Linking Oxford with the World

Vernon Bogdanor reviews Philip Ziegler's account of Rhodes scholarships (Legacy)

Cecil Rhodes hoped that the scholarships established through his will, would, by creating educational ties between the Empire and the Anglo-Saxon world, ‘render war impossible’. The scholars, he insisted, should not be weedy bookworms, but manly, robust types, Plato’s guardians, a society of the elect. The 20th century has not been kind to such ideals; yet the scholarships have proved of enormous value to Oxford, giving it that wider international perspective and connection with the world of public affairs which differentiate it so markedly from the Other Place.

In his will, Rhodes insisted that no candidate should be disqualified on account of race or religion. He almost certainly had in mind the Boers rather than the blacks, though he also called for ‘equal rights for every civilised man south of the Zambezi’. What Rhodes would have thought of the belated admission of female scholars in 1976 is, fortunately, not recorded.

Sadly, the trustees of the scholarships sometimes proved even more illiberal than the founder, and with less excuse. Sir Carleton Kemp Allen, a distinguished administrative lawyer, and Warden of Rhodes House between the wars, when faced with a Jamaican candidate, Levy, declared, ‘I do not know from the photograph whether Levy is black, white or coffee-coloured. As he is a Jew, I should imagine that he probably has no tar-brush about him’. Of Adolf Schlepengrell, a German scholar, one of whose grandmothers was Jewish, and therefore fell under Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws, Allen commented in 1934 that he was

unmistakably a self-seeker and something of a self-advertiser, and — definitely — conceited. It may be that Hitler is not so very far out after all and that the qualities which slightly jar are contributed by ancestry.

Turning down Schlepengrell’s attempt to seek work in Britain, Allen told him to ‘go back to his own country — and face the music’.

Some of Allen’s postwar successors were not much better. Oxford owes a great debt of gratitude to its black American Rhodes scholars. For it was they who, in the 1970s, pressed their elders and supposed betters to alter the terms of Rhodes’s will which provided for scholarships from four all-white schools in South Africa. The trustees responded evasively, and the Warden, Sir Edgar Williams, told the Americans that they were not ‘acting like one of the chaps’, to be met with the retort, ‘I suppose we didn’t feel like one of the chaps’. However, when the trustees finally agreed to approach the Education Secretary, Margaret Thatcher, she proved unwilling to override Rhodes’s intentions. It was left to two later Wardens, Anthony Kenny and John Rowett, to overcome the heritage of the past through the creation of the Mandela-Rhodes Foundation in 2003.

Legacy is an ‘official’ history of the Rhodes scholarships, commissioned by Lord Fellowes, the then Chair of the Trust. It was a wise decision to entrust it to Philip Ziegler, an urbane and accomplished writer, and he has done a marvellous job, presenting the story with exemplary clarity and wit. This is a book of the highest quality, full of imaginative insight and a delight to read.

The danger of official history, of course, is that it records only successes in a world in which everything always turns out for the best. Ziegler has far too much scholarly integrity to fall into this trap, though he does have a tendency to treat utterances by obscure dons as if they were the pronouncements of some great statesman, and the characters in the story tend to appear in their best clothes and on their best behaviour. Still, he has written, not an encomium but a ‘warts and all’ history, though sometimes one has to read between the lines to appreciate it. He tactfully passes over the short Wardenship of John Rowett, which, despite the Rhodes-Mandela Trust, was not a success, one of the trustees later declaring that Rowett could not see a china shop without crossing the road to smash it. He also tends to pass over complaints by Rhodes scholars that recent Wardens have been too busy with higher matters to bother with student problems.

Ziegler also has his blind spots. It does not seem to strike him as odd that in a university which prides itself on its system of direct democracy through the dons parliament, Congregation, the Warden and the trustees are still chosen by a self-appointed oligarchy that appears to make its own rules. Currently, three of the ten trustees are Fellows of All Souls, the only college in Oxford which does not admit a single student. The chairman is Lord Waldegrave, the former Tory minister and prime begetter of the poll tax — an odd choice to look after the funds.

Nevertheless, Legacy casts a great deal of light not only on the Rhodes scholarships, but on Oxford. If, in the past, the university suffered from complacency, its main problem now is uncertainty of purpose. Can it succeed in being both a great teaching university and a great international research university; or in the attempt to remain both, will it succeed in being neither? Can Oxford become both Amherst and Harvard? Many Rhodes scholars seem to doubt it, treating their time at Oxford as a modern version of the Grand Tour, an interlude before the hard grind of an American graduate or law school. Oxford is no longer the cursus honorum that it was in Rhodes’s day.

Legacy is beautifully written by a master of his craft. It is also beautifully produced; and this prompts the question of why it is published by Yale and not Oxford. Perhaps it is not only our universities that need to get their act together when faced with competition from the United States.

Vernon Bogdanor is Professor of Government at Oxford University.