CHANDRA: Rhodes to prestige

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

Yale College has a very specific mission, outlined in its mission statement. Why, then, would the College — and the University as a whole — publicly sing praises for those of its students who act outside the spirit of that mission?

Last week, the year’s 32 American winners of the Rhodes Scholarship, widely considered the most prestigious award for further studies, were announced. Three of them are Yalies. Like other universities, Yale revels in its Rhodes victories — and understandably so. A university’s Rhodes count is an external measure of its students’ abilities. And so Yale heralds its scholars on the front page of its website; in past years, Dean Mary Miller has noted our Rhodes count in emails to parents.

A divergence of principles, however, separates the mission of the College from the motivation of most Rhodes applicants; this mismatch calls into question Yale’s celebration of its Rhodes Scholars. The College’s stated purpose is “the cultivation of citizens … to lead and serve.” Therefore, when Yale accords institutional recognition to its Rhodes Scholars, the implication is that these are individuals particularly poised for leadership and service. I have no doubt that Rhodes Scholars possess these abilities in abundance. But in many cases, it seems to me that Rhodes applicants are attracted to the scholarship primarily for its prestige. To be sure, there is nothing necessarily wrong with pursuing prestige. We all love it. It can help advance our careers; it can help us get more and better dates. But the deliberate pursuit of prestige is outside, and arguably even against, the mission of the College.

Before going further, a disclaimer: I have never applied for and have no plans of applying for the Rhodes.

So how do I know that many among those who do apply for the Rhodes are motivated primarily by prestige? Applicants themselves will often tell you that their desire to go to Oxford stemmed chiefly from their eagerness to win the Rhodes. Now, usually, a scholarship is supposed to serve as a means for achieving an end: money given for attaining some purpose. But with applicants for the Rhodes, it seems that the end (an Oxford education) is secondary to the means (a prestigious scholarship).

Rhodes applicants willingly incur tremendous opportunity costs, even though there are less onerous alternatives that offer equivalent service and leadership-oriented gains. David Carel ’13, one of Yale’s nine Rhodes winners from last year, offered a sense of the costs involved in an interview with the News. Applying for the scholarship, he stated, is “only a couple months process but it sort of feels like a lifetime … I probably wrote about 26 drafts of my personal statement.”

One can only wonder: Why? Why, my dear boy, would you do that to yourself? Why would you and others expend months of your lives — often neglecting classes, improv groups, sports practices, even romances — to put together an application that requires, amongst other excesses, a minimum of five letters of recommendation, and has a four percent chance of success? If applicants to the Rhodes were primarily interested in leadership or service, particularly of an academic kind, why would they not just apply to the other, equally well-endowed and less-competitive, scholarships to Oxford? UCS has an entire list of these. Why wouldn’t they just apply to American graduate programs, often as good or better than Oxford’s? A desire for the Rhodes prestige, it seems to me, is the reason.

The responsibility for the premium placed on prestige lies with all of us. Consider that when it comes to Rhodes Scholars, people rarely say, “So-and-so person is going to do an M. Phil in such-and-such at Oxford … and, by the way, he’s a Rhodes Scholar.” Instead they cackle: “She’s a Rhodes Scholar!” and by then the scholar is too covered under drool for much else to be said or done.

Let me be clear about what I am not saying. I am not insinuating that the active pursuit of prestige necessarily takes away from a Rhodes Scholar’s ability to lead or to serve. Nor am I suggesting that Rhodes Scholars are intrinsically prestige-hungry. But I do think that the Rhodes applicant is driven primarily by a desire for prestige, and such a motivation does not fit the spirit of our College’s mission: leadership and service.

So what am I proposing? I am proposing that Yale celebrate Rhodes Scholars in a manner commensurate with their motivations. Should Yale really celebrate a student’s ability to massage his own ego? Should it highlight its most brazenly and successfully prestige-seeking students?

I, for one, don’t think so.

Perhaps Yale ought to distinguish between those tapped for prestigious awards, and those who actively seek them out. Nobel and MacArthur Award winners, for instance, are tapped; one just happens to win a Nobel for one’s deeds. In contrast, to win a Rhodes you must aggressively apply for it. On a broader level, it is not necessarily to Yale’s credit that so many of its students, year after year, seek out and actively accrue marks of prestige: The Rhodes, but also the Marshall, the Truman and other such names.

Yet, if Yale wants to continue trumpeting its Rhodes Scholars, perhaps an amendment in its mission statement is in order. Currently, the College seeks “the cultivation of citizens” who will “lead and serve.” Going forward, perhaps the statement ought to also encourage the gratuitous pursuit of prestige.

Abhimanyu Chandra is a senior in Branford College. Contact him at abhimanyu.chandra@yale.edu.

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