New Bristol v-c confronts university’s ‘uncomfortable’ past

Evelyn Welch reflects on the legacy of slavery, preventing student suicides, and lessons for academia from her pop star daughter

October 17, 2022

Difficult conversations about renaming buildings are likely to restart when the University of Bristol publishes its long-awaited report on how it benefited from slavery. But its new vice-chancellor, the award-winning historian Evelyn Welch, seems to be relishing the discussions that lie ahead about Bristol’s controversial past, which famously led to the statue of slave trader Edward Colston being dumped by protesters in the city’s harbour in June 2020.

“It’s really important that we talk about these things – that we realise Britain became a global player at a time when slavery was expanding, and then there was the Industrial Revolution in the 19th century, and there is a connection between the two. Tea, coffee, sugar and things that sat in the shops in England were produced by people living in the most miserable circumstances,” reflected the Renaissance era expert, who was previously senior vice-president at King’s College London.

However, she worries that the debate about Bristol’s past will boil down to calls to rename buildings – most likely the Wills Memorial Building, named after the tobacco trading family whose wealth from slave-grown crops helped to establish the university in 1909.

“Rather than focus on a specific name, statue or building and say, ‘Right that’s done – let’s move on,’ we should think about the deep systemic relationship between debt, investments and trade in the late 17th century and early 18th century, and how slavery made huge wealth on both sides of the Atlantic possible,” said Professor Welch.

While Bristol will consult widely on these issues, removing the Wills name from university buildings seems to sit awkwardly with her. “The past is not full of goodies and baddies – individuals were often complex, and understanding that complexity and making it relevant today is what the university should do,” explained Professor Welch. “Pretending that removing a name will change the past? That past is something we sit with uncomfortably, and it should be uncomfortable.”

Other internal challenges also await Bristol’s first female vice-chancellor. Since the introduction of £9,000-plus tuition fees in 2012, Bristol’s student population has mushroomed to more than 27,000, up by 6,000 in the past five years alone. With a shortage of student housing, some freshers have been forced to take digs in Bath and even south Wales, prompting accusations of reckless over-recruitment. But Professor Welch has no plans to pause Bristol’s expansion.

“Bristol is still a medium-sized university – UCL has 40,000-plus students, King’s College London has 30,000-plus – and we need to continue growing and need to continue to offer education to those students who can benefit from it,” she said. “We will grow, but we will grow sustainably,” she added, stating that she was working with the University of the West of England, local authorities and housing providers on the issue of student accommodation. “There is no student living in Newport this year,” she noted.

Another significant issue facing Bristol relates to student suicides, with the university recently found culpable for failings related to the death in April 2018 of Natasha Abrahart. The university is now seeking to appeal that decision in the High Court, noting the multiple failings of mental health services in the case and its own efforts to help the 20-year-old physics undergraduate.

While Professor Welch cannot talk about the case, the issue of suicide is close to her heart. “My mother killed herself, and there is not a day that goes past when I wonder what I could have done to help her,” she said. “Bristol had a really difficult time around 2018 with a cluster of suicides which caused unimaginable pain for families, friends, staff and the whole university community – I understand that anguish. We want to take a whole-university approach so it never gets to the point where someone’s pain feels so extreme that they don’t feel they can go on.”

Despite these weighty issues, Professor Welch is clearly optimistic about Bristol’s and the sector’s fortunes, even hoping that England’s skills minister, Andrea Jenkyns, will drop the view that she expressed at the Conservative Party conference, that UK universities are peddling degrees in “Harry Potter studies” and “anti-British history”.

“That phrasing might have won some laughter in a room, but it’s not really helpful,” said Professor Welch, who reported that she found the new minister to be “engaging and enthusiastic” about her brief when they met a few months ago. “I’m sure we can work together.”

Any interview with Professor Welch is not complete without a mention of her more famous daughter, Florence Welch, lead vocalist in Florence and the Machine. Professor Welch is comfortably the third-most famous person in her family: her brother is the Hollywood actor-turned-director John Stockwell, who played Tom Cruise’s wingman Cougar in Top Gun.

