When Purdue’s president said this, I had to respond because this myth is so pervasive.
Dr. Starr is the president of Pomona College.
This essay has been updated to reflect news developments.
In late November, the president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, told students that he will soon “be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America — a leading, I mean a really leading, African-American scholar.”
“Creatures?” a student asked. “Come on.”
“It’s a figure of speech. You must have taken some literature,” Mr. Daniels said. “One of the rarest, let me say, rarest birds, rarest, rarest, rarest phenomena.”
In just a few sentences, Mr. Daniels seemed to question the possibility of sustained black excellence. In response to the uproar that swiftly followed, he complained that he had “never felt so misunderstood” and that he had simply used a “figure of speech.” On Wednesday, he apologized and retracted the statement.
When I learned about Mr. Daniels’s words from another African-American scholar on my own campus, I felt indignant but also constrained. The standard etiquette for college presidents, like me, is to let the remarks of another leader pass on by.
Even though he apologized, I can’t do that. The idea that scholars of color are rare is a damaging fiction. Yet it’s pervasive in academia, causing untold damage. It allows some faculty deans to simply throw up their hands and give up on their recruitment efforts. It leads to small recruitment budgets for minority candidates.
It means some disciplines structurally ignore the presence of brilliant candidates of color, believing, contrary to their own eyes, that none exist. It means that another generation of younger scholars may think it’s impossible ever to lead. It means lost creativity, delayed discoveries and fewer transformative ideas of the kind our world desperately needs. And for those who want to maintain the status quo, mission accomplished.
Figures of speech matter, because they may shape our thoughts, set our expectations and quickly lead us to dangerous places as a society. When a group is stripped of their humanity through language, they are easier to exclude or hate.
This is in no way a comprehensive list of leading African-American scholars, but I have to stop somewhere. The talented scholars leading historically black colleges have underscored this point for nearly 200 years. As colleagues, we must commit to an honest and rigorous review of the evidence before us and, as scholars, we uphold a simple standard: When we don’t know, we have the curiosity and humility to ask.
As an English professor, I also know that metaphors are intended to have multiple meanings and that hurt and belittling are among them. Animal metaphors can simultaneously assert the dominance of the declarer while diminishing the declared: Women? Dogs. Black people? Monkeys. Immigrants? Vermin.
Pointing this out is not an exercise in hypersensitivity. Telling the truth — without hiding ugly realities in polite silence — is the very thing that some critics of higher education claim to do. However, speaking out is only the beginning of an education. The most insidious metaphors have a way of getting into the walls, corners and attics of our discourse. The least we can do is switch on the lights.
G. Gabrielle Starr is the president of Pomona College and a professor of English and neuroscience.