Harvard Rhodes Scholar Factory Spurs Imitation at U.S. Colleges
Dec. 29 (Bloomberg) — Three weeks into the first semester at Boston College in September, political science professor Donald Hafner is already urging a group of freshmen to consider applying for a Rhodes, the world’s oldest and most prestigious international graduate scholarship.
“I know some of you have barely unpacked your trunks, and this might seem ridiculous that I’m talking to you about what you can do after you graduate,” he says. Hafner’s pitch is part of a new frenzy by U.S. colleges to win Rhodes scholarships, the legacy of British colonialist and 19th-century diamond baron Cecil Rhodes.
Schools are increasing efforts to find potential winners 102 years after Rhodes’s death, prepping them for grueling interviews at mock cocktail parties and honoring their recipients in brochures and campus walls of fame.
Schools that haven’t before won a Rhodes can expect headlines, reflected glory and improved fund-raising opportunities, says Charles Clough, 62, a Boston College trustee who founded Boston-based investment management firm Clough Capital Partners, which manages $600 million.
Efforts to cultivate winners early with an honors program attracting top students paid off when Boston College won its first two Rhodes scholarships in 2003.
A Rhodes is valued at about $35,000 a year for two or three years of study at Oxford University in England, where 32 U.S. students join about 95 scholars chosen around the world.
“The Rhodes is the ultimate recognition that there is a tradition of excellence,” says Clough, former chief investment strategist at New York-based Merrill Lynch & Co., the world’s largest securities company. “I waited for the first Rhodes to come in, and by God, we got two.”
Not everyone in academia is convinced the effort is worthwhile, says David Kirp, 60, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.
“It’s just another aspect of the kind of race-to-the-top competition that characterizes higher education today,” says Kirp, author of “Shakespeare, Einstein and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education” (Harvard University Press, 2003).
Kirp says universities hunger for Rhodes scholarships because they increase school rankings in national comparisons. He says competitive marketing pressures among colleges can overshadow the primary purpose of a university: education.
Attracting Top Students
Beyond prestige, awards such as the Rhodes validate a school’s efforts to attract top students, says Suzanne McCray, associate dean of the University of Arkansas Honors College and founder of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors, a support and information group that started four years ago with 15 members and now has 225.
Last year, students at Arkansas won more than $1 million in state or national scholarship and research support that benefits the entire campus, she says.
Boston College joined 28 other schools that since 1990 have celebrated their first Rhodes. Candidates, endorsed by their universities, are judged on their academic grades, as many as eight letters of recommendation and an essay.
In addition, they face personal interviews, in both formal and informal settings, in which they are expected to display integrity, unselfishness and respect for others.
Such past winners as former President Bill Clinton, former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, three U.S. Supreme Court justices and four current U.S. senators contribute to the allure of the Rhodes, held by 3,046 U.S. citizens from 307 schools.
$25 Million in Gifts
“Can you buy a Rhodes?” asks Boston College trustee Thomas P. O’Neill III, 60, chairman of the Boston lobbying firm O’Neill & Associates and the son of `Tip’ O’Neill, the late Democratic speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“No, but you can help a school formalize a program that gets students on track and gives people reason to pay attention to Boston College,” he says.
More than $25 million in gifts from alumni connected to Wall Street helped fund the scholars program at Boston College that provides tuition for top students and produced the school’s first winners.
While Harvard University, with 313 winners, still dominates the competition, about a third of all Rhodes scholars since 1990 have come from either public schools or institutions not as widely known, data from the Vienna, Virginia-based Rhodes Trust shows. The trust manages all aspects of the U.S. competition.
Morehouse College in Atlanta, with three Rhodes scholarships, along with Howard University in Washington; Villanova University in Philadelphia; Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts; and Boston College, with two each, are among the first-time winners since 1990.
Two students from the City University of New York, the largest U.S. urban university, won the award in 2004, when 903 students applied.
On Nov. 20, Lev Sviridov, a 22-year-old City College of New York senior and native of Russia who spent two years of his life homeless, heard his name called in the Fifth Avenue office of Satellite Asset Management LP, where founder Lief Rosenblatt, a 1974 Rhodes scholar, hosted a gathering at which nine students waited to learn whether they had won.
Sviridov had expected to be among the five who left empty- handed. “They called my name last, and I just froze up,” Sviridov says. “I really thought the Rhodes was an award for refined individuals who would drink tea with their pinky up and come from an Ivy League school.”
