Reputation is sometimes described as a cruise ship, slow to change direction, with any successes or failures subject to time lag.  And universities are probably the biggest cruise ships of them all. Whilst Cambridge was the first university to allow women to be educated alongside men at university level in the UK, with the opening of Girton College in 1869, my old college, it was the last traditional university to allow them to graduate (1948). I actually sat on a university committee to work out the best way to ‘honour’ the women who were still alive who had been denied a degree, in a room decorated with paintings of men.

Whilst the gender battle may yet not be fully won, issues of ethnic disparity are more dominant. America’s Black Lives Matter has spun out from police violence to wider racial injustice. And universities, as champions of liberal free speech, are keen to show solidarity, whilst also being themselves a focus for social hypocrisy. In Canada, the protests have hit at the heart of university governance with UBC seeing the chair of governors resign for liking a series of tweets disparaging the Black Lives Matter campaign.

Over in Belgium, the University of Mons, in southwest Belgium, announced it was removing a bust of Belgian King Léopold II, responsible for millions of deaths in the Congo, from its business school building.

In the UK, university statues of slave traders and buildings endowed by questionable industrialists have also catalysed anger. Oxford University’s Oriel College is being urged to remove its front door statue of Cecil Rhodes for his colonialist past. It is likely that the global Rhodes scholarship scheme will have to have a brand refresh!

Rocking reputation and university statues - Nancy Pelosi Quote

Scholars are divided over whether statues should be removed, with the Vice-Chancellor of Oxford, Louise Richardson saying, when interviewed by the BBC, “We need to confront our past,” she said. “My own view on this is that hiding our history is not the route to enlightenment.” However, Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, talks passionately about the need for not forgetting history, but also not allowing statues of ‘men who advocated cruelty’ to remain.  In a press release (10 June) she released a letter requesting the removal of statues representing Confederate soldiers and officials from display in the U.S. Capitol, The statues … should embody our highest ideals as Americans, expressing who we are and who we aspire to be as a nation.” Perfect advice for university reputation management, I would say.

Australian universities have seen protests too, on behalf of indigenous citizens, which have drawn on the energy of the American protestors. Clive Hamilton, professor of public ethics at Charles Stuart University, Australia, writes about the speed at which new ideas and new ideology take shape and prominence due to the power of social media.

So where does this leave reputation? Is it less a secure cruise ship, and more a global current, able to change direction fluidly and reflective of the pulse of society? It seems there will be less tolerance of handwringing commemorative committees and more urgency around real behavioural change. Social impact rankings may be more valuable than research rankings in future. So removing the statues maybe just step one to deconstructing reputation into something faster and more socially aware!