When British businessman Cecil Rhodes passed away in 1902, he couldn’t possibly have imagined what the world would be like in 2019. Over 117 years ago, his brain couldn’t have conceived of commercial air travel or the Internet or how great Jennifer Aniston would still look.
Further, Rhodes also would not recognize what has become of the prestigious scholarship he founded in the year of his death. For one, he would be confused that the Rhodes Scholarship was being granted to women and minorities — he was an avowed white supremacist and specifically excluded women from winning the award. (Women didn’t become eligible until 1977.)
But Rhodes would also be perplexed about the academic paths chosen by Rhodes winners and by the criteria applied to the applicants.
Last week, the Rhodes Foundation announced its 32 American scholarship recipients. The third paragraph of the statement accompanying the selections reveals the foundation’s true goals:
For the third consecutive year, the class overall is majority-minority, and approximately half are first-generation Americans. One is the first transgender woman elected to a Rhodes Scholarship; two other Scholars-elect are non-binary.
If Rhodes were to rise from the grave in 2019, he might die all over again.
Once the ultimate academic award for American students, the Rhodes Scholarship has morphed into an identity contest, where racial and sexual classifications appear to have trumped academic rigor.
Take, for instance, 2020 award-winner Eileen Z. Ying, of the University of Virginia: Her undergraduate scholarship “examines Asian diasporic speculative fiction and its intersections with queerness and biopolitics.”
University of Oklahoma senior Leanne K. M. Ho, who uses the plural pronoun “they,” boasts of academic research analyzing “the impact of storytelling on social distancing from LGBTQ people.” Ho’s biography reads,
They are a campus leader in incorporating transgender, intersex, and non-binary people into conversations about reproductive health and have advocated for increased resources and opportunities for transgender and gender non-conforming students.
Of course, the star of the 2020 class is University of Tennessee graduate Hera Jay Brown, the first transgender woman to win the award. Among Brown’s academic bona fides is authoring a white paper on the global state of LGBTQ+ affairs for the Biden Foundation. Brown’s biography notes that she graduated summa cum laude “in a major she designed in Socio-Cultural Anthropology and Migration Studies.”
Of course, given the decades during which white men were the sole recipients of the scholarship, it’s understandable that the Rhodes Foundation might overcorrect to rectify the years of racial and gender injustice.
But while the award now celebrates ethnic diversity, academic and ideological diversity are nowhere to be found among the recent crop of award-winners. The Foundation claims to reward “character, commitment to others and to the common good,” but those characteristics apparently apply only to progressives publicly dedicated to social-justice causes.
Of the 32 scholars chosen for 2020, only 13 fail to list involvement with progressive causes on their résumés. Of those 13, none lists interest in or experience with a conservative cause — they have chosen to present themselves as politically neutral. (Most of these “neutral” students are involved in the physical sciences, where there is no liberal or conservative way of curing leukemia.)
In other words, students on the left feel free to assert their progressivism, while students on the right know that if they want a scholarship, they better keep their politics a secret.
This bias is well established in the case of other prestigious academic awards for American students. In 2018, not one of the 59 winners of the $30,000 Truman Scholarship reported being involved with Republican or conservative politics in any way, while 64 percent of winners espoused traditionally liberal causes. In 2019, progressive students held a ten-to-one advantage over right-leaning students for Truman awards.
Obviously, these are smart students, and the lesson is clear: Especially in the Trump era, overtly conservative students need not apply. Diversity is great until you think differently. And the right kind of “diversity” matters far more than academic rigor.
And this is why, if there is ever a scientific discovery that allows Cecil Rhodes to return, it most likely won’t be from a student with a Rhodes Scholarship.