`Harvard of the Poor’
Brooklyn College senior Eugene Shenderov, 21, a Chernobyl survivor who hopes to find a cancer cure, is also heading to Oxford. The CUNY system of 19 campuses in five boroughs had only three Rhodes winners before 2004, even though it has graduated 11 Nobel laureates and has earned a reputation as “the Harvard of the working poor.”
CUNY Chancellor Matthew Goldstein, 64, says he almost drove off the road on Long Island when he got the good news on his cell phone.
Goldstein says he hopes the alumni who have kept his phone ringing nonstop and filled his computer mailbox with congratulations will contribute to the school’s $1.2 billion fund- raising campaign.
“The Rhodes is the apex, the Mount Olympus of all the awards,” Goldstein says.
Not for Everyone
Students from New York’s Columbia University complain they’ve been shut out of the competition during the past two years, says James Romoser, managing editor of the Columbia Spectator, the student newspaper. The paper has written editorials complaining the school isn’t trying hard enough to win the Rhodes.
Lavinia Lorch, Columbia’s assistant dean of student affairs, says all fellowships are treated the same. “They (Rhodes scholarships) are as good as any other educational experience,” Lorch says, adding that the Rhodes isn’t for everyone.
“Some people may not find the best courses for their subject matter at Oxford,” she says.
The reputation of the Rhodes scholarship has endured and grown over the years; the same cannot be said about Rhodes himself, says historian Robert Rotberg, a 1957 Rhodes scholar and author of “The Founder: Cecil Rhodes and the Pursuit of Power” (Oxford University Press, 1988).
Rhodes dreamed of uniting the “white races” of South Africa and, as a member of the Cape Colony Parliament, laid the groundwork for apartheid by reducing the wages and increasing the hours of black workers.
Criticizing Cecil Rhodes
Applicants have criticized Rhodes’s past. In 1967, Richard Schaper told the Rhodes committee of his contempt for Cecil Rhodes; he still won a scholarship. In 1969, Grant Crandall of the U.S. resigned his Rhodes to protest the exclusion of women and black scholars from South Africa.
Today, Kazi Sabeel Rahman, a 22-year-old winner from Harvard, says he decided to withhold judgment of Rhodes the man. “I’ve always known about Cecil Rhodes and his not-so-savory pursuits, and I decided it’s not my place to judge him,” Rahman says.
The first black scholar, Alain LeRoy Locke, entered Oxford in 1907, and none followed until 1962. Since 1990, about 10 percent of U.S. winners have been black.
No woman won a Rhodes until the class of 1977. Since then, 38 percent of the winners have been women.
The Rhodes scholarship hasn’t reflected its namesake for decades, Rotberg says. “By the time Rhodes winners hear their names announced, they aren’t thinking about Rhodes the racist,” says Rotberg, head of the Program on Intrastate Conflict at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
`A Robber Barron’
Rotberg compared Rhodes with John D. Rockefeller, who founded Standard Oil Co. of Ohio in 1870 and whose legacy of philanthropy thrives, including $135 million in grants and investments in 2003 for programs such as affordable housing and new crop development.
“Rockefeller was a robber baron, and now the Rockefeller Foundation does splendid things,” Rotberg says. The Rhodes Trust has added fellowships such as the Mandela Rhodes, which will provide $1.6 million a year over the next decade to help South Africa educate its poor.
Rhodes scholars get more than money, says David Eisenberg, 65, a biologist and professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who won a Rhodes in 1961.
“How could two or three years at Oxford, living in an international architectural and cultural jewel a couple of hours from the European continent with dozens of talented, right-minded peers not change your life?” Eisenberg says.
`People Are Gaga’
Howard Zinn, 82, author of “A People’s History of the United States” (Harper & Row, 1980), sees the Rhodes as a relic of a bygone era that perpetuates elitism.
“People are gaga about competitions, prizes, winners and heroes, and Rhodes has had a special place in that culture,” Zinn says. He is also skeptical of the program’s value. “The selections are arbitrary and represent what the dominant culture thinks is important — mostly superficial qualities,” he says.
Plenty of Rhodes scholars have found the going rougher after leaving Oxford. About three dozen of the 3,046 Rhodes winners have committed suicide, according to Thomas and Kathleen Schaeper, who wrote “Cowboys into Gentlemen: Rhodes Scholars, Oxford and the Creation of an American Elite” (Berghahn Books, 1998).
