The war on standards, Rhodes Scholarship edition

Rhodes Scholarships have been awarded based, in part, on race for at least 50 years. A friend from high school, and one of the smartest people I’ve ever known, was up for the prize in 1971. In the late stage of the process, he was in a room with other candidates from his region.

When a tall African-American, an athlete whom I also knew, entered, a buzz went through the room, as my friend and the other candidates realized the prize from this region was the African-American’s to lose. He didn’t lose it.

Fifty years later, the goal of having a diverse group of Rhodes scholars has evolved into an obsession with preferring non-white candidates. The Rhodes Trust boasts that 21 of the 32 winners are “students of colour,” the greatest number ever elected in one year in the United States. Fifteen are first-generation Americans or immigrants, and one is a “Dreamer” with active DACA status. Seventeen are women and one is “nonbinary.”

Not only that, diversity is often the preferred academic specialty of the winners, along with sexual harassment, racism, and the status of prisoners. The Trust describes the selectees as “passionate” or motivated by “fierce urgency” (presumably the “fierce urgency of now” that Barack Obama liked to wax lyrical about).

David Satter translates the Trust’s description in a Wall Street Journal op-ed:

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that Rhodes Scholars are defenders of universal values and destined to have careers that benefit their countries has been replaced by training them for conflicts with their fellow citizens.

The Trust’s stated goal is “radical inclusion” in the selection of Rhodes Scholars. So the Trust doesn’t want just to include a diverse group of scholars, it wants to do so radically. This means granting preferences on the basis of race and other color and gender-based characteristics — in other words, discriminating against white males.

Satter notes that this policy violates Cecil Rhodes’ 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.”

How quaint.

There’s plenty more in Satter’s article, nearly all of it spot on. However, this paragraph may be too optimistic:

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.

The erosion of standards by the Rhodes Trust is part of a much wider war, the success of which would negate Satter’s prediction, it seems to me.

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