No Rhodes Lead to College Park

February 4, 2011

The Road to the University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins

University of Maryland President's Residence, June 11, 2010. Donald Earl Collins. Note the Maryland flag colored shell on the Terrapin (turtle).

Three years ago I did an interview at the University of Maryland for a director position with their National Scholarships Office. It was a day-long interview that went from 9 am until 6:30 pm, meeting faculty and administrators throughout the nine-and-a-half-hour process.

It was one of my best interviews. I didn’t feel like I made any obvious errors, and I genuinely liked all of the people I met that day. But there was one question, one topic, that felt out-of-place, awkward, even stupid as part of the discussion of this position. It was the question, “If you get this job, can you guarantee that the University of Maryland will have a Rhodes Scholarship winner in five years?”

I was almost speechless after hearing the question. Not because I didn’t have confidence in my abilities to detect academic excellence or strong leadership skills in students. Not because I didn’t think I could handle the job. Mostly, I just thought that it would be ridiculous for any responsible professional to guarantee a prize like a Rhodes Scholarship based on variables beyond their control. “I can guarantee that I can get more students into the pipeline for a Rhodes, but I think it would be foolhardy for me to guarantee that I could get a Rhodes Scholarship in two or five years.”

Former U.S. Representative Tom McMillen, a Rhodes Scholar, NBA player, and alumnus of the University of Maryland, 2008. BGervais. Creator has granted permision for free use via Creative Commons.The conversation continued over the next fifteen minutes between me, another director and two deans. I discussed other important scholarships and fellowships. Fulbright. Truman, Mellon Mays, Ford Foundation, and so on. But the conversation returned three times to the mandate of then President Mote and his emphasis on raising Maryland’s prestige by having a student win a Rhodes Scholarship. After all, the university had not had a Rhodes Scholarship winner since basketball star Tom McMillen won the award in ’74. One administrator actually said, “We see no reason why we couldn’t do as well as the University of Michigan.”

I thought, “Wow! He said that with a straight face!” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. It was as if I was listening to my ex-stepfather talk about how great a father he was while his kids were running around 616 with graying drawers and grumbling stomachs. Given the state of the scholarships office at the University of Maryland, they weren’t ready to compete with the University of Pittsburgh yet, much less the most prestigious land-grant public university in the country, and arguably the world. I graduated with and found myself in the same classes with one Rhodes Scholar when I was an undergrad at Pitt, and knew a finalist for the scholarship when I was a grad student there as well. And Pitt had nowhere near the academic reputation in ’91 or ’94 that it had earned by 2008.

I nudged the administrators who were interviewing me to think more systematically about how the scholarships office at the University of Maryland should go about setting goals. That a university must build its reputation for high-achieving students over time, so that its Rhodes Scholarship candidates will survive to at least be finalists in the process. That our competition was more the University of Virginia or University of Delaware or even Johns Hopkins before setting goals on par with the University of Michigan.

I obviously didn’t get the job. Given that conversation, though, I wasn’t sure if I wanted the job. The university found someone who had previous experience working in a university scholarships office. As with most staff positions at universities, experience working as a staff member (considered different from faculty, in case folks don’t know the difference) is more important than nonprofit management or academic teaching experience. I was definitely disappointed.

Still,  I wanted the challenge of creating a more academically enriching environment at the University of Maryland. And after three years of teaching in the University System of Maryland (via University of Maryland University College), I’ve taught enough College Park students to know that much work remains to create the kind of university necessary to produce Rhodes Scholars. Who knows? Maybe Maryland will have its first Rhodes Scholar recipient in thirty-seven years this spring. However, given the split personality of both the campus and the academic culture there, I seriously doubt it.

Where Grace and Rhodes Meet

May 4, 2010

In the past couple of weeks, two incidents have occurred that have brought attention to race and intelligence in America — again. One really is an incident, though, while the other is a continuing conversation about the head-scratching that goes on when someone personifies the idea of the anti-stereotype in a world full of them. Both make me cringe, even as I know that people like me can’t allow others to define us.

Over the past week, there’s been a minor firestorm blowing over comments from the soon-to-be Harvard Law School graduate, the amazing Stephanie Grace. She inserted foot-in-mouth — or, rather, fingers up her butt — regarding her wanting to keep open the option of the possibility that African Americans may be predisposed to being intellectually inferior to Whites. The fact that she sent this out to the Black Law Student Association at Harvard as an email was somewhere between foolish and obnoxiously audacious. The contents of her email, a display of the thoughts of someone about to begin a federal clerkship in the next few months is disturbing. It’s not just because Grace has spent the past three years at Harvard Law. It’s also because she spent that time there in a school with the likes of Charles Ogletree, Lani Guinier, and Randall Kennedy — all Black or Biracial — teaching there.

