraduate, Fellow of University College, and Fellow of the Royal Society. He learnt over two dozen languages and he was a pioneer in the field of comparative linguistics, developing particular expertise in Sanskrit, Arabic, Persian, and Turkish. In 1783, Jones was appointed to work as a judge in India, where he stayed for eleven years. During this time, Jones worked closely with Indian scholars and came to realize the common source of languages and the age and richness of Indic civilization, which transpired to be considerably older than those of Greece or Judaea.
In the years after his death in 1794, Jones’s widow, Lady Anna Maria (Shipley) Jones, commissioned a monument of her late husband. It was to be made by the notable sculptor John Flaxman (1755-1826) and originally intended for placement in Calcutta. The monument was eventually gifted to Univ as its second-choice site and placed in the chapel, where we see it today.
In 2019, almost two-hundred and twenty-five years later, one of Univ’s Junior Research Fellows, Roxana Willis, was surprised by the racial depictions of the Indian priests in the College’s Chapel. She happened to be researching so-called race science at the time and was struck by how the figures in the sculpture appeared to incorporate caricatures from race typologies.
Unsettled by the racial representations, Roxana set out to learn more about the creation of the sculpture and found the original sketches made by the sculptor, John Flaxman, now held at the British Museum. The sketches diverge in a number of ways from the sculpture itself. For example, the sketch (below) depicts Jones learning from three scholarly Brahmin priests, from whom he is transcribing sacred Sanskrit texts for a digest of Hindu and Muslim laws. Accordingly, the sketch shows four people resting at equal height. However, in the sculpture, Jones is seated and elevated markedly higher than the priests, which makes available the reading that it is Jones who is teaching the priests, when we know that the opposite is true.
Similarly, many other things are changed in the sculpture, including the absence of the tilaka marks that the priests wear on their forehead to indicate their learned status (one Shaivite and two Vaishnavite, which are major denominations of Hinduism); the relative nudity of the priests, compared with their counterparts in the sketch; and the shift from the priests’ active recital from two open books to their more seemingly passive engagement with just one text in the sculpture. In contrast, the Jones figure in the sculpture is dressed in fuller and more formal clothing than the sketch.
On discovering the sketches, with close support from Junior Research Fellow Jack Parlett, Roxana undertook, over several months and in her own time, further research with the guidance of some of the college's historians. Roxana and Jack then collectively reworked the pre-existing description, established a College research committee, and with the support of the committee, revised and finalised the curation.4 The College Chaplain, Andrew Gregory, made sure that the updated description was brought into view.
We invite you to visit the College Chapel to see our new curation of the William Jones memorial, which has been in place since October 2020, also detailed on our resource site. A crucial aspect of the revised description is the acknowledgement of the Indian priests who are also depicted in the sculpture. As representatives of Indian communities, the Hindu priests were co-creators of Jones’ knowledge; yet, until now, their contributions were appropriated, erased, and forgotten.
Just as Pamela brings the significance of Black scholars into view, so in this project the research group sought to recognise the agency of those who experienced British imperial rule.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of the collective histories contained in the bricks and mortar of Univ waiting to be told.