Oxford University has been accused of awarding itself a ‘first class degree in political correctness’ after snubbing Theresa May’s achievements in a series of portraits celebrating diversity.
The prime minister is one of a number of notable women absent from the list of former Oxford University students chosen to reflect its ‘commitment to inclusivity’.
Oxford has announced the commission of 24 portraits to be displayed around the university reflecting sitters from a variety of backgrounds.
The university said last night that Mrs May was omitted from the list because no staff or students currently at Oxford had bothered to nominate her. The row echoes the furore over the university’s refusal to award Margaret Thatcher with an honorary degree in 1985.
Among those to be painted or photographed include Ken Loach, the left-wing film director, the BBC journalist Reeta Chakrabarti, the broadcaster Dame Esther Rantzen and Kelsey Leonard, the first Native American to graduate from Oxford in 2012.
The list excludes such Oxford alumni as Cressida Dick, the first female commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, and businesswomen including Martha Lane Fox, the cross bench peer and founder of lastminute.com, and Emma Walmsley, the new chief executive of the pharmaceuticals giant GlaxoSmithKline, Britain’s fifth largest company.
Sir Anthony Seldon, historian, vice chancellor of Buckingham University and former Oxford graduate, said: “Margaret Thatcher was treated deplorably by Oxford. It is a shame that Theresa May, a female who has broken through the glass ceiling, is not on this list. I am very surprised.”
Conservative MP David Willetts, the former universities minister, said: “Oxford should be proud of the fact that they produced Theresa May and Cressida Dick. They should not have been omitted from the list.”
Sir Gerald Howarth, a former Conservative minister, said: “I rather fear Oxford has awarded itself a first-class degree in political correctness. Oxford is failing to come to terms with the fact it is the Conservatives who have led the way in providing not one but two female prime ministers.”
Chris McGovern, chairman of the Campaign for Real Education, said: “It is quite extraordinary the prime minister is not there. They are punishing her for Brexit.”
The £50,000 cost of the Diversifying Portraiture project was paid for out of the £1million Vice Chancellor’s Diversity Fund, set up in 2013.
Out of the 24 chosen sitters, five are men including Captain Henry Nwume, a former Army doctor, who competed in the 2010 Winter Olympics finishing 17th in the four-man event.
Notable women on the list include the authors Jeanette Winterson and Jan Morris.
The absence of any names from the business world has also raised eyebrows. Nicola Horlick, the investment fund manager famously branded ‘Superwoman’, said: “It seems very strange not to represent anybody from the business world. There’s a huge array of people they could have chosen.”
Oxford became especially sensitive to the need to promote diversity after being caught up in a blistering row over a student campaign to remove a statue of the colonialist Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College. Furious donors had threatened to withdraw bequests worth as much as £100 million if it was pulled down and the statue remained.
The list of sitters was drawn from more than 100 nominations made by staff and students and submitted to a selection committee, chaired by Dr Alice Prochaska, the Principal of Somerville College, where Baroness Thatcher studied. Mrs May studied geography at St Hugh's College in the mid 1970s.
The university said in a statement last night: “Theresa May was not nominated as part of the process, which ended on 8 July last year.”
It said Mr Loach, the 80-year-old director of such films as Kes and the 2016 Cannes Film Festival winner I, Daniel Blake, was nominated for “giving a voice to the politically and economically disenfranchised”.
The portraits will be unveiled at an exhibition later this year and then go on permanent display in the Exam Schools and in the University offices in Wellington Square.
Reeta Chakrabarti, who studied at Exeter College, Oxford, said: “I hope this project will show that Oxford is open to everyone, and that it wants to be more so. I hope too that it reflects present-day Oxford back at itself, and that it encourages an ever more diverse range of people to study there.”
Professor Patricia Daley, Professor of the Human Geography of Africa at Oxford University, and who was also chosen to be one of the sitters, said: “This project is a bold attempt by the University to make a statement about inclusivity.”
Professor Louise Richardson, Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, said: “There is nothing quite like walking into a room and seeing someone who looks like you honoured in a portrait on the wall. It is so important for all of us to be reminded that achievement and leadership come in all colours, shapes and sizes.”