Lola Olufemi is CUSU's women's officerJohannes Hjorth

Cambridge has condemned online trolls who made threatening comments about CUSU’s women’s officer Lola Olufemi, after she was prominently featured in national newspaper coverage of efforts to ‘decolonise’ the English curriculum.

Olufemi, the author of an open letter which called for curriculum reform, has responded to a critical article in The Daily Telegraph, saying it was “riddled with factual inaccuracies” and that it attempted “to misconstrue what the task of decolonising is”.

The Telegraph carried a photograph of Olufemi on its front page today, under a trail headline which said “Student forces Cambridge to drop white authors”. The story was subsequently picked up by other national media outlets, leading to Olufemi become the target of online abuse.

The University directly responded to national media reports today, disputing parts of the coverage and saying: “We condemn the related harassment directed towards our students”.

The national coverage came after Varsity first reported on Friday that the Cambridge English Faculty’s Teaching Forum were opening discussions on ‘decolonising’ the curriculum by including more writers of colour.

The Teaching Forum discussion followed an open letter, signed by around 150 students, calling for the curriculum to be reformed. The letter argued that at present the course “elevates white male authors at the expense of all others” and suggested all exams should include two or more BME and postcolonial writers. The Teaching Forum responded with a number of possible changes, including launching an introductory lecture course on postcolonial critical thought.

The Telegraph’s article this morning said: “Cambridge University’s English literature professors will be forced to replace white authors with black writers”. It also claimed that “adding new BME texts and topics is likely to lead to authors being downgraded or dropped altogether, since there are no plans to lengthen courses to accommodate an expansion of reading materials.”

The article finished with a profile of Olufemi, a former Varsity columnist, and cited a number of articles she has written for this paper on topics such as decolonisation.

Speaking to Varsity this morning, Olufemi criticised the piece, saying “The article is riddled with factual inaccuracies and attempts to misconstrue what the task of decolonising is and delegitimise me as a co-author of the open letter by using out of context quotes in an attempt to turn me into a ‘controversial figure’.

“The open letter was written with the intention of pushing the faculty to decenter white authors and to give the same moral and intellectual weight to BME authors and stories from the global south. It was written by a group of students who think that it is a serious injustice that many go through their entire degree without formally studying any authors who are not white.


Mountain View

Lola Olufemi Postcolonial writing is not an afterthought; it is British literature

“Decolonising is about critiquing the current curriculum in order to make it better, it is about expanding our notions of ‘good’ literature so it doesn’t always elevate one voice, one experience, one way of being in the world. It is a long and meaningful process that requires thought and serious commitment to dismantling eurocentricity and studying works in their colonial contexts.

“Not only have no official changes to the curriculum been made by the faculty as of yet, the attempt to reframe any changes as ‘caving into demands’ positions BME students as aggressors and is intended to start a moral panic about white men disappearing from reading lists - when this is not what is being proposed. We are asking for the recognition that English Literature is not only the literature of white men and for this to be reflected in how we study it.”

The University released a statement this morning correcting a number of the claims in The Telegraph’s article, saying that “academic discussions are at a very early stage to look at how postcolonial literature is taught”.

It continues, “Changes will not lead to any one author being dropped in favour of others – that is not the way the system works at Cambridge. There is no set curriculum as tutors individually lead the studies of their group of students and recommend their reading lists – those reading lists can include any author.”

“The Teaching Forum is a body that has no decision-making powers and its decision points are questions to be discussed by the Faculty. The Education Committee in the Faculty will look at those points in a robust academic debate. Postcolonialism is taught at the moment in a non-compulsory paper – the Faculty constantly looks at what papers will be compulsory.”

It added: “We condemn the related harassment directed towards our students on social media as a result of the recent coverage.”

Dr Priyamvada Gopal, a supervisor on the Part II Postcolonial Literature course in the English Tripos, was also critical of The Telegraph’s coverage, describing it in a tweet as “horrifically racist and false”.

In comments to Varsity, Gopal described the idea that other authors will be dropped as “an absurd charge. No one will be dropped, we have no provisions for ‘dropping’.”

Responding to the claim that the proposed changes would create an artificial balance, Gopal called it “a philistine ignorant remark”.

“It’s nonsensical. The attempt is to give students the fullest possible exposure to everything literary. I have no idea what ‘artificial balance’ means.”

Edward Anderson, a teaching fellow at POLIS, described coverage by the Telegraph and MailOnline as “Ugly racism”.

Daisy Eyre, CUSU’s president, tweeted “Disappointed by media this morning – we stand with our amazing [women’s officer] and are saddened that yet another student of colour is targeted.”

This afternoon Cambridge’s network for women and non-binary people of colour, FLY, issued a statement in support of Olufemi, saying “the factual errors and poor reporting of the pieces expose them as thinly veiled attempts to target and incite backlash against a student activist.”

“This reporting cannot be construed as anything but a blatant instance of misogynoir and a strategic targeting of a visible a black student activist, opening her up to racial and gendered attacks, harassment as well as national scrutiny,” it continues.

“The timing of this furore also cannot be ignored. In light of the findings of the Lammy report and the slew of media reports regarding the inaccessibility of Oxford and Cambridge for black students and other students of colour – particularly BME working class students and students living in regions outside the Home Counties and London – such media scrutiny will only serve to discourage black students and other students of colour from applying to Cambridge, a place where they already suffer the effects of intensive scrutiny and alienation.”