We have previously discussed how universities are removing portraits of their founders or their most accomplished figures because they are white males. The latest such example is Rockefeller University and the Howard Hughes Medical Institute where neurobiologist Leslie Vosshall announced that a wall displaying portraits of the winners of the prestigious winners of the Nobel Prize and the Lasker Award must be changed. The problem is that they are the wrong race and gender so a committee is expected to order the design of the wall. The “problem” was identified by MSNBC host Rachel Maddow who gave an award for leading female scientists and derisively referred to the portraits by asked “What is up with the dude wall?” Now the “Dude Wall” will be changed in a move that raises real concerns over the growing trend toward removing historical portraits in colleges to achieve diversity.
As academics, we are committed to the pursuit of knowledge and celebrate those who made substantial contributions to the advancement of such knowledge. The fact that they are males is immaterial to their extraordinary accomplishments. However, they are viewed by some as first and foremost white men.
Vosshall explained “One hundred percent of them are men. It’s probably 30 headshots of 30 men. So it’s imposing. I think every institution needs to go out into the hallway and ask, ‘What kind of message are we sending?'”
Well, the most obvious message is the celebration of genius and the pursuit of knowledge. Women and men can both take inspiration from geniuses who preceded them at the university.
Yet, Vosshall says that Maddow’s remark prompted her and other to seek the removal of the offensive portraits” “It just sends the message, every day when you walk by it, that science consists of old white men.”
The university insists that other pictures of the winners will be displayed even though the portraits are removed. This will allow for additional winners and a more diverse array of pictures. The account of the university seems divergent from the account of Professor Vosshall on NPR, but either way the “Dude Wall” is history.
As if often the case, universities form committees to study such issues and they are often populated by those who take injury from such displays. Other academics are reluctant to confront such colleagues and be labeled as insensitive. The result always seems to be the same: removal of pictures based on gender and race of those pictures. Since these portraits reflect objective and major contributions to their fields, the act itself is the definition of sexism and racism. It is ignoring the accomplishments that led to the portraits because the academics are the wrong race and gender. This of course only works one way. What is another host offensively referred to a wall honoring female scientists as the “Chick Wall”? Would the response be to call a panel to look into removing the wall or lamenting the message an all gender display sends? Both references treat those honored as first and foremost defined by their gender and use terms meant to belittle who they are or what they accomplished.
Thankfully sexist and racist barriers have been removed from admission to our top academic programs. With many female and minority academicians in these fields, it is only a matter of time when additional portraits of Noble and Lasker winners will be raised with the images of non-males and non-whites. They will be honored in the same way and join other intellectuals not on the “Dude Wall” but the “Genius Wall.”