The “Cecil Rhodes effect” is creating a chilling atmosphere around the country, experts fear, after it emerged that Queen Mary University of London quietly removed a foundation stone laid by King Leopold II amid student complaints that he was a “genocidal colonialist”.Within weeks of the launch of a petition by the university’s Pan-African Society calling for the foundation stone and commemorative plaque to be taken down, the institution’s authorities yielded to the activists’ demands.King Leopold II, who was a first cousin of Queen Victoria, ruled Belgium from 1865 to 1909. He founded the Congo Free State, now the Democratic of Congo, where he forced natives to work as labourers on rubber plantations. The petition, launched in June, said the plaques should be removed from their “uncritical” place in the Octagon Building and “relocated to a museum…dedicated to the memorialisation of the crimes of genocide, colonialism and imperialism.” King Leopold II of Belgium (1835 – 1909)Credit:Getty Images Dr Joanna Williams, whose book Academic Freedom in an Age of Conformity was published earlier this year, said: “When universities start removing plaques and statues on the basis of student petitions, without any broader debate or discussion, where and when do they draw the line?“There are very few who have a completely untarnished record when you start looking back through history.“Roads are named after people, streets are named after people – if you start saying you have to have a completely unblemished past to have something named after you, you could argue that every single building and road would be renamed across the country.” Oxford University student campaigned to remove a statue of Cecil RhodesCredit:Eddie Mulholland “The size and prominence of these inscriptions suggested a strength of association that was never the case, and as such the decision was taken to remove both from view.” Harvard Law School replaced its official crest, because of its links to an 18th-century slave owner, following five months of demonstrations and sit-ins by students. The Octagon Building, Queen Mary UniversityCredit:Queen Mary University The “Leopold Must Fall” campaign at Queen Mary is one of a string of student movements calling for universities to sever ties with individuals and objects associated with colonialism. Earlier this year, Oxford University refused to give into calls from the “Rhodes Must Fall” campaign to tear down a statue of Cecil Rhodes from Oriel College over his links with Britain’s colonial past. However, other universities have been quicker to give into student demands. Jesus College at Cambridge University took down a bronze cockerel statue which had been looted during a British colonial expedition to Nigeria in the 19th century, after students asked for it to be repatriated. Dr Williams, senior lecturer in higher education at the University of Kent, said that universities were now so quick to respond to student demands that they were losing their ability to “hold the line”. The actions of Queen Mary University of London set a dangerous precedent of universities giving in to students and “whitewashing” history, she said. “It suggests a fear within the university authorities – as if they are scared of the students and pander to their demands to avoid attracting negative attention.” A plaque removed from Queen Mary’s Octagonal Building earlier this year following student protestsCredit:Jacqueline Banerjee Want the best of The Telegraph direct to your email and WhatsApp? Sign up to our free twice-daily Front Page newsletter and new audio briefings. Just a month later, the university told students that it had removed them “as part of ongoing refurbishment work” to the Octagon Library.Emma Bull, director of student services at the university, told the leaders of the student protest at the time: “Queen Mary University has no historical ties with King Leopold, other than he visited Mile End in April 1887, and then returned to lay the Foundation Stone in June 1887.