It’s a time of year when the most brilliant university students suddenly feel a twinge of dread and doubt: Are they really exceptional enough to become a Rhodes Scholar and join the Oxford community that claims to be nurturing the leaders of the world’s future?
And even if they convince themselves they’re the next Bill Clinton or Bob Rae, how will they win over the Rhodes selectors who are putting Canada’s best and brightest students through their paces – last week in Newfoundland and on the Prairies, this weekend in British Columbia, Quebec and the Maritimes, next week in Ontario.
“The goal is to push people as they’ve never been pushed before,” says Andrew Wilkinson, a Vancouver lawyer who runs the Canadian branch of the scholarship founded over a century ago by the imperialist adventurer Cecil Rhodes. “We’re looking for people who can articulate a worldview and be persuasive about what they really believe.”
But even as potential Scholars are being asked to overcome their doubts and examine what they believe, the venerable Rhodes institution itself is facing a brutal self-analysis. Over the last three years, prompted by the 2008 economic meltdown and the ongoing crisis in British public-education funding, the Oxford-based Rhodes Trust has been forced to modernize its image as it tries to restore a depleted endowment and retain its prestige in a more competitive academic world.
For Dominic Barton, a former Canadian Rhodes Scholar who oversees McKinsey management consultants and helped steer the modernization process, the new Rhodes goals include making the scholarship more strategically relevant by extending its reach in China, India and Africa; increasing the Rhodes funds to resist market fluctuations and better support Rhodes researchers working beyond Oxford’s beguiling quadrangles; and creating a stronger affiliation among Rhodes Scholars themselves, a group Cecil Rhodes may have envisioned as a powerful secret society but who historically were left to go their own way after Oxford.
“The nature of that connection for me was a void,” Mr. Barton says. “What an amazing experience we had, and then nothing. So when we asked Scholars what needed to be done, there was a strong view that we had to reconnect Rhodes people. Because it was appalling how bad that connection was before.”
Rhodes Scholars were also largely excluded from the decision-making of the Oxford-dominated Rhodes Trust. Financial disasters have a way of overturning old regimes: Now former scholars are in charge and the day-to-day operations are in the hands of a plain-speaking Australian former Scholar, Don Markwell.
He aims to strengthen the Rhodes community by extending the scholarship beyond two years of all-expenses-paid study and a legacy of hard-to-quantify prestige. New Scholars now appreciate that they are also joining a global network of sociable overachievers who feed off each other’s talents and ambitions while wrestling with the world’s problems.
“The communal aspect of the Rhodes is striking,” says Anne Kelly, a literature student at the University of Saskatchewan who was named a winner just last week and is already being urged to set up connections with Rhodes Scholars in her field. Once she arrives in Oxford next fall, she will join an intensely active Rhodes fellowship designed to prepare her for a future leadership role.
“It’s part of the Rhodes vision that exceptional young people from around the world get to know each other as a contribution to international understanding and peace,” Dr. Markwell says. “And to achieve this, we have to do more to connect Rhodes Scholars of different generations. The young scholars are smart enough to realize that they have a lot to gain from linkages with people like themselves who have already faced the choices they’re going to face.”
He cited the example of the visitor he was about to welcome to a Rhodes House student discussion: a female Scholar turned U.S. military officer who serves as a deputy head at SHAPE (Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe). She planned to talk about the future of NATO and the nature of leadership, of course. But her advice was also personal and practical: How does an ambitious woman Scholar find ways to balance family and career?
Networking was once seen to be too rude and aggressive for privileged Oxford thinkers, but now it’s viewed as the Rhodes’s hidden strength. “We’ve got to leverage our abilities and experiences more,” Mr. Barton says. “There’s a lot of energy we can tap into to make sure this remains the most eminent scholarship there is.”
That eminence has been recently challenged, first by Oxford’s hesitation to lure the best global minds by making graduate studies a priority – a problem now fixed – and more recently by the 2008 meltdown. Just last year, Dr. Markwell issued dire warnings that scholarships could be suspended if Rhodes Scholars didn’t rally round.
“It was a necessary moment of reflection,” says Niall O’Dea, former president of the Canadian Rhodes Scholar Alumni Association. “It’s allowed us to engage the innovative capacity of scholars in the world and look for new opportunities to remain relevant.”
Relevance has not always been prized in the city of dreaming spires. Even now, incoming Canadian scholars can find Oxford’s ways bewildering as well as bewitching. In the older, colonialist view of the Rhodes experience, an essential part of an Oxford education was about adapting to this strangeness and acquiring the cultural sophistication that went with it.
Learning how to row and attending Burns Suppers in fancy dress remain essential to a well-spent Rhodes sojourn, but now there’s much less time for Oxford dreaminess. So for the modern Rhodes Scholar, it’s very hard to drift off into self-indulgence.
“The idea that you’re fighting the world’s fight is part of the selection criteria,” says Susan Humphrey, a New Brunswick Scholar who studies food security. “Oxford itself can be very academically focused, but when I’m at an event at Rhodes House, I’m constantly reminded of the bigger picture: There’s a greater responsibility we have, both here and when we leave Oxford, to go beyond the academic side of things, to give back to the world.”