The Rhodes Scholarship Turns Against Its Legacy of Excellence

The Rhodes Scholarship stood for more than 120 years, through cataclysm and world war, as a symbol of individual excellence. But since 2019, under the shadow of a supposed reckoning with racism, the scholarships have been corrupted from within.

Cecil Rhodes

(1853-1902), the imperialist and financier who founded the scholarship, wanted Rhodes Scholars to be “the best men for the world’s fight.” The Rhodes Trust rewarded those who survived a withering competition with three years at Oxford University, all expenses paid. (Women were made eligible in 1977.)

Neither Rhodes nor many of those who over the decades benefited from his bequest would recognize the Rhodes Scholarship today. The scholarship, in the words of

Edgar Williams,

a former warden of Rhodes House, was “an investment in a chap.” A much-admired ideal was the German Rhodes Scholar

Adam von Trott zu Solz,

who was hanged for his role in the July 1944 plot to kill Hitler.

Rhodes House at Oxford University.


Getty Images/iStockphoto

While at Oxford, I studied

Hannah Arendt’s

theory of totalitarianism and the Russian language and traveled to the Soviet Union. Classmates studied Arabic and Chinese and became respected experts in their fields. The U.S. Rhodes Scholars in 2021, however, were praised not for worldliness but for their demographics. Twenty-one of the 32 winners are “students of colour” and one is “nonbinary,” according to the Rhodes Trust’s announcement. More important, diversity is often their preferred academic specialty, along with sexual harassment, racism and the status of prisoners. The winners are described as “passionate” or motivated by “fierce urgency.” The notion that Rhodes Scholars are defenders of universal values and destined to have careers that benefit their countries has been replaced by training them for conflicts with their fellow citizens.

Elizabeth Kiss,

warden of Rhodes House, wrote that the Rhodes Trust today rejects Rhodes’s goal of educating young men for a civilizing mission as “wrong and obsolete.” Oxford itself, she writes, is a place where “racism in all its forms—structural, overt and implicit—remains rife.”

The Rhodes Trust has embarked on a program to expunge the scholarship’s “racist and sexist” past. One feature is a mandatory workshop led by members of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement, which is campaigning to remove Rhodes’s statue from Oxford’s Oriel College. There is also inclusion training for all Rhodes staff, outreach to black colleges (but not other schools), and data processing to improve the diversity of the selection committees.

The goal, according to a recent statement, is “radical inclusion.” That means racial preferences, which violate Rhodes’s will. Its 24th point states: “No student shall be qualified or disqualified for election to a Scholarship on account of his race or religious opinions.” The phrase “no student shall be qualified” is particularly important. I don’t see how the trustees have the right to change this condition.

There has long been discomfort in the Rhodes community over Rhodes’s role in forging Britain’s African empire. But neither Oxford nor Rhodes House, where his archives are held, has ever blocked the objective historical evaluation of Rhodes’s activities. The transformation in the Rhodes Scholarship has its roots in two more recent developments: changes in the way the scholarship is administered and the spread of political correctness.

For decades, 50 U.S. state committees chose American finalists for the scholarships and eight regional committees selected four scholars each from the finalists. In the early 2000s, the trust scrapped the two-tiered system in favor of a single tier, in which 16 regional committees choose two scholars apiece. This removed an important internal check. The regional committees no longer choose from finalists sent by the states, which tended to emphasize individual excellence.

At the same time, the atmosphere of “antiracism” has become overwhelming at the universities that have traditionally produced the most Rhodes Scholars and devote great effort to preparing candidates. Yale removed the name of Vice President

John C. Calhoun

from a residential college because he defended slavery. At Columbia, separate graduation ceremonies were announced for black students. At Amherst, students walked out of class to show solidarity and stress “the importance of Black students’ mental health.”

The tragedy of this situation is that many of those who call for special conditions for black students and thereby implicitly treat them as incapable of competing on an equal basis, do not know black people as people. The proliferation of “Black Lives Matter” signs in wealthy white neighborhoods instead of where the killing is taking place shows that what is actually at stake is self-serving demonstrations of virtue by whites, in which blacks play only a peripheral role.

The creation of unequal conditions for winning the Rhodes Scholarship can only destroy the scholarship as a respected institution, even if the name is preserved. The best white applicants won’t take part in a competition that is unfair, and the best minority students will reject a competition if they believe it is rigged in their favor.

Former Rhodes Scholars rely on the warden and the trustees to manage the trust in keeping with the conditions spelled out in Rhodes’s will. The changes of the past few years took me and other scholars by surprise. It is imperative that they be withdrawn. The Rhodes Scholarships were important not only to those who received them but to those who aimed high because they aspired to them. Their corruption must be stopped for the institution’s sake and for that of the U.S. and the rest of the world.

Mr. Satter is author of “Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union” and a member of the academic advisory board of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.

Journal Editorial Report: The week’s best and worst from Kim Strassel, Kyle Peterson, Jillian Melchior and Dan Henninger. Image: AP/AFP/Getty Images Composite: Mark Kelly

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