Louise Richardson, vice chancellor at Oxford University since last week, spoke to her students for the first time in her new position, stressing the importance of free speech and encouraging students to be more tolerant of different views.
“How do we ensure that we educate our students both to embrace complexity and retain conviction?” Richardson asked in her speech. “How do we ensure that they appreciate the value of engaging with ideas they find objectionable, trying through reason to change another’s mind, while always being open to changing their own? How do we ensure that our students understand the true nature of freedom of inquiry and expression?”
The 272nd vice chancellor at Oxford and the first female in her position, Richardson had delivered her message during a time of protests from students at Oxford and other universities who were demanding that administrators ban certain speakers, other educational figures or monuments they found offensive.
One case in point occurred at Oxford’s Oriel College, where black and minority students were campaigning to tear down a statue of Cecil Rhodes, the British colonialist who served as the prime minister of the Cape Colony in South Africa from 1890 to 1896.
“While these histories continue to be forgotten, a sentimentalised, whitewashed statue stands in the way of academic rigour,” Oxford student Yussef Robinson wrote to the Guardian. “It also stands in the way of the university’s stated aim of creating an “inclusive” environment for its ethnic minority students – particularly those from southern Africa, who continue to be disenfranchised by his legacy.”
At a debate focused on resolving the issue, Oxford’s president, Stuart Webber, tried to appease student protesters with weak tactics. Webber pleaded that while he did agree with their core sentiments, the protestors’ name-calling and labeling were “ad hominem attacks miring the debate at present.”
"The Rhodes Must Fall movement has become something of a national fixation,” Webber said. “The movement’s proponents have been labelled hypocrites, revisionists and fascists; its opponents have been called colonialists, racists, and white supremacists. However, such name-calling distracts from the fundamental issues at hand: colonial legacy, institutional racism, and the best methods of response."
Predictably, the weak-kneed university administrators recently agreed to remove a plaque that was dedicated to Cecil Rhodes.
“We do not want to turn our universities into drab, bland suburbs of the soul where the diet is intellectual porridge."
But unlike her predecessors and other frequent university administrators, Richardson took a firm stance in criticizing speech codes and encouraging open-mindedness in debate; and her message was successfully imparted. She stood by Oxford’s chancellor, Lord Patten of Barnes, who had advised students that history cannot be written “according to our contemporary views and prejudice” and called for “no-platforming” of controversial lecturers.
Lord Patten stated that because “we value tolerance,” the university has often given in to demands for censorship.
“[But] one thing we should never tolerate is intolerance,” Lord Patten said. “We do not want to turn our universities into drab, bland suburbs of the soul where the diet is intellectual porridge.”