The Rhodes Scholarship is slowly embracing diversity
By December 2016
There are police at the gates when I arrive, a line of shiny silver cars in front of me and a gaggle of people on the footpath. I presume it’s all for another event. Then there’s a policeman at my car window. He reads my invitation, smiles. “You can drive in just as soon as the gentleman in front of you gets a move on.” The gentleman seems a bit taken aback, too. Finally his car jerks into action and we crunch up the pale gravel drive at Government House, Melbourne, for the announcement of the 2017 Victorian Rhodes Scholar. Recipients say the award is “life-changing” and “opens doors”. Many go on to be leaders in academia, business, law, government and other fields. Today’s successful candidate will be one of nearly 8000 students from around the world since 1902 given a postgraduate education at the University of Oxford, because of the will of Cecil John Rhodes.
Rhodes made his fortune in the late 19th century as founder of the De Beers diamond company, which until recently controlled most of the global trade. He believed the English so superior that the more of the world they inhabited the better. He was at the centre of moves to disenfranchise black Africans, and as prime minister of what is now South Africa he instituted the Glen Grey Act, providing a blueprint for apartheid. Even in his time Rhodes was thought by some to be appalling. In an obituary, the Guardian wrote that “most other ideals had for him to be sub-ordinated to that of keeping up dividends”.
In South African politics these days he’s considered a soft target. In 2015, the #RhodesMustFall campaign succeeded in having his statue removed from the University of Cape Town (“University authorities aren’t going to defend Rhodes,” one commentator said), and it raised broader issues about the alienation of the black majority from campus culture, curriculum and faculty.
At Oxford itself, #RhodesMustFall was not successful. Oriel College kept its statue, an immense piece set high in a wall, in which he stands over the viewer, looking down onto High Street. The college said the statue represented Rhodes’ legacy, not agreement with his views. (It also said that the threat of a million pounds of gifts being withdrawn from donors if the statue went was not a primary consideration.) A few months prior, black Mississippian Rhodes scholar Donald Brown wrote in the Times Higher Education that he was frequently singled out and asked for identification when entering his college, Christ Church. On several occasions he was asked if he was a “construction worker”.
In the absence of any prominent Rhodes iconography in Australia there has been no #RhodesMustFall, although there was a teeter of a different kind. Following significant investment losses, the Rhodes Trust, based at Oxford, was forced to draw on receding capital to fund its scholarships. All Australian Rhodes scholars were implored to donate, and some wealthy ones contributed significantly. Then the news came in 2013 of an enormous donation from Canadian Rhodes scholar John McCall MacBain, the founder of Trader Classified Media. This “Second Century Founder” is now toasted at functions along with the original. It was an extraordinary save.
Not long after, in May 2014, another new tradition was instituted, the Australian Rhodes National Dinner. It was a year later, at the second dinner, that I first met Professor Marnie Hughes-Warrington, a deputy vice-chancellor of the Australian National University and the new national secretary of Rhodes Scholarships Australia. She is the fifth person to hold the role in 114 years and the first woman. Over pre-dinner drinks at the State Library of Victoria, Hughes-Warrington immediately brought up the need to attract more diverse applicants to the scholarship and address equality issues. Her comments stood in contrast to the night ahead. The speakers at the dinner, which was attended by the then governor Alex Chernov, were wealthy male Australian Rhodes scholars, including Bob Hawke, as well as American Rhodes scholar and Warden of Rhodes House Charles Conn. All spoke of their time at Oxford: cricket, rugby and getting drunk. At one point a friend across the table caught my attention and raised his eyes slowly to the ceiling, then back down. (“Imagine,” he said later, “if someone were to walk in and see this, imagine what they’d think.”) I asked the younger woman beside me what she thought. “Well, I’ve just got back from Oxford,” she said, “so I suppose I’m used to it.”
Hughes-Warrington acknowledges the “predominantly male Rhodes community”. Rhodes banned women from his scholarship, and selection criteria once included “manliness”. It was only opened to women in 1977 after US universities threatened to boycott the scholarship and there was concerted legal action. Since then, women have made up about 30% of winners of the state scholarships in Australia. New South Wales, which selected its first woman in 1988, has the worst record, with only 10 women selected by 2016, just behind Victoria (11), and Western Australia and Queensland (both 12). South Australia is the exception, selecting at near parity (and boosting the national average). So there seemed to be relief as well as cheer on the faces of Hughes-Warrington and Rhodes state secretary Professor Carolyn Maree Evans at Government House when Rebecca Duke was announced the 2017 Victorian winner. A week later, Hughes-Warrington texted to say Bede Jones had been selected in Tasmania. He is the second indigenous Australian ever to win it; the first, Rebecca Richards from South Australia, won in 2010.
Hughes-Warrington’s attention to equality and diversity isn’t isolated. It’s supported by Charles Conn and Rhodes Registrar Mary Eaton, as well as a few other national secretaries. Data shows that Australian applicants have been overwhelmingly from one sandstone university in each state, where the state secretary historically resides, and concentrated in a handful of disciplines. Hughes-Warrington has introduced a competitive selection process when a state secretary retires. This moved the role in Queensland to the Queensland University of Technology. Since then, a network of Rhodes representatives has been established in every university in that state, working together to raise and broaden awareness (such as through a social media campaign). “You can’t wait until fourth-year uni to find out about the Rhodes,” says Professor Ben White, Rhodes scholar and the new Queensland state secretary, who went to an independent boys’ school where old scholars gave talks about winning it. Some Rhodes scholars say they did only start to think about applying in their fourth year, but the salient point is that it takes a lifetime (or until the scholarship’s age limit of 26) of certain opportunities to be in such a position in the first place.
Social capital helps, too, including connections who can give interview practice, and the confidence to be unfazed by the prospect of a four-course lunch at Government House (part of this year’s Victorian selection process). Not all winners have all this. A recent ban on candidates getting help with written applications and contacting current scholars is seen by some as regressive: those with connections will use them in other ways, while those without such a network can’t be helped as much by university administrators.
Other scholarships take a different approach. For example, the John Monash Scholarship, which has a good record on diversity, provides all short-listed candidates with two mentors. It also projects images of young women and men of different backgrounds (and ditched scholarship materials plastered with pictures of General Sir John Monash and World War One). The Monash scholarship staff are paid to do such things; the Rhodes is still mostly voluntary.
Rebecca Duke nearly didn’t apply. She’d heard the Rhodes was “a bit of a men’s club” and took some encouraging. She has competed internationally as a ballet dancer, received first-class honours in psychology and philosophy at the University of Melbourne, as well as a languages diploma and several prizes, was a leader of her university college queer committee, volunteered for three years at the Royal Children’s Hospital, and as a telephone crisis counsellor, and over summer will be working at the Department of Premier and Cabinet to implement recommendations from the state Royal Commission into Family Violence.
She tells me over pots of soy chai tea on Gertrude Street in inner-city Melbourne that throughout the process her preconceptions about the Rhodes fell away. She realised she could be herself, and the selection panel would welcome that. In her final interview she gave strong answers to all questions, which ranged in subject matter from Australian defence strategy in the South China Sea to indigenous incarceration. And then this: “If Cecil Rhodes were still alive and you were announced the winner, what would he think?” Duke says she looked straight at Governor Linda Dessau and began: “A young gay woman? I think he’d have some qualms.”