Roger’s Rules

Oxford Sees the Light

The statue of Cecil Rhodes on the front of Oriel College in Oxford. The governing body of Oriel College said it decided after "careful consideration" to keep the statue despite a campaign by student activists. Photo credit: Steve Parsons/PA Wire URN:25375962

Well, at least Oriel College does in the matter of the statute of Cecil Rhodes, the great British imperialist.  An African student at Oriel courtesy a Rhodes scholarship led the charge to remove a statue of Rhodes. Oriel alumni, fingering their pocketbooks, said, “Do that, and you can kiss goodbye the millions of pounds we were going to send you.”  Guess what, it worked. Maybe, probably, it wouldn’t have worked if had only been a million or two, but with £100 million or more on the line, panic ensued and they caved.  In a way it’s too bad.  Elite colleges and universities have way too much money these days, and now, for the price of standing up just once to the emotional blackmail of a snot-nosed, politically correct student, they get a fat, juicy infusion into the Oriel coffers.

Responding to the demand to remove the statutes of Rhodes, a group of British academics, writing in The Telegraph, noted that “An open and democratic society requires people to have the courage to argue against ideas they disagree with or even find offensive.”  Once upon a time, and not so long ago, this was the very core of liberal wisdom.  But as the writers of this letter observe, “At the moment there is a real risk that students are not given opportunities to engage in such debate. A generation of students is being denied the opportunity to test their opinions against the views of those they don’t agree with.”

As I note in this month’s New Criterion, which just went live this morning, this bit of homely wisdom—a liberal chestnut in the old and highest sense of “liberal”—is under siege at Western universities. “The public’s response to these spectacles of intolerance,” I note,

is partly one of nervous bemusement, partly impatient contempt. Seldom, we suspect, is the depth and virulence of the intolerance really taken on board. The economist Larry Summers, a former president of Harvard University who was drummed out of that position by a coven of angry feminist and black students and faculty, recently noted the growing presence of “a kind of creeping totalitarianism in terms of what kind of ideas are acceptable and are debatable on college campuses. And I think that’s hugely unfortunate. I think the answer to bad speech is different speech. The answer to bad speech is not shutting down speech.”

Reflecting on Summers’s observations, the commentator Glenn Reynolds usefully noted that the people shutting down free speech on campus are not “good people overcome with well-meaning zeal. They’re awful people, who are engaging in bullying and totalitarianism. They should,” Reynolds advises, “be treated accordingly. Note also that much of this is encouraged/enabled by administrators in ‘student life’ bureaucracies, and remember that those people don’t have tenure.” Good advice.