Don’t imagine that the campaign group ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ has gone away just because Rhodes didn’t fall. They’ve now issued a list of demands, including a call for Oxford to ‘acknowledge and confront its role in the ongoing violence of empire’. And if America is anything to go by, well, you ain’t seen nothing yet.
The US prides itself on taking free speech seriously but the leaders of its finest universities are in full retreat from undergraduates demanding the most dubious of corrections in the cause of progressive principles. And while Oxford’s chancellor, Chris Patten, and Louise Richardson, the vice-chancellor, gamely told students to either grow up or take a hike, their Ivy League peers have been running up white flags at the first sign of trouble. No need to ask them to ‘recontextualise’ controversial iconography, as Oxford students demanded over Rhodes, they’ll happily rip the whole lot down for you – no questions asked.
America’s great historical vice is, of course, slavery rather than colonialism. A week or so ago, Julia Adams, master of Yale’s Calhoun College, announced it would be taking down paintings of John C Calhoun from the dining room and even her private residence after students complained that Calhoun, VP for President J.Q. Adams, was a ‘notorious slavery advocate’. She couldn’t do anything about the dining hall’s stained glass windows showing slaves picking cotton, Julia added, because they are part of the building’s structure. Yale is actually considering renaming the entire college, despite a poll that found more students wanted to keep Calhoun’s name than ditch it.
At Princeton, it’s the former US president Woodrow Wilson whose head is on the block. Students led by the Black Justice League – a newly formed group of black students and their white supporters – recently staged a sit-in in the president’s office, refusing to leave until he promised to improve race relations on the campus. One of their main demands was to remove Wilson’s name from various schools and buildings on campus. Wilson was a progressive Democrat who probably saved the Allies by bringing the US into the First World War and banned child labour. He was also a Princeton alumnus and its president for more than a decade. But he also – and this is obviously the important bit – reintroduced racial segregation in federal agencies and wasn’t that keen on blacks coming to Princeton. Biographers have rushed to his defence, insisting he was a product of his time and did far more good than bad, but the Black Justice League is unmoved. Comparing themselves to the student civil rights protesters of the 1960s, they insist that keeping Wilson’s name anywhere on campus would be to ‘spit in the face’ of Princeton students he ‘would have abhorred’.
At least, Rhodes, Wilson and Calhoun are well-known. Sometimes, protesters have had to do some real historical digging for outrages. Harvard Law School – whose motto is ‘veritas’ – has promised to review the use of its seal. The crest displays three sheaves of wheat. It sounds innocuous until you realise they form the coat of arms of Isaac Royall, whose bequest purchased the land on which the world’s most prestigious law school was built. Royall wasn’t just a generous philanthropist but also the son of an Antiguan plantation owner who – inevitably – kept slaves. Harvard Law students don’t just want the wheat sheaves to go as ‘endorsements of a slaveholding legacy’. They are also demanding the school set up a special diversity and inclusion office, make staff take ‘cultural competency’ training and want the curriculum changed to include a ‘serious study into the implications of racism, white supremacy and imperialism in creating and perpetuating legal analysis’. Left unsaid is the uncomfortable fact that if you start rubbing out the memory of slave-holding Americans, that’s DC’s Washington Monument and Jefferson Memorial gone for a start.
Inevitably, it’s easier to kick the weaker targets. Royall also blotted his copy book with America’s more partisan historians by supporting Britain during the War of Independence. A real Brit – Lord Jeffery Amherst, an 18th century British general and colonial governor – was recently ditched after more than a century as the mascot of Amherst College, a prestigious liberal arts college in Massachusetts. Even though Amherst protected colonial Americans from marauding Frenchmen and Indians, his offence was to have allegedly written a postscript in a letter to an officer during a Native American uprising, suggesting sending the Indians a gift of blankets infected with smallpox, or any other method to ‘extirpate this execrable race’. Many Amherst students past and present had pointed out there is no evidence he ever gave such an order but opponents of ‘Lord Jeff’, as he was known, want him replaced as mascot with moose. Everyone loves moose.
Lord Jeff joins a statue of Confederate president Jefferson Davis and a plaque honouring confederate troops – both banished from US universities. The jury’s still out on the fate of a University of Kentucky mural that shows slaves toiling in a field, black musicians playing for white dancers and a Native American brandishing a tomahawk. University leaders have temporarily thrown white sheets over it. Given who also likes white sheets in the South [Ku Klux Klan], it’s a wonder nobody has complained about them, too.
Such is the febrile state of American race relations that, sometimes, the students haven’t even needed to complain for their self-flagellating teachers to take action. Harvard joined Princeton in announcing it is dropping the title of ‘master’ for the heads of residential colleges, a tradition borrowed from Oxbridge. Yale is expected to follow suit. Why? Obviously, because of the word’s connotations with slavery. The changes were agreed by the ‘masters’ themselves. ‘I think there should be no context in our society or in our university in which an African-American student, professor or staff member – or any person, for that matter – should be asked to call anyone “master”,’ wrote Stephen Davis, a Yale professor, in a letter to students explaining why he no longer wanted to be called Master of Pierson College.
As the US goes through one of its periodic outbursts of breast-beating over its enormous racial inequality, this time sparked by the shooting of a string of unarmed black suspects by trigger happy white policemen, it’s no great shock that the resulting ‘black lives matter’ movement has spread into academia. American universities and their largely liberal leaders can put up with decades of ear-bashing from conservatives complaining of bias. But accuse them of being non-inclusive and anti-black, and they topple like dominos.