The email from the VC which landed in the inboxes of all staff and students of the University of Oxford at 11.17 on Friday morning started with a statement previously reserved for the first moon landing and the fall of the Berlin wall: „I think we will always remember where we were when we received news of the results of yesterday’s referendum.“
I will certainly not forget the situation shortly before midnight on Thursday. We were celebrating with the British cast and German students after the performance of a medieval German mystery play by singing Flanders & Swann classics and had just reached the „Song of Patriotic Prejudice“ when the first result came in. Newcastle, considered a safe Remain stronghold, had only just about voted for staying in the EU. There was a sudden mood change as everybody stared at their smartphone screens and left quickly.
When the same mixed group of Bonn and Oxford students met again on Friday morning to work in the Bodleian Library on historic print techniques, the universal sense of gloom if not despair was expressed in the typesetting; we changed the date to „on the day of Brexit„ and Naomi, a second year student, replaced her family name with „does not like the English“.
The Oxford Modern Languages students had not only voted overwhelmingly for the Remain side but had campaigned among their peers, first to register, then to vote in favour of the EU. The fervent mood of campaigning was spread across Oxford; in fact, the Universities for Europe became a main motor behind the Remain drive. An open letter from all the VCs strongly supported the 'in' argument; a host of prominent academics, starting with Stephen Hawking for the sciences, issued statements. UCML (University Council for Modern Languages) promoted the hashtag #loveEU and supplied facts and figures for use by the community. This worked for the prime target group of students and academics: nearly all university towns voted in favour, as did 75% of the 18 to 24 year-olds.
But it turned out that this wasn't enough: the 635,000 votes that tipped the balance in favour of leaving came from the oldest generation who followed a rhetoric built on nostalgia for a lost empire. Many commentators noted with bitterness that Britain was led out of the EU from a generation which itself had profited from European stability but didn't have to face the consequences. Far worse is the deep rift which became apparent in that all arguments coming from academia, culture and politics were perceived only as expressing elitist, patronising expert views.
Accordingly, the whole academic community was taken aback, not only by the result but by hate-fuelled reactions which came to light in considerable numbers during the campaign. The words most often used to describe the post-Brexit mood among colleagues were „Wut und Trauer„ - „bereavement“, „devastation“ and „utter disbelief“. But stronger than all of these words was the sense of „determination“, an incredibly strong resolve that „jetzt erst recht“ - now more than ever – we should work within and expand cross-European collaboration and shared identity.
What is at stake?
The letter mentioned at the start from Louise Richardson, the Oxford VC, makes this crystal clear: „While this was not the result that many of us wished for, the result is clear, and my colleagues and I see our responsibility now to do all we can to protect and advance the interests of the University and all who work and study here, as well as those with whom we engage in collaborative research projects internationally.“ Just as the composed judgment of the Governor of the Bank of England helped to calm the situation on Friday morning, she set the tone in the same way as most other VCs who wrote open letters to their academic community which circulated on Friday on the email lists: „The first point on which I would like to reassure every member of our community is that there is no reason to assume that there will be any immediate change to the immigration status of current or incoming students and staff; nor any immediate change in our participation in EU programmes such as Horizon 2020 and Erasmus+.“