The college where I worked in Oxford has recently removed all the portraits of men in its dining hall in order to replace them with portraits of women.
Photo credit to Robert Taylor
This was an idea that—like many of the best and, in my experience, some of the most radical ideas in Oxbridge colleges—was conceived collaboratively by a group of Fellows over lunch.
To the Principal, Will Hutton, and a group of Fellows, I had recounted my experiences of showing exceptionally bright groups of young people around the college. All of these students came from state schools and by far the majority came from backgrounds where the challenges facing an application to Oxford are high; many of them were young women and ethnic minorities.
When heading into the dining hall of the college, I would repeatedly face a challenge from the more self-confident of these students. Occasionally, there would be an exclamation at the grand Hogwarts-like setting. But there would also be a persistent question: “why are there only portraits of old, white men hanging up in this hall?”
The criticism felt particularly acute given that Hertford prides itself on its liberal tradition and its diverse intake: it was one of the first five all-male colleges to go co-ed and also welcomed the first African-American Rhodes scholar, Alain Locke, in 1907.
Organised and curated by Emma Smith, the portraits look magnificent and will hopefully inspire more permanent developments in decoration. But, in addition to celebrating the role of women in the college, two other powerful and worthwhile things emerge from this for me.
Firstly, the exhibition is unashamedly politically correct. Political correctness is frequently vilified. But the decision to change Hertford’s portraits shows the positives of both words in the phrase. It is correct that it should have happened to redress a balance and to celebrate the achievement of the college’s alumnae. And it is politic because it is a statement that shows the modern University of Oxford in a good light that, more often than not, it deserves.
Of course, there is always more to be done but admissions policies are ever fairer to the widest possible range of candidates (see, for example, this article today by outgoing head of admissions, Mike Nicholson); and the University, like many others, is working hard to improve imbalances elsewhere (for example, in the number of women in professorial chairs). Nevertheless, this is not always reflected in public perception or media representation (a terrifying recent example is the trailer for the Riot Club movie, which I suspect reflects the experiences of absolutely no current students). A good news story like this shows that Oxford has changed in positive ways and is now open to the broadest range of the very brightest people.
Secondly, universities need to be challenged from the outside. The removal of the portraits from Hertford’s hall is not just the achievement of the women featured, nor of the Fellows for having collectively made a decision that democratically champions the wide-ranging successes of Hertford women. It is also the achievement of numerous school students from a wide variety of backgrounds who noticed that something was wrong and had the courage to report it to the person showing them round. Without listening to voices from outside the university, this radical—and I hope positively influential—statement might not have occurred.
It is not really appropriate to celebrate that women were only admitted to single-sex Oxford colleges as recently as 1974. But it is a sign of what has already been achieved in terms of fairness that Hertford has decided to replace its all-male portraits with all-female ones. It is also a call for even more to be done to continue to make elite institutions like the University of Oxford only exceptional in the level of their academic provision and their academic expectations of students.