The University of Oxford is moving with the times and is replacing portraits of famous men with female, black and gay icons in order to try and counter its image as a ‘male, pale and stale’ institution.
Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, was at the forefront of calls for Oxford to take more students from ethnic minority backgrounds earlier this year when it was revealed that the university had only taken in 27 black undergraduate students in 2014.
According to The Sunday Times Oxford has commissioned dozens of new portraits, each of which costing £900, and which students and staff have been asked to nominate ‘suitable subjects’ for. Already, Libby Lane, the first female Anglican bishop, is hanging at St Peter’s College.
A photograph of Naomi Wolf, the Rhodes scholar and feminist, will go on display at Rhodes House, the Times reported.
Ms Wolf told the Times: ‘In my college, New College, there are portraits of men everywhere.
‘While pictures are not the same as gender or race equality, I do not think this is trivial. If all you see are white men, white men, white men, it is very hard to believe that people in your society think you have a place in history. Changing iconography helps to change how you see history.’
Feminist Naomi Wolf will feature in the new images. Image source: Flickr
In addition, portraits of female journalists Hari Kunzru and Amelia Gentleman are on display at Wadham College.
These new portraits appeared as part of Oxford’s Diversifying Portraiture project which was launched back in 2014. It aimed to collect 250 portraits of those who had ‘challenged the stereotypes and preconceptions of their times’ and put them up online.
Oxford’s pro-vice-chancellor for personnel and equality, Stephen Goss, explained to the Sunday Times that the portraits would be ‘displayed prominently at sites right across the university, reflecting the remarkable contributions made by so many individuals to modern Oxford’s culture of inclusion, equality and tolerance’.
Furthermore, the Rhodes Must Fall movement, calling for the university to ‘decolonise’ its curriculum, has also gained traction this year. More than 100 students and supporters demonstrated back in May in a ‘mass march for decolonisation’, as part of the continuing campaign to remove the statue of Victorian imperialist Cecil Rhodes from Oxford’s Oriel College.
A notice put up by Oriel college in December last year addressing the issues raised by the Rhodes Must Fall movement.
Bearing in mind that the impetus for measures such as the new portraits came from admissions statistics, one might be tempted to ask, how do Oxford’s most recent statistics stack up for ethnic minority groups? Could these portraits be accused of being a publicity stunt to hide their admissions statistics?
I had a look at the most recent publically available statistics, which are available online:
It can be both problematic and misleading to draw conclusions across the whole BME group for admissions (Black and Minority Ethnic), especially given the hugely varying sample sizes per group. However, judging Oxford using the same criteria as David Cameron, 38 black students were admitted out of 241 undergraduate applications in 2015, with an average acceptance rate across the black application groups of around 10%. This is a few points lower than the average acceptance rate for BME applicants more generally which is 16%.
In comparison, the acceptance rate for undergraduate white students – of which there were around four times as many applicants as in the BME group – was 25%. It is important to bear in mind also that nearly 6% of applicants do not declare their ethnic origin, and a small percentage of students also refuse to declare theirs.
On the admissions site, Oxford also makes clear that its ethnic mix is
‘not dramatically out of line with either the national picture or its peer institutions’, pointing out that 13% of undergraduate students admitted to Oxford in 2014 were of BME origin, in comparison with 18% of Russell Group universities, and 14% of Russell Group universities outside of London admitted between 2013-4.
Indeed, it is important to note that Oxford only receives information about the ethnic background of its applicants after admissions decisions have been made, thus precluding any accusations of so-called ‘positive discrimination.’
The statistics are are available for public scrutiny.
I would argue that, based on what I have read, the portraits do not seem to be merely a publicity stunt, but reflective of a genuine and serious attempt to bring Oxford into the twenty-first century.