This is an open letter from our Vice-Chancellor, Professor Evelyn Welch, addressing the outcomes of the renaming consultation and following actions.
Over the past three years, we have been examining the University of Bristol’s history, and the potential links of our founders and their wealth to the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved African people.
Following an initial report from a group of historians and other colleagues, the ‘Legacies of Slavery’ report, this summer we concluded a consultation with staff, students, alumni and our wider community about how to represent our history including whether it was appropriate to have major buildings named after these individuals. Nearly 4,000 people responded to our survey and hundreds more attended in-person sessions. Along with members of our Board of Trustees and our Senior team, I personally attended several powerful and impactful events that were led by local Bristol communities of African and Caribbean descent.
Throughout, whether in writing or during these meetings, I heard many distressing stories from those who had experienced racism and racist behaviours while engaging with, working at, or studying at the University of Bristol. What began as a consultation on our history and building renaming became a powerful channel for people to expose the challenges they have been facing. It also gave people the opportunity to voice their frustrations with the pace of our progress and raise concerns about our commitment to racial equity.
My message today, therefore, begins with an apology. I am deeply sorry for these damaging and hurtful experiences which continue to the present day, and I apologise to everyone impacted by those injustices. We aspire to be an inclusive institution and we must do better.
I also want to share what future-facing actions and commitments we are going to take.
To begin, I want to explain in more detail the relationship between the University and the three families and figures that are most closely involved in our history; Wills, Fry and Colston.
Edward Colston was a seventeenth-century slave trader. Famously, his statue was toppled into the docks during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. The University received no funding from Colston, who died nearly 200 years before we were founded, but his personal emblem – the dolphin – still forms part of our crest and our modern logo.
The Wills and Fry families provided substantial funding in the early 20th century which enabled the University to be founded. The families did not own or traffic in enslaved people but the products that their predecessors, during the eighteenth and up to the second part of the nineteenth century dealt in, such as tobacco, sugar and cocoa were undoubtedly connected to enslaved labour. But the past is rarely straight-forward. Indeed, in the case of the Fry family, many members were staunch abolitionists.
The complexity of this history is reflected in the mixed and polarised feedback we received throughout the consultation process (we have made the consultation and engagement report available so you can see the results for yourself). But what is unequivocal, is that all respondents felt that it was crucial to acknowledge and explain our past, and to invest in co-creating solutions to address the educational, economic and health inequalities that we face today.
We have listened. I am, therefore, announcing today that we will be committing to a ten-year, £10 million reparative futures investment programme. The names of key buildings, including those of Wills and Fry will be retained and explained in the proper context. The programme will seek to present the complexities of our past in new ways. We will invest in initiatives and projects that will make a tangible contribution to addressing the racial injustice and inequality that our communities, in Bristol and beyond, face every day.
Importantly, it will look to secure the future of some of the significant initiatives that are ongoing and have already received support over the last few years. It will also ensure we take a more holistic and consistent approach to how we invest and govern our commitments to racial equity and justice as a university. We will appoint accountability partners and experts from our ethnically diverse communities to guide our decision-making and hold us to account going forward. We will create a community fund for proposals from local groups to work with University of Bristol colleagues on initiatives that collaboratively tackle educational, health, and economic inequalities.
We will also be replacing the Colston dolphin insignia from our University of Bristol logo which was designed in 2003. As I explained, Colston was not a donor to the University and had no relationship with the institution or its predecessors. We had already removed Colston’s name from one of our student residences and I feel it is therefore appropriate to remove this symbol, too. The sun symbol of the Wills family and the horse emblem of the Fry family will remain reflecting the wider decision around retaining building names.
I know that some of these decisions will not please everybody – but I believe we must tell our history in an honest, open and transparent way, while at the same time putting our full weight behind substantive action to address the broader issues of systemic racism and inequality here in Bristol and beyond.
The process that has led to these decisions has taken a long time. For some, it has been an imperfect process and may have felt at times that we were dragging our feet or avoiding difficult decisions. I want to reassure you that this was not the case and I share the frustration that it has taken a long time to reach this point. I am confident that we have reached the right balance between proactively addressing our history and being transparent and honest about our past.
But just because the consultation is closed does not mean the debate comes to an end. Indeed, the one place where we should be able to disagree and debate these issues is here, at one of the great global universities. We are an evidence-based institution and fully committed to freedom of speech. This means that continued discussion is welcome as we think carefully about how we describe the full picture of our past, how we represent it, and what we can learn from it. History matters to all of us, particularly when it impacts on current assumptions and practices.
We will of course keep you all updated on the programmes, the initiatives we will be undertaking and how to get involved in our Reparative Futures work. My thanks to the programme team who have led us through this conversation and thank you again to everyone who has taken the time to engage with us and share their views on this complex issue. For more information, see what action we are taking or if you’d like to comment further, please contact email@example.com.
Read the University’s Annual Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Report highlighting work to deliver equitable outcomes for our students and staff.