There will be no rationale refuting Grace’s idiotic email here, because my own very existence as a writer, professor and educator — not to mention the millions of highly educated people of color like me — should be enough. But for folks whose minds remain mesmerized by the eugenics movement and Nazi experiments in the first half of the twentieth century, no amount of evidence against their racist views would be enough.

Just ask Myron Rolle. He was the last person drafted in the sixth round of the NFL draft that occurred a little more than a week ago. All because he took a year off from playing football at the end of his college experience at Florida State University to — of all things — go to Oxford University in the UK to study medical anthropology for a year as a Rhodes Scholar! Rolle became the 207th overall pick because NFL geniuses in the front office suspected that the future neurosurgeon had a mixed set of priorities, that he couldn’t both play football and be interested in another demanding and rewarding career that would require raw intellectual talent. Teams passed on him because he accepted a Rhodes Scholarship and decided to postpone playing in the NFL for a year.

A scholarship that only former NBA players like Bill Bradley and Tom McMillen, and former NFL quarterback Pat Haden were able to obtain. Not to mention such luminaries as former POTUS Bill Clinton, Susan Rice (high-level official in the State Department under the Obama Administration), Newark mayor Cory Booker, and MSNBC commentator and host Rachel Maddow. But, I guess African American male athletes are only supposed to eat a bag full of oats and then run a 4.3-40-yard-dash, rather than explore the neurology of the human brain.

Former Baltimore Ravens coach Brian Billick insinuated that NFL players can’t be thinkers, at least intellectual ones, because that would mean they would get clobbered playing the game. Other coaches and GMs simply questioned Rolle’s commitment. I question their faulty and bigoted logic. It’s not every day that a Black athlete at a NCAA Division I football school can flex his intellectual muscles as easily as he can bench press 400 or 500 pounds. Maybe that’s what was so scary about Rolle.

Except that it shouldn’t have been scary at all. Indianapolis Colts star Peyton Manning stayed an extra year at the University of Tennessee, and not just to use up his last year of eligibility. Having finished his bachelor’s degree in four years (he was red-shirted his freshman year), Manning spent his fifth year working on a master’s degree. Hall of Famer Steve Young worked on a law degree at Stanford while playing for the San Francisco 49ers, during a stretch that included a Super Bowl win. But Rolle isn’t any of those guys. They’re White, and quarterbacks at that. They need to be smart. Cornerbacks in the NFL, on the other hand, don’t need to use their brains to read the difference between a screen pass, an out route, a go route or a skinny post, right?

What both cases show is that there’s an alarming portion of our population who find it easier to believe that African Americans have low intellectual potential. What’s even more significant, though, is that many of these same folks become agitated, even fearful, of educated Blacks, particularly Blacks who are their intellectual superiors. It’s an agitation I’ve been all too familiar with for nearly twenty years. With White professors who’ve allowed students to speak racial stereotypes to and about me in their classrooms, who’ve accused me of plagiarism, and refused to help me find a job because they thought I would just get one because I’m Black. With White supervisors who’ve accused me of being everything but a child of God because they thought I was after their job, or used me as part of a dog-and-pony show to get money from corporate funders. It’s something that I don’t expect to go away anytime in the immediate future.

Which is why I found it astounding to read a comment on another blog about the Stephanie Grace issue last week. A recent law school graduate talking about his experience as a young African American male lawyer, in which he felt he had to constantly disprove stereotypes while proving himself at some New York law firm. He advised folks thinking about becoming lawyers to not pursue the profession, which is about as sane as saying that melanin, genetics and intelligence are inextricably linked.

Even in the absence of racism, we all have to compete, to prove ourselves, to overcome in order to be successful in this world. It’s not about others bigotry and their attempts to stifle your success or career. It’s about proving to yourself how good you are, about how successful you can be, in law or any other field. Not to mention giving yourself financial security, finding work that you can be passionate about (even when it doesn’t bring riches), taking care of your family and yourself, helping other cope and be successful in an insane world. You can’t avoid idiots. I learned that ages ago, the hard way, with my former advisor Joe Trotter at Carnegie Mellon, who, by the way, is African American. We have to keep walking our path, to get beyond the corner of Grace and Rhodes, in order to be to Colossus we hope we are.


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