Generalmarshallletter

A Brief History of the Marshall Scholarship

In the early 1950s, as countries were navigating the political dynamics of the postwar world, the United Kingdom was eager to retain and strengthen its close association with its wartime ally, the United States. The United States had recently gifted Europe a massive amount of foreign aid through the Economic Recovery Program (ERP), better known as the Marshall Plan. The UK Foreign Office wanted to send a thank you.

Eventually, after considering competing proposals (such as gifting an original copy of the Magna Carta and sending chandeliers for the newly refurbished White House), the Foreign Office settled on an idea to start a UK scholarship program for American students. The man who proposed the idea, Sir Roger Mellor Makins, then Deputy Undersecretary of State, suggested the scholarship be named after the aid program’s namesake, General George C. Marshall.

Makins was himself personally connected to the United States through his American wife, Alice Brooks Davis (daughter of former U.S. Secretary of War, Dwight F. Davis). He believed in the long-term value of Anglo-American accord, and while the primary impetus behind the Marshall Scholarship was gratitude for Marshall Aid, Makins (and others) also hoped it would produce a positive effect on Anglo-American relations in perpetuity. It is for this reason that the Marshall Scholarship, unique among its peer scholarships at the time, was enshrined in an Act of Parliament – something the founders knew would be tremendously difficult to undo.

Makins’ very first pitch was a modest six two-year scholarships, open to men and women, to the University of Cambridge. Very soon, Cambridge was replaced by a free choice of university within the UK, and six scholarships became twelve. This formed the basic blueprint of the program.

After three debates within Winston Churchill’s cabinet, Secretary of State Anthony Eden presented a White Paper for the Scholarship to Parliament in May 1953. Soon after, on 31 July 1953, the Marshall Aid Commemoration Act became British law. It established the Marshall Aid Commemoration Commission (MACC) to manage the Scholarships under the chairmanship of Sir Oliver Franks, who had been British Ambassador in Washington while the Marshall Plan was in operation. By agreement, the Association of Universities of the British Commonwealth (now the Association of Commonwealth Universities) provided the secretariat for the new MACC and John Foster, the Association's Secretary General, became the MACC’s first Executive Secretary. Makins, meanwhile, managed the process in the United States, where he had just been named Ambassador. Together, Franks, Foster, and Makins oversaw the Scholarship during its first few critical years. They filled the ranks of selection committees and the Advisory Council in Washington with high-profile and prominent Americans, who reviewed and interviewed the applications for the first Marshall Scholarships.

In the first year, seven hundred students applied for the new awards, seventy-four were interviewed, and twelve were ultimately offered Scholarships (eight men and four women). Two were Stanford graduates, with Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Dartmouth, Harvard, Kentucky, Oberlin, Princeton, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin providing the remainder. Upon their arrival to the UK’s shores on the Queen Elizabeth on 4 October 1954, the group was welcomed by a throng of BBC journalists looking to interview the newly-minted Scholars. Four Scholars elected to go to London (all to the London School of Economics), four to Oxford, and one each to Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow and Manchester. Seven used their Scholarship to study for a graduate degree, the remainder a second BA.

The 1953 Act set up four regional selection committees based in New York, New Orleans, Chicago and San Francisco to interview candidates and make recommendations to a national Advisory Council chaired by the British Ambassador. The Advisory Council was to review the regional recommendations and prepare a national list of recommended candidates that it would refer to the MACC for final approval. The basic structure of the program remains the same, though some elements of the process have changed significantly. Regional selection committees still review and interview candidates, though there are now eight regional centres (instead of four) based on the Consulates General in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco and the British Embassy in Washington DC. Further, while the MACC and Advisory Council still review and approve regional committees’ recommendations, tentative offers are delivered to candidates soon after interviewing in the Fall (previously, it took until the Spring!).

In the first year, seven hundred students applied for the new awards, seventy-four were interviewed, and twelve were ultimately offered Scholarships (eight men and four women). Two were Stanford graduates, with Bowdoin, Bryn Mawr, Dartmouth, Harvard, Kentucky, Oberlin, Princeton, Utah, Virginia and Wisconsin providing the remainder. Upon their arrival to the UK’s shores on the Queen Elizabeth on 4 October 1954, the group was welcomed by a throng of BBC journalists looking to interview the newly-minted Scholars. Four Scholars elected to go to London (all to the London School of Economics), four to Oxford, and one each to Bristol, Cambridge, Glasgow and Manchester. Seven used their Scholarship to study for a graduate degree, the remainder a second BA.

Three other major changes since the inception of the Marshall program include the dramatic increase in the number of Marshall Scholarships, additional selection criteria, and (relatedly) a more diverse set of career paths of Scholarship recipients.

The number of new awards increased from twelve to twenty-four in 1960, to thirty in 1973, up to forty Scholarships in 1991, and up to forty-four between 2004 and 2007. In 2019, forty-eight Scholarships were offered.

Early selection criteria and standards favored a deeply traditional formulation of the scholar-ambassador and scholar-leader. The Scholarship – unforeseen by the founders – began producing a disproportionately large number of individuals in academia. Over 60% of Scholars from the first decade of the Scholarship spent the majority of their professional lives in higher education and research (this number jumps to 70% when part-career academics are factored in). Partly as a response, the Scholarship program, upon recognizing this trend in the 1970s, added selection criteria like “impact” and “the capacity to play an active part in [university] life” (despite the facts that academics had certainly produced impact and had participated in university life!). Over time, these two additional criteria have since morphed into “leadership potential” and “ambassadorial potential,” which are featured on the current application. Academic achievement remains an important criterion, but it is now one of three.  

As a consequence of these changes in criteria and (perhaps more) as a reflection of American society itself, Marshall Scholars and their career paths have diversified immensely over the last several decades. Today the Scholarship selects candidates from a wide range of disciplines, who in turn pursue an even wider set of careers following their Scholarships. Academics are now joined by visual and performance artists, businesspeople, financiers, government servants, politicians, entrepreneurs, educators, scientists, physicians, and lawyers, among many others.

Aroop Mukharji (2010), author of Diplomas and Diplomacy: The History of the Marshall Scholarship (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016), available here.