Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott says Oxford “will damage its standing as a great university” if it bows to pressure and removes a statue of African colonialist Cecil Rhodes.
The university’s Oriel College has agreed to remove a commemorative plaque to Rhodes following a campaign by a student group calling for the statue to be pulled down.
The Rhodes Must Fall campaigners see the 19th century imperialist as the founding father of apartheid and say his views go against the “inclusive culture which promotes equality” at the university.
Oxford’s Rhodes Scholarships have funded about 8000 students from around the world from a legacy left after the diamond tycoon’s death in 1902.
Mr Abbott, a former Rhodes scholar himself, has told British newspaper The Independent that Oxford would be “substituting moral vanity for fair-minded inquiry” if it allowed the statue to be removed.
“The students of Oriel should be clear-eyed about Rhodes’ faults and failings but proud of his achievements,” he said.
“The university should remember that its mission is not to reflect fashion but to seek truth, and that means striving to understand before rushing to judge.”
Mr Abbott, who studied at Oxford in the early 1980s, said “racism is a dreadful evil but we all know that now”.
“Real virtue would have been to oppose racism when it was difficult to do so.
“It’s a pity that Rhodes was, in many respects, a man of his times.
“We can lament that he failed to oppose unjust features of his society while still celebrating the genius that led to the creation of the Rhodes scholarships.”
Mr Abbott said Oxford and its students should “should prefer improving today’s orthodoxies to imposing them on our forebears. Oxford would damage its standing as a great university if it were to substitute moral vanity for fair-minded inquiry.”
Oriel College has made clear it does not support Rhodes’ views and is planning to launch a six-month consultation on whether the statue should remain or go.