Oxford Is About Transitions And Not For Everyone

To the editors:

I take exception to the op-ed “Oxford Blues” (Feb. 26) by Melissa Dell and Swati Mylavarapu. It reflects certain misunderstandings harbored by a small percentage of American post-graduates at Oxford (or Cambridge, or frankly at any other European University). It is regrettable if it misleads or discourages the vast majority of Americans whose experiences in Oxford are superb, and who have expectations equally high but more realistic.

As the American officer of the Rhodes Trust who manages the annual competition and who also advises Scholars, I find that American students face four central challenges when they enter Oxford: They are making a transition from undergraduate to graduate work; they are making a transition from one university system to a quite different other; they are making a transition from one country to another, also quite different despite the common language; and finally, they have high expectations of themselves but may not always realize that others also have those expectations of them.

Both the Warden of Rhodes House and I try to impress upon new Rhodes Scholars that things in Oxford are therefore likely to be very different from what they were accustomed to as American undergraduates. They are going to need to understand how others from other cultures think and behave and they need to be able to adapt to those differences. The marked differences between, say, Harvard and Oxford, usually prove to be a source of extraordinary benefit and considerable joy, but not for everyone, especially if one matriculates at Oxford with false expectations or for the wrong reasons.

Frequently when Americans develop such attitudes, I find they had begun their studies in Oxford with great uncertainty regarding their degree course. Some uncertainty is common and expected for Americans. Given the differences between the countries’ systems of undergraduate education, most Americans are technically qualified to pursue a wide range of Oxford masters degrees. And when, as is common, they plan to do their doctoral degree back in the United States, the wealth of Oxford’s offerings can for a few be crippling rather than exhilarating, and delays and indecision regarding the optimal course can be wasteful in time and emotion.

Moreover, despite the best efforts of our selectors, some Rhodes Scholars venture to Oxford for the wrong reasons. (One of the disadvantages attached to the fame of the Rhodes Scholarships, as Dell and Mylavarapu note, is that some seek the honor and not the degree. Dell and Mylavarapu end their article with the advice that one should “not apply unless you are ready to study and live in Oxford.” It is astonishing to think this might need be said to anyone).

One unambiguous indication of how the views expressed by Dell and Mylavarapu are not representative is that there are now more American Rhodes Scholars choosing to remain at Oxford for the full three years of Rhodes financial support (rather than one or two) than at any time in our hundred-year plus history. (That stipend is, by the way, still extremely generous by any international comparison, and more than adequate to cover all annual expenses except for those who travel the world extensively during vacations).

Their article suggests that Oxford was not the optimal place for either, which is regrettable, and clearly it is not right for everyone, as we never tire of advising—but that is unlikely to have been Oxford’s (or Harvard’s) fault.


Vienna, Va.

February 26, 2007

The writer is the American Secretary of the Rhodes Trust.