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Marie Tidball by Clementine Webster

The Walls of Oxford

Diversifying Portraiture’ is an initiative that aims to “bring people who resemble much more closely University of Oxford's current staff and students onto the walls of Oxford.”
Diarmaid MacCulloch by Joanna Vestey

"We wanted to represent every aspect of diversity, but without being tokenistic."

Sam Bennett


If you look at the décor in University of Oxford’s Exam Schools, Trudy Coe tells me, you’ll see “very formal portraits of people who were honoured at Oxford hundreds of years ago”, a “sombre” line-up of white, male clerics, college heads and academics. These pictures, the head of Oxford’s Equality and Diversity Unit continues, don’t speak to or represent the lives of the staff and students presently at the university – which recruits from 150 different countries. ‘Diversifying Portraiture’ is an initiative that aims to “bring peoplewho resemble much more closely our current staff and students onto the walls of Oxford.”

Patricia Daley by Binny Mathews


The project has bred new paintings and photographs of people with Oxford connections, who have been judged as having made a difference to the world, as having achieved something great. Sitters include broadcaster Reeta Chakrabarti; Oxford’s first black female professor, Patricia Daley; the gay Professor of the History of the Church, Diarmaid MacCulloch; and lawyer and disability rights campaigner Marie Tidball. “It’s a very wide spectrum,” Trudy claims, “we wanted to represent every aspect of diversity, but without being tokenistic.”

It may not be tokenistic, but I suggest the initiative could be seen as going against equality. It’s singling out the minority groups from everyone else. How is that treating them as equals? “For 800 years the only people who had a chance to be represented on the walls of the university were white, male, and came from a very narrow spectrum of achievement,” Trudy replies, citing areas such as law and theology as existing on this spectrum. Now Oxford wants to show a broader range of people and accomplishments, she says, “It’s not about singling out minorities. It’s about beginning – and it is only the beginning – to address the balance in terms of those 800 years of history that has just shown a particular form of achievement by a particular sort of person.”

During our interview she speaks about “students of colour”, and does clarify her use of this expression. “The term that most institutions in this country use is ‘black and minority ethnic’ (quite often shortened to BME). But so many of our students are international,” she explains, drawing attention to the fact that, even if they are in an ethnic minority when they come to England, a lot of the students come from places where they are in the ethnic majority. “We recruit lots and lots of students from Mainland China. Their experience in China has not been as an ethnic minority, it’s been as an ethnic majority. So increasingly we say students of colour. Not everyone likes the term ‘students of colour’, or ‘staff of colour’,” she admits. “Our staff in particular tend to talk about themselves as ‘minority ethnic’ – it’s quite a complex area.”

I ask how Oxford is faring in terms of equality and diversity, in comparison to other universities, to be told the department benchmarks “mainly against the Russell Group institutions.” If London universities, the most diverse in the UK, are taken out of the equation, Trudy says, “We are pretty much doing as well as any other Russell Group institution, although we think we could do better. We’re doing well in attracting and supporting students of colour, and ensuring that they have a really good experience here.” They are doing less well, she says, in recruiting black staff, and minority ethnic staff (or staff of colour) – something that “will be a major priority over the next five-ten years and beyond.”

Having worked on gender equality on and off for 30 years, she identifies “good progress” in this area at Oxford, as the university continues to try and increase “the proportion of women in academic posts”, involving itself in the national initiative that is ECU’s Athena SWAN Charter. As well as this, she adds, “We’re looking to improve the experience of staff with disabilities, staff who have mental health issues and our LGBTQ staff.”

At our time of talking Trudy is finalising the central Oxford venue where the works making up Diversifying Portraiture will be publically displayed at the end of November for a month. After this they’ll be hung in the Exam Schools, where it is hoped “students of colour and female students,” for example, “won’t look up and just see historic portraits of people they really can’t relate to. They will see people who look like them and who will inspire them to go on and do great things themselves.”


Top Image – Marie Tidball by Clementine Webster

Below – Diarmaid MacCulloch by Joanna Vestey

Bottom – Patricia Daley by Binny Mathews


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