Prof Maylam reflects on Rhodes history

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Rhodes University Emeritus Professor Paul Maylam delivered a keynote address focused on Rhodes University’s history from the early 1900s to more recent times.

He was speaking during the Women’s Academic Solidarity Association (WASA) 10th anniversary celebrations on National Women’s Day recently.

He said that a conservative institutional culture prevailed for many years at Rhodes. Rhodes was founded, quite overtly, as an imperial university, and this shaped this culture in the early decades of the institution.

Rhodes has sometimes been called ‘Oxford in the veld’ – a label of pride for some, but also a derogatory term for others. As at Oxford the study of classics was pre-eminent at Rhodes in the early years, and the two universities shared a similar culture, with an emphasis on organised sport and less organised frivolity.  

Rhodes has a long history of sexism, which in these early years was prim and quaint: for instance, women and men students had to enter the main building through separate entrances, men from the right and women from the left.

There was for long discrimination against women academics, with married women being ineligible for academic posts. The most crass example of sexism was the so-called ‘Athies auction’ when first-year women students in Atherstone House were auctioned to senior male students to be slaves for a day – to raise funds for rag.

However in the 1970s feminist groups began to emerge. Existing practices came to be questioned, and some feminist thinking crept into the discourse of the university.

Prof Maylam is engaged in research towards a history of Rhodes University. He said the proposed study would reflect his own ambivalent experience and understanding of the university – an institution which has greatly enriched his life as a student and an academic, but also one which needs to be examined critically. 

At the event women academics gave some powerful personal testimonies, reflecting on their own experiences at Rhodes and the particular difficulties and hardships that they had endured.

By Sanele Ntshingana