At least two have served prison terms since the 1980s, including Melvin Reynolds, 52, a former Democratic U.S. representative from Illinois. President Clinton pardoned Reynolds in 2001 after he’d spent six years in jail for bank fraud, obstruction of justice and sexual misconduct with an underage campaign volunteer.
Clinton, 58, the president from 1993 to 2001, spent his two years at Oxford reading John Locke and George Orwell, studying politics and writing essays on topics such as the role of terror in Soviet Union totalitarianism.
It was in England where Clinton experimented with marijuana and, he says, didn’t like it and didn’t inhale. Clinton failed to get a degree after two years of study — along with eight other members of his 1968 class, which had the lowest graduation rate since the Second World War.
Clinton received an honorary doctorate from Oxford in 1994 after he’d become president.
Some Rhodes scholars have made education their top career choice. Among 1,794 living U.S. Rhodes scholars, 40 percent work in higher education, including 60 college presidents. About 450 are involved in research or have become professors, foundation heads or prep school headmasters, according to the Schaepers’ book.
Law is next, with 20 percent, followed by business, with 15 percent. About 25 Rhodes scholars worked in the administration of President John F. Kennedy, including former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, and as many as 50 served under Clinton, the Schaepers say.
The administration of President George W. Bush has included at least three.
The Rhodes scholarship doesn’t assure a good job and isn’t necessarily valuable for executives, says Michael Magsig, a senior client partner at Korn/Ferry International, the world’s largest executive search firm. “I’d want to see what they’ve done with it after they got into their careers,” Magsig says.
Rhodes scholars in high-ranking corporate jobs include William Kerr, 64, CEO of Meredith Corp., the publisher of Better Homes & Gardens magazine. Franklin Raines, 55, the ousted chief executive officer of Fannie Mae, the biggest source of money for U.S. home mortgages, also won a Rhodes. While the majority of Rhodes scholars don’t go into finance, John Templeton stands out for his wealth and is probably the richest Rhodes, the Schaepers say.
The 93-year-old founder of Templeton Worldwide Inc., the money management firm acquired by Franklin Resources Inc. in 1992, says he earned the nickname the “Marco Polo of the class of 1934” by traveling east for six months through 18 nations of Europe and Asia with two other Oxford students.
He saved up slightly more than 100 pounds for the journey by playing poker. They slept on deck when traveling by ship and ate fruit, vegetables and day-old bread to save money.
“This education in thrift prepared me for a career of selling advice to wealthy families by searching for stocks whose basic value seemed to be many times greater than the market price,” Templeton says.
`Change the World’
Five years later, Templeton started on Wall Street by borrowing money to buy 100 shares in each of 104 companies that were trading at or below $1 a share. He generated average annual returns of 15 percent during the 38 years he managed the Templeton Growth Fund, became a British subject in the 1970s and was knighted in 1987.
Rhodes applicants rarely express financial ambitions during interviews, says Elliot Gerson, American secretary of the Rhodes Trust. “It would be very unusual and surprising to hear a Rhodes applicant say, I want to be a CEO for a major company,” says Gerson, 52, a Harvard graduate and 1974 Rhodes winner.
He says interviewing potential Rhodes scholars is an antidote to cynicism that can accompany aging. “These remarkable kids each year all believe they can change the world, and many of them will,” he says.
At Yale, with 208 winners compared with CUNY’s five, Rhodes winner Cate Frieman, 22, says she got encouragement at every step. Adviser Mark Bauer helped her shape ideas into a personal statement with the words, “Elegance is nice, but precision is better,” and returned about 10,000 e-mails and cell phone calls, she says.
Frieman pored through folders filled with observations and actual questions asked of previous Yale applicants and practiced articulating her positions before attending Rhodes receptions and cocktail parties.
Frieman says she took into account Bauer’s advice for dress and behavior: “Not too short, not too low-cut, and don’t actually drink the cocktails,” although she felt comfortable enough to drink a glass of California chardonnay with dinner.
During the final reception at the 125-year-old St. Botolph Club in Boston, Frieman recalls watching in horror as a judge on the selection committee asked a finalist his opinion of gay marriage.
“The poor kid squirmed and tried not to answer for a solid 10 minutes,” Frieman says. “It was obvious that the judge was just chatting and got really annoyed with this guy for not answering. It got me to thinking, they are looking for people with opinions and beliefs who think in-depth but also somewhat critically.”
Harvard’s Rahman describes getting advice from both a fellowship office and a graduate student, known as a house adviser, living in his residential house.
