Churchill College ‘gave into pressure from tabloids and Churchill family’, claim members of disbanded group

‘It is the College’s responsibility to make itself a safe and inclusive space for Black and Asian people’

Some members of the Working Group on Churchill, Race and Empire at Churchill College have expressed “grave concern” at the group’s recent disbanding in a statement.

The disbanding was announced on 17th June in an email to the group from the Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald. Members of the group claim Donald’s statement from the same date “discredit[ed]” the group, and denied that Churchill disbanded it. They group also claim this statement was made without their input, and they want to “set the record straight.”

Churchill has said this new statement from members of the group “includes significant dimensions of misinformation and factual inaccuracy”, specific examples of which it says were addressed in the Master’s previous statement. It stresses that Churchill “remains committed to exploring the legacy of Winston Churchill in all its range – positive and negative – and will continue to do so.”

‘The College has manifestly given in to pressure exerted upon it’

Some group members believe that in disbanding the group, Churchill has “given in” to “illegitimate pressures” from “the tabloids, some members of the Churchill family”, and groups like Policy Exchange, thus “undermin[ing]” the “integrity of an autonomous college community”, and bringing Churchill “into disrepute.”

Contrary to Donald’s statement, these members stress the group did not disband itself, despite one member’s “personal view” that the group “may as well dissolve itself” following interference from College Council after the group’s second event, which took place in February.

These members also assert they wanted to invite Akala, a Black intellectual and writer, to speak, contrary to Donald’s claim that the group had decided “they would not make further recommendations on a third event.”

Unlike Donald, these group members claim they were not told the group had been constituted for only nine months, instead believing it would operate “for as long as seems appropriate.”

‘In disbanding the group, the College makes a mockery of its own statement […] that it would engage in difficult discussions and debates’

The group was assured by Churchill that it would have “academic freedom” to discuss “contentious views”, but this freedom was challenged as Churchill were subjected to external pressure to disband the group due to the nature of its events.

The group was told that a member of the Churchill family threatened to resign as trustee at the Churchill Archives Centre and “take the donors with him” if the group wasn’t disbanded.

Members of the group also “regret” that Donald circulated to the Governing Body an “attack” levelled by Policy Exchange at the group, which was was authored by historian Andrew Roberts, who is “known for launching attacks (later discredited) against historians attempting to engage with negative legacies of empire.”

This was circulated “without explanation” or counter-statement, despite the group’s requests for this, which “risks leaving the Governing Body with the impression that Policy Exchange’s position is both uncontroversial and objective.”

‘The disbanding of the Working Group […] undermined student agency and silenced Black voices’

These group members refute the claim that the third event they proposed was a “change in direction” from previous events, as it was to be about “commemoration”, which, the members claim, “aligns” with the programme’s initial title of ‘Churchill, Empire and Race: Where does the debate lead us.’

Churchill attempted to change the event’s topic, “without ever explaining why”, other than saying it “would agitate Churchill’s family, Policy Exchange, and the tabloids.” They eventually acquiesced to the group’s insistence that the topic remain unchanged.

These group members find it “deeply disturbing” that Churchill then refused to invite Akala to speak at the event, especially as the group agreed to the single speaker/lecture format upon Council’s insistence.

The group was made by Churchill, whose officers and Council are all white, to have “genuine diversity”, so the fact that Council vetoed a group about Churchill, Empire and Race “put white voices above” group members of colour “who experience the legacies of Churchill, Empire and Race as a lived reality.”

Members of the group claim Donald’s statement takes credit for two of the group’s ideas, an exhibition of Black alumni, and flying the Pan African Flag for Black History Month, as evidence that Churchill is “committed to critically interrogating Winston Churchill’s views on race and empire.” These members, however, these activities don’t “directly engag[e]” with Churchill’s legacies.

‘It is the college’s responsibility to make itself a safe and inclusive space’

These group members believe Churchill have “repeatedly minimised” racism concerns, and “den[ied]” the existence of institutional racism” at college.

The members of the group regret that blame for the underrepresentation of Black students in college and BAME members on Council “appears to be placed repeatedly on these groups themselves.” They says it’s college’s responsibility to be “safe and inclusive” for “Black and Asian people”, but believes it’s going in “precisely the wrong direction” with this.

These group members find it “disturbing” that Churchill aren’t “’siding’ with any single party” on matters of racism, on which, for these members, “there can be no ‘compromise.’”

They note that Churchill didn’t condemn “racist attacks” on speakers at the February event in a “timely”, “public” manner, “despite being urged to do so”, but notes “how swiftly” they publicly “condemn[ed]” the group and “defend[ed] the college.”

Churchill told The Cambridge Tab that it remains “committed to exploring the legacy of Winston Churchill “in all its range”, and “determinedly embraces academic freedom and rigour.” The Master sent a message to students last Friday “reiterating this commitment.”

It continues: “No institution with any self-awareness should believe that it is without institutional bias, including institutional racism.

“It is because of that awareness, as well as because of our progressive mission and record, that the College is deeply focussed upon inclusivity, widening participation and opportunity for people from every sort of background, including every sort of ethnicity.”

Feature image credit: Cmglee, Creative Commons License