Interview with Elizabeth Kiss

The next warden of Rhodes House on growing up in a family of political refugees and why universities must prepare graduates to be good citizens

March 8, 2018
Elizabeth Kiss
Source: Rhodes House

Elizabeth Kiss is president of Agnes Scott College, in Georgia in the US. She was recently appointed the next warden of Rhodes House at the University of Oxford. It is the home of the Rhodes Trust, which offers postgraduate scholarships to exceptional students from around the world. Professor Kiss studied at Davidson College, in North Carolina, before becoming a Rhodes scholar and reading philosophy at Oxford. Her research focuses on moral and political philosophy.

Where and when were you born?
I was born in an immigrant neighbourhood in New York City in 1961. My parents and two older sisters came to the US as refugees after the 1956 Hungarian revolution. So my first language was Hungarian and I learned English when I started kindergarten. 

How has this shaped you?
Being the “American kid” in a family of refugees and political prisoners (my father was imprisoned in Hungary by both the Nazi and communist regimes) and growing up bilingual in a multicultural neighbourhood gave me experience from an early age of straddling different worlds. My best friends in the first grade were a diverse bunch, including a girl from Japan and a boy from the Dominican Republic. And my sisters, who were 11 and 14 years older, brought 1960s music and activism into our lives. So it was a rich and wonderful mix and it sparked my interest in ethics, politics and human rights.

Your research focuses on moral and political philosophy, including moral education. Do you think that universities have a duty to teach and cultivate morality and ethics?
I believe that higher education’s mission is not only to foster knowledge but to prepare graduates to be good citizens, which makes moral education integral to our work. In fact, we engage in it whether or not we realise it through how and what we teach, the institutional cultures that we foster, and the ways that we model expertise and professionalism, all of which have a profound impact on our students. But the best examples are colleges and universities that take a holistic approach, combining an institutional culture of high moral aspiration with diverse opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom, for students to reflect on and argue about ethical issues, practise leadership and cultivate moral imagination.

What is the biggest misconception about your field of study?
A lot of people think that philosophy students can’t get jobs! Florida senator Marco Rubio infamously quipped during one of the US Republican presidential debates: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and fewer philosophers.” As Forbes magazine quickly pointed out, philosophers on average make 78 per cent more than welders. Philosophy teaches essential skills vital to any profession or leadership role, including writing, critical thinking and analysis. It also cultivates habits of reflection and self-examination, which the world needs more than ever. 

Liberal arts colleges in the US are often perceived as being elite and lacking diversity. How did Agnes Scott College become labelled one of the “most diversified” institutions in the country under your leadership?
I think that’s an outdated perception. Even the most elite colleges have become quite diverse and, as a sector, small private colleges in the US enrol a higher percentage of low-income, first-generation students and students of colour than large public institutions – and have better graduation rates for these students. Agnes Scott received the “most diversified” label because of the demographic changes that we’ve achieved over the past two decades, the result of intentional efforts to recruit a more diverse student body. Today, no racial or ethnic group is in the majority among students, with one-third being African American, one-third white, and Hispanics, Asians and international students each representing about one-tenth. It creates an extraordinarily vibrant learning environment. 

What kind of undergraduate were you?
I had a wonderfully diverse group of friends, edited the college newspaper, played the piano and was a bit of an activist. A group I was part of established Davidson College’s Amnesty International chapter, which I’m proud to say is still going strong. Studying in Paris during my third year was a transformative experience. And being part of a warm, close-knit campus community was incredibly important as I dealt with the death of my sister, in my first year, and my father, in my final year.  

You became the first female Rhodes scholar from your university. How did this impact on you?
My selection was a symbolic moment for Davidson, which had admitted women only a decade earlier. So there was a lovely and quite overwhelming response from the wider Davidson community. Going to Oxford was an extraordinary experience. I had the privilege of being exposed to a vibrant and collegial group of world-class scholars working on important normative questions, people such as Amartya Sen, G.A. Cohen, Ronald Dworkin, Alan Ryan and Derek Parfit. It was an intellectual feast that continues to inspire me. Oxford gave me a global group of friends in many different fields – a far more diverse network than I would have developed in a US graduate programme. I had many memorable experiences, from earning my blades as a Balliol rower and trekking in Nepal with seven other students, to visiting more than a dozen Gothic cathedrals.

Which key attributes do you look for when selecting Rhodes scholars? And what sort of leaders are you hoping to create?
Our applicants all have superb academic records yet we also look for something more – that special spark: young people with broad intellectual curiosity, compassion and authenticity, and the skills and instincts to serve and to lead. Rhodes scholars pursue diverse fields of study and careers. But whatever field they enter, our goal is to inspire them to make a difference, to tackle the world’s challenges and to act with courage, conviction and creativity.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

Appointments

Wing Lam has been appointed the new provost and chief executive officer of the University of Reading Malaysia, replacing Tony Downes, who retires on 30 April. Dr Lam was most recently the vice-chancellor and chief executive officer of GlobalNxt University in Malaysia. He had a consulting career with Accenture, International Computers Limited (now Fujitsu) and Logica, before moving into higher education. Vincenzo Raimo, pro-vice-chancellor (global engagement) and chair of the university’s company board in Malaysia, said: “With his experience of the region and its education sector, Wing clearly has the credentials to help us grow our student numbers and the university’s presence and reputation in the region and beyond.”

Sara de Freitas will join the University of Cumbria as deputy vice-chancellor (academic) at the start of March. She returns to the UK from Murdoch University in Australia, where she was pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching, and replaces Trish Livesey, who retires in June. Professor de Freitas said that: “The University of Cumbria has many strengths to build on, not least its commitment to high-quality education and widening participation, connections to the local area and relationships with external partners.” Cumbria has also announced Jean Brown as university secretary and Robin Casson as head of academic partnerships and skills. 

Joe Smith is the new director of the Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers). A professor of environment and society and head of geography at The Open University, Professor Smith will replace Dr Rita Gardner on 1 May. 

Christopher Welch, chief scientific officer for Welch Innovation LLC, will join the University of Notre Dame, Indiana University and Purdue University as director of the Indiana Consortium for the Analytical Sciences. 

Luiz DaSilva, chair of telecommunications at Trinity College Dublin, has been appointed head of the CONNECT research centre at Trinity. 

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