Elizabeth Kiss, head of the Rhodes scholarship programme, has refused to change its name on the grounds that it would be “running away” from the legacy of colonialism.
Professor Kiss said she would resist all pressure from campaigners to remove the name of Cecil Rhodes from the prestigious programme that awards scholarships for international graduates to study at Oxford University.
Campaigners of “Rhodes Must Fall” argue that Cecil Rhodes, the man who precipitated apartheid in South Africa, should not be celebrated.
As well as renaming the 117-year-old scholarship, the campaign unsuccessfully called for his statue to be removed from Oriel College.
Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford (RMFO) is a strand of the South African-born movement determined to “decolonise the institutional structures and physical space in Oxford and beyond.”
The RMFO seek to address Oxford’s colonial legacy on three levels: challenge colonial iconography that seeks to whitewash and distort history, reform the Eurocentric curriculum to improve the selective nature of traditional academia, and address the underrepresentation and lack of welfare provision for BME staff and students.
Professor Kiss became the first female warden of Rhodes House in Oxford last August, philosophy, Professor taking responsibility for the scholarships. A former Rhodes Scholar herself and a specialist in moral and political Kiss joins the likes of Bill Clinton and former Australian PM Tony Abbott.
Professor Kiss said: “If we change the name, what do we gain? The legacy is still there. You are just running away from it.
“All of us, not just Rhodes scholars, are products and beneficiaries of very morally complex legacies. However, in bearing the name, Rhodes scholars are challenged continually to confront that and engage with it.”
Established to promote unity between English-speaking nations and instil a sense of civic-minded leadership and moral fortitude in future leaders, the programme has faced adversity because of Rhodes’ white supremacist belief and legacy of colonialism.
The Rhodes Trust has been moving away from Rhodes’ original vision for the scholarship. While Cecil Rhodes wanted to develop a cadre of scholarly Anglo-Saxons, women and ethnic minorities are now included.
In this year’s cohort, not only do women outnumber men, but although the majority of Rhodes scholars are American, there are now scholars from China, the Gulf states, the Middle East, and Africa.
According to their website, the Rhodes Trust “brings together and develops exceptional people from all over the world, and in all fields of study, who are impatient with the way things are and have the courage to act.”
This defence of the Rhodes legacy follows three years of relative silence on the subject.
Oxford students attempted to expunge Cecil Rhodes from history in 2016 following the successful campaign to remove his statue at the University of Cape Town.
Students sought to pressure Oriel College to remove his statute from college grounds. In January 2016, a debate at the Oxford Union, students voted 245 to 212 in favour of removing the statue.
Oriel agreed to seek permission to remove a plaque paying tribute to Rhodes, but ultimately the statue continued its hundred-year stint, having been displayed since 1906.
The campaign received similar criticism at the time. Lord Willetts, the minister for universities and science from 2010 to 2014, said it would be odd for Oxford to bow to the protesters’ demands.
According to Lord Willetts, former MP of Havant, Oxford’s academics and administrators would do better to introduce forward-looking reforms to admit more black and ethnic minority students and offer more opportunities to researchers from Africa and the developing world.
Cecil Rhodes, mining magnate and politician, founded De Beers in 1888 and served as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony from 1890 to 1896.
An ardent believer in British imperialism, Rhodes and his British South Africa Company founded the southern African territory of Rhodesia.
An alumnus of Oriel College, Rhodes left the college £100,000 in his will.
A large proportion of this, £40,000, was to finance the construction of a new building on the High Street completed in 1911, which is where his statue can be found.
Rhodes is widely regarded by historians as a chief architect of apartheid, having been at the centre of actions to marginalise the black population in South Africa.