June 11, 2021 - 11:50am

During the First World War, the philosopher Bertrand Russell was an outspoken and defiant pacifist. In 1916, he was prosecuted for “making statements likely to prejudice the recruiting discipline of His Majesty’s forces”. This led to his dismissal from Trinity College, and prevented him from taking up an appointment at Harvard. Then in 1918, he was sentenced to six months in prison for writing an article that criticised the US Army.

Though Russell later said that he “found prison in many ways quite agreeable”, the man clearly paid a cost for his anti-war activism. The same cannot be said of today’s academic activists, who prefer to shift the costs of their activism onto others.

On Wednesday, The Telegraph reported that more than 150 Oxford dons are boycotting Oriel College as a protest against its decision to keep the statue of Cecil Rhodes. The academics say that “until Oriel makes a credible public commitment to remove the statue”, they will refuse to teach Oriel undergraduates, refuse to assist the college in its outreach work, and refuse to attend lectures sponsored by the college.

In other words, they are withholding educational resources from Oriel students because of a decision made by the institution to which those students belong. Note: this is more-or-less what the United States does when it put sanctions on intransigent regimes (i.e., it imposes costs on the people of those countries because of decisions taken by their leaders). Quite ironic for the Oxford dons to have adopted the tactics of a “neocolonial” power.

Of course, given the academics’ juvenile behaviour, one may question how valuable the withheld educational resources really are. (Perhaps the boycott will be a boon for Oriel students.) But more importantly, is there any personal cost to those involved?

In fact, by remaining in their positions, they’re arguably legitimising the Rhodes statue. Surely someone who truly wished to “eradicate racism and address the ongoing effects of colonialism” would refuse to work at any university that glorified such an individual? 

The Telegraph named four of the academics involved in the boycott, and they all appear to be white. Since white people are overrepresented at Britain’s oldest university, a more meaningful way for these academics to protest “the ongoing effects of colonialism” would be to resign and give up their positions to members of underrepresented groups.

But don’t expect to see resignations any time soon. Unlike Russell, today’s academic activists are quite content with their positions and wouldn’t dream of giving them up for something they profess to believe in.

Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer. You can follow him on Twitter @NoahCarl90

Noah Carl is an independent researcher and writer.