WHILE Oxford University’s Oriel College has delayed an announcement on the future of its now infamous Cecil Rhodes statue, some of the evidence gathering work which will inform its decision has been made public.

Two evidence gathering sessions of the independent commission into Rhodes Statue held late last year have been made public online.

The first, held on November 25, dealt with the history of the building, and the second, held on December 8, dealt with diversity and inclusivity policies at the university.

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During the second meeting, one guest told the commission that ‘Oriel rarely gets selected’ as a place prospective students from Afro-Carribean backgrounds want to visit.

When watched together, the two meetings run for more than three hours in length.

We watched them both so you don’t have to.

The first session

Oxford Mail: The first public hearing of the inquiry into Oriel College's Cecil Rhodes statueThe first public hearing of the inquiry into Oriel College's Cecil Rhodes statue

In the first hearing on ‘Historic Environment Protection and Legislation’ the eight commissioners who make up the inquiry panel heard from Emily Gee, Regional Director, London and South East at Historic England, and Gill Butter, Conservation and Urban Design Officer for Oxford City Council.

The commission asked Ms Gee whether removing a feature from a building, like the Rhodes statue, could be considered harmful enough to have its listing removed.

The answer was not straightforward, as each listed building is often listed for a variety of features.

She also told the commission what Historic England’s view on altering historic buildings was if they had a difficult history.

Ms Gee said: “We believe the best way to approach statues or sites which have become contested is to keep them and explain them with thoughtful and long lasting and powerful interpretation in context.

“It can add new important layers of understanding of what can be a complex and contested past.”

READ a timeline of the debate around the Rhodes statue here

City council heritage officer Gill Butter told the commission how the authority, which would have to make a decision on the statue’s future if the college wants to take it down, would handle the public debate around it.

She said: “To start with we would look at the foundation of those views. Ultimately we have to consider in an informed and understanding way… what the harm would be. It is trying to get to the bottom of the significance of the views and how informed they are. It will be a balancing act when we come to the decision at the end of days.

“It is a question of balancing conflicting issues and managing change in a way that it sustains and enhances the significance of the building.”

The second session

Oxford Mail: The second public hearing of the inquiry into Oriel College's Cecil Rhodes statueThe second public hearing of the inquiry into Oriel College's Cecil Rhodes statue

In the second hearing on ‘Diversity and Inclusivity Policies at Oxford’ the commission heard from Dr Rebecca Surender, Pro-Vice-Chancellor and Advocate for Equality and Diversity at the University of Oxford, and Dr Samina Khan, Director, Undergraduate Admissions and Outreach at University of Oxford.

Dr Surender told the commission she was undertaking work to make the workforce and student population in Oxford more diverse, in proportion with the diversity in Oxford’s resident population.

The doctor laid out the facts about diversity at Oxford for the commission, telling them eight per cent of academic and 22 per cent research staff were from BME backgrounds but it was difficult to compare how this tallied up to other universities.

Meanwhile, 10 per cent of professional staff, including office workers, hospitality staff and cleaners are from BME backgrounds, which compared with 30 per cent of Oxford’s resident local community.

She also said more needed to be done to get staff from diverse backgrounds onto committees and boards, as there were ‘too few’ at the moment.

Meanwhile, Dr Khan told the committee about the challenges of recruiting students from different backgrounds.

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She said many people from ethnic minority background and from working class families often still felt Oxford was for ‘posh people’ and she was attempting to dispel this myth.

She also said prospective students felt more comfortable visiting colleges at the university if there were student ambassadors who ‘looked like them’ and could act as a role model.

But she added that some applicants of Afro-Carribbean backgrounds visiting were not keen on Oriel College.

Dr Khan said: “From my experience we find it difficult to encourage students to go to Oriel.

“Oriel is one of the colleges, they will say ‘oh that is where the statue is’. When they are asked which of the colleges they would like to see, Oriel rarely gets selected

“We put it down to, they do have those discussions with student ambassadors.”

Oriel College’s commission is due to report its findings in the Spring, based on evidence from the public sessions, as well as from sessions held in private.

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