Dealing with the sins of the past is no longer confined to institutions set up during war or which profited from apartheid. This week Cambridge University opened a front in confronting historical wrongs by promising to examine how it may have benefited from or supported the slave trade.
Its launch of a two-year investigation means the campaign to ‘decolonise’ university campuses and curricula has graduated summa cum laude, after starting four years ago as a protest at Cape Town University calling for the removal of statues of imperialist benefactors like Cecil Rhodes. Since then, universities in the UK and USA have grappled with whether their bricks, mortar and what they teach oppress today’s minority ethnic students.
Peer review could be in short supply as critics suggested the 810-year-old institution had taken leave of its faculties. Priyamvada Gopal, 51, a Cambridge lecturer in postcolonial literature, whinged that the investigation would be meaningless as it won’t include the vast wealth of its 30 independent colleges. Dr Allan Chapman, 72, a historian of science at arch rival Oxford lost no time shoeing the Tabs, writing in a letter to The Times that the light blues are “preparing for a season of ritualised self-flagellation”. He went on to say that Cambridge was ignoring the contribution of two of its graduates, Thomas Clarkson and William Wilberforce, in abolishing the brutal trade in people. An argument that echoes those made by people who suggest their tolerance to others is proved because they have friends who are black or gay.
The former Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, Trevor Philips, 65, said the review was “virtue signalling on steroids”, and designed to make white liberal academics feel better about themselves.
Cambridge’s critics are not all pale and male, but they are stale. They’re overlooking the fact that universities are catching up with student opinion, which has largely led the de-colonisation debate.
Recent research from OC&C, a consultancy, shows that Generation Z – aged between 2 and 22 – are more racially and ethnically diverse than their predecessors. They are far more likely to notice the lack of diversity around them. While millennials – those aged between 23 and 38 – are preoccupied by environmental concerns, Gen- Z is more worried about animal welfare, equality, diversity and human rights. At the beginning of April, students at Georgetown University in the US voted to increase their fees to provide reparation to the descendants of 272 enslaved Africans that monks who ran the university sold nearly two centuries ago.
Universities are in a global competition to fill their lecture halls and pay the bills. It makes good business sense to respond to generational shifts. As rivals in Oxford struggle to decide what to do with their statues of Rhodes and eponymous scholarship, Cambridge has smartly got ahead of a difficult issue, and the rest of the market.
An institution with less sense of history this week was Chase Bank, who used a #MondayMotivation tweet to blame customers’ lack of money to save and invest on drinking too much coffee and taking too many Ubers. It hadn’t occurred to them that a bank in receipt of a $12bn taxpayer bailout only a decade ago isn’t best placed to preach the perils of profligacy. As Cambridge University delves deep into its corporate memory, Chase’s clumsiness with the recent past is especially striking. A timely reminder of the importance of institutional memory in navigating the recent as well as more distant past.