If the Rhodes Must Fall movement was looking for a new leader, it seems they have found it in “Red Kate”.
As interim provost of the self-styled “People’s Republic of Worcester College”, Prof Kate Tunstall is the most prominent scholar to join the Oriel boycott.
She is one of over 150 Oxford academics to announce their refusal to teach the college’s undergraduate students in protest at its decision to keep a controversial statue of Cecil Rhodes on its main facade.
The boycott, first revealed in The Telegraph earlier this week, has been roundly condemned not only by Government ministers but also by the university’s own vice-Chancellor.
Who is Prof Tunstall?
Prof Tunstall – or “Red Kate” as she is called by fellow dons – was appointed as interim Provost in September 2019 after her predecessor Sir Jonathan Bate stepped down.
Within weeks of taking up post, she attempted to abolish the traditions of Grace before meals and standing for dons, only to face a backlash from students who wanted to keep the customs intact.
Her other changes included installing an equalities officer on the governing body, setting up a new “community, equality and decolonisation” fund, and installing a multi-faith prayer room as an alternative to Chapel.
Just last month at the height of the Israel-Gaza conflict, she sent out a mass email to congratulate students and staff who took part in pro-Palestinian protests in the city centre.
“It was heartening to see so many Worcester, staff and students, at the event in Oxford city centre on Sunday expressing solidarity with the Palestinians, condemning the violence and calling for peace,” she said.
Prof Tunstall went on to say that the situation in Palestine “calls on us to stand against violence of all kinds, for the freedom of the Palestinian people and against any form of antisemitism”.
Protesters march to Oriel Colleges statue of Cecil Rhodes at the University of Oxford on May 25, 2021 in Oxford, England
Credit: Laurel Chor
Although she made no secret of her left-wing views, dons were nonetheless “shocked” to see she had signed up to boycott Oriel.
"It is extraordinary – there is no precedent for it ,” one don said. “There is a very strong code among Heads of Houses at both Oxford and Cambridge that you act collegiately. It is a very basic principle
“This means it is not the business of one college to tell another college how it should be conducting its affairs."
But the dismay at Prof Tunstall and other senior professors who joined the boycott runs far deeper than a feeling that they have betrayed their fellow dons by speaking out.
“This boycott displays the ugly intolerance of its supporters, who simply will not live with any view other than their own and are willing to punish students to impose their will,” said Nigel Biggar, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology at Oxford.
“Having failed to persuade, they now employ force. Such authoritarianism has no place in a university that purports to be liberal”.
Prof Biggar, who is head of Oxford’s McDonald Centre for Theology, Ethics, and Public Life, is currently leading a project on "Ethics and the Empire", which analyses the impact of Britain’s imperial past.
In 2017, academics launched a vociferous attack on Prof Biggar after he suggested that people should have “pride” about aspects of their imperialist past.
“Someone who was properly liberal should accept a decision that they don’t agree with. Otherwise all we have is the expression of deep feelings and civil war,” he said.
Why Oxford is the epicentre of the crisis
For some, this episode has shone a light on what many within Oxford have known for some time: that the university is no longer the bastion of establishment that it once was.
“The outside image of Oxford is profoundly misleading,” one don said. “Although it has this reputation of being a centre of tradition, it is really not any more in all ways that matter substantively.
“There are still ancient customs being upheld in some of the colleges – wearing gowns for formal dinners, for example. But this is nothing more than outward window dressings.
“In terms of the policy and political outlook there is little if anything traditional in Oxford any more. With very few exceptions the tutors and fellows at Oxford are politically on the left and in many cases very far to the left.”
He said this is part of a broader phenomenon, since academics tend to be left leaning. But it causes particular tension at a university like Oxford which is “liable to have links with historical figures who the extremely left leaning academic staff hold in contempt”. He added: “That is the basic reason why Oxford in particular is the epicentre of this kind of crisis.”
Culture changing from the top
It is not just rank and file academics that display left-wing tendencies. Some dons have noted how over the past decade or so, almost all Head of House positions have been handed to “a Blairite, an ex-head of a quango, or someone from a left-leaning media organisation" meaning the culture is also changing from the top.
In recent years, former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, ex-controller of BBC Radio 4 Mark Damazer and former Observer editor Will Hutton have all been appointed as College chiefs.
Next month David Isaac, the current chair of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission and ex-chair of the charity Stonewall, will take over from Prof Tunstall as Worcester’s provost.
"[Lord] Mendoza was the first exception to this," one don said, pointing out that the provost of Oriel, was last year handed a Tory peerage.
For Prof Biggar, the real losers of the boycott are the students – and not just those at Oriel but across Oxford and beyond.
“Here we have 150 academics, some of them very senior – these people are clearly willing to go on the warpath when they disagree with something,” he said.
“Imagine what the effect will be on their colleagues and students – will they feel able to disagree or will they censor themselves? That is the most sinister effect of this behaviour.
“These people need to be able to restrain themselves to give other people the freedom to say what they really think without fear of being punished”.