The two CUNY students say they didn’t have that kind of institutional support. “House adviser?” Shenderov says. “We don’t have a house. We don’t even have dorms.”
Shenderov is using his newfound publicity as a Rhodes scholar to seek funding for the biochemistry lab at Brooklyn College, a few blocks from the home where he grew up.
Shenderov came to the U.S. with his physicist father and chemist mother at the age of seven to receive treatment for leukemia he had developed because of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and he spent his elementary school years in virtual isolation because of immune system deficiencies.
Private universities have produced 68 percent of U.S. Rhodes winners since 1990, Rhodes Trust data show. Among public schools, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has moved out front with nine since 1990, followed by six for the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the all-time leader among public schools, with 45.
Some schools are becoming Rhodes powerhouses, including Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, with 15 winners since 1990, and Georgetown University in Washington and the University of Chicago, both with 13.
Soldiers and sailors in training excel at winning Rhodes scholarships because they attend schools designed to train leaders, Gerson says. The U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis won three in November, bringing its all-time total to 37. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point has won 82 Rhodes.
Cecil Rhodes spent his own seven years at Oxford shuttling back and forth to the frontier town of Kimberley in South Africa, where diamonds were discovered in 1867 and where he later founded De Beers Consolidated Mines Ltd., the world’s biggest diamond company.
At Oxford, Rhodes carried a supply of uncut diamonds instead of cash or a checkbook, showing them off to his classmates and selling them when he needed cash, his biographers wrote.
Rhodes obtained a royal charter for a British South Africa Co. to administer the territory eventually named for him, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). When he died in 1902, Rhodes left most of his fortune — valued at just less than 4 million pounds — to create the fellowships.
The trust is now valued at 130 million pounds ($250 million), says Colin Lucas, the warden at Rhodes House, the scholarship’s administrative office in Oxford.
Goldman Sachs Group Inc., the world’s third-largest securities firm by capital, has been hired to manage the money, Lucas says. Lucas van Praag, a Goldman spokesman in New York, declined to comment.
Colleges trying to create a track record of winning Rhodes scholarships say everything from workshops on current events to practice interviews and receptions can help.
`Icing on the Cake’
At Clemson University in Clemson, South Carolina, President James Barker has made winning two scholarships part of his 10- year plan, and the school has had three finalists since 1996, says Stephen Wainscott, director of the honors college.
“Winning a Rhodes will do as much for us as a championship in football,” Wainscott says. “It’s emblematic and symbolic. It’s the icing on the cake. My job is to build the cake.”
Eighty-six percent of the members of the National Association of Fellowships Advisors say they are creating separate office space along with financial and staff support because their schools consider it a priority, association director McCray says.
At Utah State University, President Kermit Hall created a year-long class on how to compete for scholarships such as the Rhodes. After a 2003 win, the school adopted a new slogan for its Web site, “The Cradle of Rhodes Scholars,” and it unveiled a wall with plaques honoring the seven winners.
$1 Million Check
And Indiana University of Pennsylvania hopes a Rhodes will mean a $1 million check from alumnus and benefactor Robert E. Cook, the chairman of Sigaba Corp., an e-mail security company based in San Mateo, California, who said he’d donate the money if the school has a winner.
Schools that want to win a Rhodes can follow what happened at Boston College, a Jesuit Catholic institution where the average SAT score of entering freshmen has increased more than 100 points during the past 10 years to 1317 from 1210.
Gifts — including $10 million from Mario Gabelli, founder of Rye, New York-based money manager Gabelli Asset Management Inc. — funded the scholars program attended by Rhodes winners Paul Taylor and Brett Honeycutt and came as the school made a concerted effort to raise its academic profile and win fellowships of all kinds.
All the fuss means little to Honeycutt now that he’s at Oxford. “Rhodes brings a lot of status in the States, but this is a place where we are just pretty average,” he says.
That won’t stop Boston College professor Hafner from visiting dormitories in the hope of finding the next winner. It won’t slow CUNY chancellor Goldstein from boasting to potential donors.
And it won’t discourage Lev Sviridov, who says he’s received more than 200 phone calls and e-mails from CUNY students thanking him for putting CUNY back on the map. “I’ll be in the same book with people like Bill Clinton,” he says. For now, that’s riches enough.
To contact the reporter on this story:
Liz Willen in New York at [email protected]
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Ronald Henkoff in New York [email protected]
Last Updated: December 29, 2004 00:30 EST