On her daughter’s experience, Professor Welch reflected that pop stardom “is not glamorous and [is] incredibly hard work”, although it has some relevance for modern academia in how online and offline come together. “The music fan base is nowadays built online, but it will come together at a gig or festival – it’s similar for a lecture. You can do a lot online, but the learning experience only really comes alive when you’re in the same place with people who share that passion, too.”

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Reader's comments (5)

For over 200 years, powerful kings in what is now the country of Benin captured and sold slaves to Portuguese, French and British merchants. This is not a British only problem. The British did far worse in China yet Bristol University milks Chinese students for fees. The Chinese were treated like second class citizens in their own country while western powers set up Concessions in every major city, yet the poor Chinese have to come here and do it all in a second language and pay gross fees for it. If Bristol is so concerned with Slavery, why not focus on the millions off people being subjected to slavery in 2022--instead of those who have been dead for 200 years.
"China transitioned from being the most powerful economy in the world before the Opium Wars to its GDP dropping by half just a decade later. ... This is reflective of the damage China took from the Opium Wars" at the hands of British colonizers. Bristol University is build on this funds resonating from the Opium Wars and ought not be charging Chinese students any fees and should be setting up a fund to send money to sister universities in China.
Britain profited large-scale from slavery for some 200-300 years, before becoming one of the earliest countries to abolish it in the 1830s. Likewise as said we exploited China (opium trade) and even after slavery ended, the UK continued to exploit our colonies - as did other major European countries, France, Spain, Portugal. But who could we pay reparations to? Can we trace the descendants of those slaves (not all will have any, and some may now be quite wealthy - others, not), or should we pay it to the Governments of former colonies (that could be seen as continued neo-colonisialism, if we check how it's spent, if not, will it just line Govt official's pockets, or fund civil strife?). Maybe we should look at the plight of the living - we cannot really help the dead, however awful lives they lived, however much that awfulness was down to slavery or other forms of colonial exploitation. Maybe we shou;ld look at who is poor now, in all countries, and ask how we can alleviate their plight, maybe defining poor as income below a certain fraction of average for that country, with an absolute minimum baseline worldwide (or else we would be omitting the poorest in the poorest countries). Help the poor now - rather than atoning for sins committed by people long dead, on other people long dead. that would do much more to add to the sum of human happiness (yes, unashamadly Benthamite here).
Britain as a state never owned slaves and slavery never took place in England itself. It did have a feudal system from the time of the Normans and workers had no rights until the late 20th century. Most of the wealth of England was generated internally and claims of great wealth coming from slavery are made up nonsense. A few private companies made a fortune and nearly all of them lost it over a century ago. The few donations made to univerisities are nothing in today's money compare to international student fees. The British did far greater harm as a state than did these private trading companies such as almost wipe out entire races such as the American Indians and Australian Aborginals--it is these people we owe more to as a state. As for its colonial past, we cannot hold those living in Britain today responsible for the exploitation carried out by a few CEOs of private companies (Royal African Company etc). The Royal African Company went insolvent before 1750, but the University of Bristol received its royal charter in 1909. Pol Pot and Cambodia is much more recent and war crimes are being perpetrated in Ukraine as I write. Maybe it is better to focus on those. Even if we could go back in time, it was .01 percent of the British population that did these wrongs and we would not even be able to blame the other 99.9 percent of the population that was living at the time they did these wrongs, let alone 100 percent of the population living today. Modern slavery is where the focus needs to be. 25% of the British have no ancestors in this country yet are now being asked to pay for what .01 percent of the British did 200 years ago. Ironically, the descendants of the Benin King’s and relevant nations involved are not equally being asked to pay up. These were great wrongs, but they sit along with so many wrongs in the history of the world that they are best to be taught in history classes and not dominate the entire public debate of this country year after year with no contemporary victim group getting any voice. I doubt very much real wealth remains in any British university from slavery. As the first commentator above notes, the sums will be so small in real terms that they pale into insignificance compared to the staggering fee income milked from students from countries that were the victims of colonization such as China and India. It is time to move on and focus on modern atrocities and put out energy into finding solutions.
The University of Bristol's financial statement states it has 27,673 Student FTEs. That is hundreds of millions from student fees. Surely these poor students are not going to get the bill to pay for what some rouge aristocrat did 200 years ago?