Rhodes Rhetoric

Brass Tacks

IF HARVARD is your friend, you can dispense with your enemies. The University had a chance to use its fine name and brute power, and, to put it bluntly, the University blew it.

Last month, Harvard got its liberal self together and decided to "endorse" three women for Rhodes scholarships. Well, sort of endorse. Last week, President Horner explained that the University did not "officially" endorse the women's applications; instead, Horner and President Bok sent a joint letter to the state committees and Rhodes trustees asking them to look at the applications. The letter also urged that pressure be brought to bear on the British Parliament to change the law that restricts the Rhodes to men.

And what action would Harvard take to help bring pressure to bear? Well, when you actually come right down to it...we uh...thought uh...the trustees are the only ones who can legally change...

It's easy to hedge on the Rhodes. All you have to say is that the legal nuances are very complex, and that no one is certain how to go about altering uncle Cecil's last will and testament. But the legal argument is an evasive argument.

PEOPLE OPPOSED TO social change often argue that disobeying the law is not the best way to bring about reform. But men did not make laws to act as obstacles to a moral society. Laws reflect the moral tenor of society, and an obsolete law is never changed unless people act to oppose it.


The U.S. Supreme Court repudiated the spirit of the 14th amendment in 1896, when it ruled in Plessy vs. Ferguson that "separate but equal" facilities for blacks and whites were legal. Brown vs. Board of Education took race relations in an entirely different direction in 1954. The 1954 Court acted only after someone challenged the legality and the morality of the law.

The Rhodes scholarship is not a universal law governing society, but it requires no less scrutiny. Harvard, as the most potent university in the Rhodes constellation (more Rhodes are awarded to Harvard applicants than any other group), could force the Rhodes trustees to accept women by boycotting the scholarship. And if Harvard could convince other universities to follow its lead, the Rhodes trustees would find themselves without men or women applicants.

Sir Edgar Williams, one of the British trustees, reportedly does not oppose awarding the scholarships to women. Williams needs only a gentle push, not a harsh shove. Harvard needs only challenge the Rhodes selection process, not act as Parliament, judge and Cecil Rhodes.