Students returning to Oxford this term after their summer vacation will have a new privilege to enjoy. Although they’ll still have to wear dark, formal academic clothing (called “subfusc”) for taking exams, they will now be permitted to cross-dress. Women will be free to wear a dark suit and white bow tie, and men may sport a black skirt, white blouse and pretty black ribbon.
Has Oxford finally gone bonkers? Not quite. Nearly everyone will still dress according to conventional gender etiquette, just as my generation did in the late ’80s.
What’s happened is that the university has responded to lobbying from its liberals and modernizers, and particularly the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer Society (LGBTQS). They convinced Oxford’s authorities that relaxing the rules would make the experience of transgender students during examinations “significantly less stressful,” because until now they could have been punished for wearing the clothes of the opposite sex.
Conservatives, of course, will scoff at this and ask jocularly whether the university will also make policy changes to accommodate claustrophobic students who panic in airless examination halls, or students with abnormally short attention spans, who resent having to sit still for three hours. Surely, they’ll say, this is the thin end of the wedge, and another invitation for people to seek dispensation for what they prefer not to do rather than focusing on what they can. And where will that leave Oxford, as it strives to maintain its reputation for academic excellence?
Such a reaction is understandable. But conservatives should not be too alarmed. Sure, on the face of it, this appears to be a big victory for Oxford’s liberals. However, a closer look suggests it might actually be another strategic coup for the university’s traditionalists, who, by choosing their battles with care and zealously resisting change, have always kept Oxford the way they like it.
Look at the evidence: as late as the Second World War students still attended chapel every morning. Right up until the ’60s those returning to their rooms late at night would find the college gates bolted, necessitating a perilous “climb into college” via rickety drainpipes. And as recently as in 2006, students voted overwhelmingly in favor of retaining compulsory subfusc for examinations. This is hardly an institution that embraces modernity.
And that is despite the best efforts of generations of liberals, the more left-wing of whom relieve their embarrassment at studying at so elite an institution by giving it a good liberal kicking. In my day, they spent long hours trying to “change Oxford,” modernize it, abolish its ancient traditions, and make it less class-ridden and more accessible — more like any other university. Without such reform, they said, kids from ordinary backgrounds would feel that Oxford wasn’t for them.
The traditionalists — comprising students from all backgrounds — found that line of thinking incomprehensible. For three precious years they could make home in a stimulating yet barmy place, deliciously different from anything they’d experienced before. Tutorials high up in ancient towers, gowns for formal dinners, at which grace would be said, or even sung, in Latin, chapel services in the presence of proctors and deans, ancient and often drunken boat-burning ceremonies after the summer Eights, and Union debates graced by American Presidents (Carter visited while I was there). They would all be thrust back into the real world soon enough. In the meantime, they were only too happy to revel in Oxford’s timeless absurdity and hot-house scholarship.
So how did these traditionalists fend off modernist reform? Simply by goading the liberals into fighting battles that were trivial, like naming the college Junior Common Room after Nelson Mandela, and insisting on vegan options for lunch. In doing so, they diverted liberal attention away from anything more substantive.
Thirty years on, and it seems as though they’re still pulling off that same trick. A hint can be found in the words of the LGBTQS president, who described the reform to accommodate transgender students as “long overdue.” That’s a sign that the battle for this relatively insignificant change has consumed plenty of liberal energy.
So if conservatives are tempted to wring their hands that a fine old institution like Oxford could be browbeaten by a handful of transgender students, they should, in fact, congratulate the university for fighting a battle that, surely, it didn’t really mind losing.
They might also take the opportunity to consider how they could deploy this tactic themselves. Focus on gay marriage to divert attention from universal health insurance? Kick up a storm about abortion to prevent tax rises?
All right, it may not be as easy as that. But the lesson for conservatives from Oxford is clear: find battles that you don’t mind all that much about. Then fight them long and hard.