On Friday 3rd February, an email was sent by a senior member of college staff at Harris Manchester titled “please be vigilant of unauthorized persons in college”.
The email, sent to all undergraduates, the JCR, MCR, and SCR mailing lists, contained a CCTV image of a black male walking through college grounds. He has now been identified as Femi Nylander, 22-year-old Rhodes Must Fall activist who graduated from Oxford last year with a degree in PPE.
On Friday morning, Nylander had managed to leave the college grounds after he was locked in whilst working late in a friend’s office on the previous evening. Harris Manchester, which does not have porters during the day, reports that the student spoke to the housekeeping manager and Bursary Manager when he entered the main college building on Friday morning. Nylander has said that they held a pleasant conversation and discussed whether he planned to have breakfast.
Later that day, however, the email with the CCTV image of Mr Nylander attached was sent. It reminded students to remain “vigilant” to unauthorized persons and encouraged them to report their presence to college staff.
It continued: “We are unaware of the intentions of this individual. Previous interactions with them have been amenable, so the College does not currently feel there is any level of danger, to either persons or property.”
Critics of the actions taken by the college have commented that white students are able to “wander around college” without the risk of triggering safety alerts. Mr Nylander has added that the email is evidence of the “institutional racism” at the university.
[The email] reminded students to remain “vigilant” to unauthorized persons and encouraged them to report their presence to college staff.
“The colleges have hundreds of students – if a white person comes by they don’t say anything,” Mr Nylander said. “I have lots of white friends who are never stopped.”
A spokesperson for Harris Manchester College said they sent the email after being informed of an “unidentified person” on the grounds on Thursday night.
“CCTV footage showed that the same person, who was unknown to us, had entered Harris Manchester the following morning,” the spokesperson said.
They emphasised that the person in question was “unauthorised to be in the college at that time and entered an occupants bedroom at 11.30pm, startling them somewhat.
Harris Manchester College emphasised that the person in question was “unauthorised to be in the college at that time and entered an occupants bedroom at 11.30pm, startling them somewhat.”
“The email made clear that the individual in the photograph was not thought to present any danger, but we felt students should be aware of the matter.
“We have occasionally issued similar emails in the past when other unidentified people have entered the College.
“We would have had no cause to challenge him during the day, or in fact in the evening, but as he was intruding in student accommodation overnight that is completely different.
“Having established that he was not a member either of All Souls College or of Harris Manchester College and would not therefore have had authorised means to access either the college or the Sparrow building within it, the email was sent to members of Harris Manchester College”.
Aliya Yule, chair of the Preventing PREVENT campaign, who has worked with RMF and other anti-racist movements in Oxford claimed that similar incidents had been reported in Christ Church.
Yule, in her third year of PPE at Wadham College said “This shows that there is still a problem with black students being seen as other, as security threats, as a danger.”
She continued: “Black students are seen as outsiders, not the kind of person you see here or would want to see here. They are treated with hostility.”
Femi Nylander has been an active member of the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign in Oxford. Last year he stood outside All Souls College, wearing a chain around his neck and red paint with the words ‘All Slaves College’ written on his body. He was campaigning against the links of the college library to colonialism through its founder Christopher Codrington who gained his wealth as a plantation owner and slave trader.
In 2015 Nylander published a song called ‘Dreaming Spires’ which describes his experiences as a black student at Oxford. He is currently editing a book about the Rhodes Must Fall Campaign.
Following the distribution of the email from Harris Manchester College, Nylander posted a screenshot on the Facebook group Race Matters.
Aliya Yule told the OxStu that “since CRAE’s 100 Voices Report, Oxford has attempted to make some progress with regards to racism: curriculum diversity workshops have started in a number of different departments, there are pledges to commit to the Race Charter Mark, and tutors are being given ‘unconscious bias’ training.
“But incidents such as this show that these attempts barely go far enough. From the staggeringly low number of black students accepted at undergraduate level, to the racist PREVENT agenda and the consequent threat it poses to Muslim and BME students, it is clear that there is a problem with institutional racism at Oxford.”
She added: “As has been highlighted by campaigns such as I, Too, Am Oxford, in a university which still benefits from its complicity in colonialism, BME students are marginalised and under-represented in curricula, and face racist microaggressions on an daily basis.”
Harris Manchester added that “action taken since the incident is to give our members more information about the incident itself. We have also taken steps to establish how this breach in college security occurred and we are reviewing our procedures.”
This article has been updated to reflect information brought to our attention by Harris Manchester College not published in the print edition of 10/02/17.