From Rhodes Scholar to first female Warden of Rhodes House: A conversation with Dr. Elizabeth Kiss

Interviews Profile

Image Credit: Elizabeth Kiss

Dr. Elizabeth Kiss is the CEO and first female Warden of Rhodes House. Having received her BA in Philosophy, magna cum laude, from Davidson College, North Carolina, in the 1980s, she   became the College’s first female Rhodes Scholar. Whilst at Oxford, she received a BPhil and DPhil in Philosophy and met her future husband Jeff Holzgrefe, an International Relations scholar. Dr Kiss has taught at Randolph-Macon College (Virginia), Deep Springs College (California) and Princeton University for eight years. Her academic focus has been on moral and political philosophy. Her last post before becoming the Warden of Rhodes House this past summer, was as President of Agnes Scott College in Georgia, a position she held for twelve years. Agnes Scott College was named the second “Most Diversified College in America” by Time Magazine, and Dr. Kiss herself was named by the Chronicle of Higher Education on the list of most influential people in U.S. higher education for 2017. She has held leadership roles in organisations like the Climate Leadership Network and the Woman’s College Coalition amongst others. During her absence from the UK, she has continued to mentor Rhodes applicants for over 25 years and served 22 years on the Rhodes House selection committee. 

According to the Rhodes House mission statement:

“The Rhodes Scholarships are postgraduate awards supporting outstanding all-round students at the University of Oxford, and providing transformative opportunities for exceptional individuals. Rhodes Scholars are selected on the criteria of outstanding intellect and on qualities of character, leadership and commitment to service. Established in 1903, the Rhodes is the oldest and perhaps the most prestigious international graduate scholarship programme in the world.” 

Well known Rhodes Scholars include Bill Clinton (former U.S. President), and three Australian former Prime Ministers: Bob Hawke, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull.  In recent years, Cecil Rhodes, the founder of the scholarship has been a figure of controversy in Oxford and in the wider world, particularly due to his role in the slave trade. Moreover, the Rhodes Scholarship itself has sometimes been criticised for previously excluding women and opening applications only to those from Commonwealth countries, Germany and the U.S.

I find Rhodes House on South Parks Road, a dome shaped structure which stands out from the plethora of science departments surrounding it. I am taken through to Dr. Kiss’ study and I accept a coffee. I start by asking her how she feels about coming back to Rhodes House having been a Scholar here previously. She says, “I had a wonderful experience as a Rhodes Scholar and in Oxford, I made life-long friends…I had an incredible kind of intellectual experience here; it was really stimulating. I read Philosophy and did my BPhil and DPhil. I met my husband, I had lots of great adventures, but my life was not at all connected to Rhodes House when I was here. You know, Rhodes House was a very different place; it was a lot less dynamic and vibrant, and there were Scholars from my era who got to know the warden a little better than I did, but I came here [Rhodes House] just a couple of times, and so it’s both lovely to be back and it’s especially wonderful to be back in a place that has changed so dramatically from when I was here.”

I ask Elizabeth how she feels about Cecil Rhodes’ legacy and the origin of the scholarship. She says, “We have a lot of dialogues and conversations about that…everyone is complex, no person is perfect; the world is very nuanced and so with Cecil himself, the fact is, that he did have this brilliant idea for a global scholarship and it was the first in the world.” She continues by saying, “Our commitment is to make the Rhodes Scholarship something that really speaks to the challenges of the 21st century. We have very diverse Scholars from all over the world – we work really hard to constantly expand globally and also to make sure that our selection processes are really inclusive and pay attention to that… we do live in a world of complex legacies and we’re all beneficiaries of very complicated and sometimes very unattractive pasts. So, it’s all part of the conversation here.”

My next question concerns the future of Rhodes House and what she hopes to bring to the community as the new Warden. She tells me, “It’s very different from when I was here in the 1980s; every Scholar is in a college and we want them to be totally involved with their colleges and they are. But we want them also to feel like Rhodes House is their home and it is a place where they can come and get guidance and support and connect with friends.” She continues, “Global expansion – it has been for the past five or six years a huge priority for the trust and I definitely want to continue that. So that is one of the high priorities for the future and it’s very exciting…we will have 100 new Rhodes Scholars starting a year from now, which is the first time ever that we’ve hit that…another high priority for me is how we leverage our broader community of Rhodes Scholars, and also some other fellowship programmes that we’re closely connected with, to create a basis or foundation for impact in the world.”

We talk about creating this global platform for the Rhodes Community when ‘Senior Scholars’ (alumni) hold different viewpoints. She says, “I feel like we will always have diversity of views across the Rhodes Scholarship community and that’s actually a good thing, I mean, because we don’t want to have a narrow ideological slant…and you know we also look for people who have good character, but there’s lots of ways in which people who fit that profile can disagree on policy in politics, and I actually think that’s healthy.”

I ask her whether she feels the Rhodes Scholarship opened doors for her. She tells me, ‘So my family were Hungarian refugees. I grew up in very modest circumstances but my parents were really passionate about education…one of the great pleasures for me has been finding that really bright, dynamic student and saying to them, ‘You know you should apply for the Rhodes.’ That happened to me in my second year of a four-year course in the U.S.…this professor said, ‘You should apply for the Rhodes’ and I was like, ‘really?’ and now I’ve sort of paid that forward across generations.”

We chat about her commitments outside of the sphere of education; “I do think I enjoy trying to make things happen and working with other people to make things happen. So, I think some of that is kind of just my core…for instance, I was very involved in climate change and environmental issues in the U.S. and I actually hope to figure out ways in which, over time, I can get involved here too, because I think it’s such an important issue…So often I think we can feel powerless in the face of these big challenges and so part of what I’ve tried to do in my life, and in my career, is to find that way in which I can make a difference.”

I ask her also how she feels about her role as the first female Warden of Rhodes House and balancing a busy schedule. She tells me, “Yes, I think you try to balance it and, being a woman, you know there have been times where I’ve felt like ‘oof’ – do I have time to do this? But then I think, I would be one of the first women and it is really important if given the opportunity that we step up…obviously we should try to open doors – not just wait for the door to open!”

Finally, we talk about what characteristics she feels are shared by all Rhodes Scholars throughout the years. She says, “We certainly have Rhodes Scholars who are incredible thought leaders and Scholars who have done great ground-breaking work. In basic science, the inventor of Penicillin was a Rhodes Scholar, so there’s certainly these incredible people who were deep experts. But I think that even our Scholars who are those deep experts are kind of drawn to think of the bigger picture. Whether it’s to communicate their science to broader audiences or to think about how their science can solve important global issues…So I think that is one of the classic features – it’s what we are looking for as people who are drawn to those bigger questions and challenges, and to thinking systematically about the world.”