The Working Group was disbanded on 17 June by the College’s MasterLOUIS ASHWORTH

Content note: This article contains discussion of racism

A group of members of the disbanded Working Group on Churchill, Race and Empire released a statement today (02/07) outlining their “grave concern” that the group was disbanded “without due process” by Churchill College.

The group was originally convened last year following the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, and set out to follow a “critical dialogue” on Winston Churchill’s “legacy in global history”, including “backwards” views on race. However, it was disbanded by College Master, Professor Dame Athene Donald, on 17 June this year.

The statement is signed by Churchill College’s JCR Equal Opportunities Officer, JCR BAME Officer, MCR Equality and Diversity Officer, and teaching fellows Dr Leigh Denault and Professor Priyamvada Gopal.

The statement stipulates that this decision was taken as a result of “illegitimate pressures”, including tabloid discourse, “some members of the Churchill family as well as groups close to government like Policy Exchange.” The writers condemn what they see as a deference to these pressures as an action which will “undermine academic freedom” and “bring the college into disrepute.”

The writers also responded to the statement given by Professor Donald on 17 June announcing the dissolution of the Working Group, principally challenging her account that the group had “disbanded themselves” after disagreements with the College over a third event in the series on Churchill.

The Working Group members characterise Professor Priyamvada Gopal’s assertion that “the group might as well dissolve” as a “personal view” and not reflective of the actual situation in the wider group, nor was this the official line communicated to the College. They also dispute the assertion that they had abandoned their plans for a third event on 20 May, as Donald had stated, rather saying that they had decided they wanted to invite the writer and activist Akala to speak.

In the statement, the group asserts that the College’s decision to overrule the Working Group’s decision to invite Akala to speak at their third event “undermined student agency and silenced Black voices.” They further defend their choice of topic of “commemoration” for the third event, described by Donald as a “change of direction”, as an appropriate theme.

While Professor Donald’s statement emphasised that the group “was intended to have a finite lifetime” of the 2020-21 academic year, the members also dispute this, rather asserting that they were not informed of this limited timeline, and had been in talks about future events in Michaelmas 2021, which would have overshot the timeline given by the College.


Mountain View

Churchill College disbands working group on Churchill, Race and Empire

The document accuses senior members of the College of prioritising external pressures to censor or disband the group, citing meetings where the Master and the Bursar communicated that some members of the Churchill family were unhappy with the series, with one threatening to resign from trustee of the Churchill Archives Centre and “take the donors with him”.

They write that the College was continually influenced by these outside pressures, to the detriment of the freedom of the Working Group. In one instance, the group alleges that Donald circulated “Policy Exchange’s tendentious attack of the series” to the college’s Governing Body without caveat, which they assert “risks leaving the Governing Body with the impression that Policy Exchange’s position is both uncontroversial and objective.”

The authors further note that despite internal urging from the Working Group, the College failed to swiftly repudiate “racist attacks” against speakers at their second event in February. In contrast, they “note how swiftly an official statement was issued condemning the WG and defending the college.”

The statement also points out instances in which the writers feel Donald took undue credit, including the Black History Exhibition of College’s alumni, which they claim was suggested by a member of the Working Group, and does not represent evidence that the College has reckoned with the legacy of their founder.

They also report concern that “senior college officers have repeatedly minimised student and staff concerns about race and racism, going so far as to deny the existence of institutional racism at the College despite the lived experience of many of these students and staff.”

The Master of Churchill College has stated in response: "Some members of Churchill College's Working Group on Churchill, Empire and Race have written a public response to the statement I issued on the subject of this initiative."

"The response unfortunately includes significant dimensions of misinformation and factual inaccuracy."

Donald added: "Churchill College remains committed to exploring the legacy of Winston Churchill in all its range - positive and negative - and will continue to do so. It determinedly embraces academic freedom and rigour. I sent a message to the whole student body last Friday reiterating this commitment to continue this work."

"No institution with any self-awareness should believe that it is without institutional bias, including institutional racism", she added."

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