Ronald Crutcher said hello, put out his hand and sat down to speak to the oil company CEO seated across from him.
Crutcher was head of School of Music at the University of Texas at the time, and he had come seeking funding for a scholarship for violin students. The CEO, a man Crutcher didn’t name, spoke first.
“I had no idea you were Black,” he said.
Those seven words became the title of Crutcher’s memoir, chronicling his youth in Cincinnati, five years lived in Germany and his time as president at Wheaton College and the University of Richmond. Crutcher intends to step down from his post in Richmond next year.
Crutcher was taken aback by the CEO’s comment, but he restrained his emotions. Then the man spoke about how there were too few Black string players and said he wanted to nurture artists from different backgrounds. Soon the two men had bonded over their love of classical music.
The moment has become a lesson for his students. “What specifically do you find offensive?” he asks them. “How would you have responded?” Throughout his memoir, Crutcher confronts the sometimes complex issues of race, feeling out of place, cancel culture and affirmative action.
Crutcher grew up in a middle-class neighborhood in Cincinnati, where his dad instilled in him a sense of discipline. His father, Andrew, enlisted in the army in the middle of World War II and was dispatched to the South Pacific. He was assigned to the motor corps, driving the bodies of fallen soldiers through the jungles of the Philippines to be flown back to their families.
After the war, he went to work at a factory, eventually becoming a manager. Crutcher’s mother, Burdella, worked at a hospital but became a stay-at-home mom when Crutcher was a child.
At age 6, Crutcher started singing and taking piano lessons. Immersing himself in music at a young age seemed normal. At Zion Baptist Church, where he attended early-morning services, everyone sang.
In junior high school, the band director asked if anyone wanted to learn to play an instrument. Crutcher’s hand shot up. He chose the cello, and when he was 14, a faculty member at Miami University of Ohio offered to teach him for free.
It was obvious Crutcher had a talent for the instrument, but he took his ability for granted, he said in an interview. “I didn’t think of it as something special.”
A year later, his father took out a loan to buy him an $800 Roman Teller cello, which would be nearly $7,000 in today’s dollars. Crutcher eventually earned his Ph.D. in music from Yale and joined the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.
While earning his Ph.D., he accepted a Fulbright Fellowship in Germany, where he lived for five years.
In the United States, white people peppered him with questions that felt invasive. Some assumed he grew up in a ghetto. He often felt different and feared being viewed as an “other.”
In Germany, he wrote, Blacks were not ostracized.
“I’d arrived as a young man, hyperconscious about my race, and feeling that it separated me from everyone,” he wrote. “Five years later, I felt more European than American, and for the first time in my life race no longer dominated my psyche.”
Germany has tried to grapple with its racist past in a way Americans have not, he said.
Crutcher briefly addressed Richmond’s effort to tear down its Confederate monuments in 2020. He believes the graffiti covering Robert E. Lee’s pedestal tells a story that should be memorialized.
“But I can’t help feeling perplexed by what cropped up in its place — people barbecuing and blasting music throughout the night, driven by a free-floating rage that seems to be building toward — what? No goal I can see, other than vague demands to ‘defund the police,’ ” he wrote.
Asked about this comment in the interview, Crutcher gave a more forgiving answer.
“Most of the people there were demonstrating for the right reasons, but you’re always going to have people on the fringes,” he said.
Demonstrators in Richmond captured the attention of the world in an attempt to address systemic racism, he said. But government, business and other leaders need to collaborate to realize more change.
Crutcher returned to his alma mater, Miami University of Ohio, in 1999 as the school’s provost. He invited a journalist named Charlayne Hunter-Gault to speak to the students. Living in South Africa at the time, Hunter-Gault would travel 24 hours to reach Miami.
She had never met Crutcher before, but she looked him up on the internet and was so taken by what she read, she made the trip.
Soon, she felt a bond develop with Crutcher. Both of their fathers served in the Army, and both of their mothers refused to accept the doctrine of “separate but equal.”
Their journeys as Black people, Hunter-Gault wrote in the book’s foreword, taught us to learn how their people made a way out of no way and whose “lessons in dignified endurance informed our journey.”
In 2004, Crutcher became president of Wheaton College in Massachusetts. He prioritized diversifying the faculty, but one professor later claimed the university had hired Black faculty who were less qualified than white candidates. Crutcher wrote that while he knows he benefited from affirmative action, the practice “turned into a weapon undercutting the very people it was meant to lift up.”
Because some white people assume affirmative action gives preference to less-qualified minorities, Black people are left justifying their employment.
When he was head of the Music School at Texas, a musician he knew told him, “It’s obvious to me that you’re going to be a college president.”
Crutcher had never seriously considered the idea before. But the comment got him thinking, and seven years later, he became the president at Wheaton. Richmond named him its president in 2015. He turns 74 on Saturday and has announced his intention to step down in 2022.
Talking openly about race or politics on college campuses has become more difficult, he wrote. In 2018, he invited former George W. Bush adviser Karl Rove to speak at Richmond, and he received pushback from members of the faculty. People like Rove shouldn’t be invited to campus, one professor said.
“The politics and rhetoric now inflaming the nation have spilled over to foment a climate of campus unrest at such a decibel level that even the most innocent inquiry becomes suspect,” Crutcher wrote.
To be clear, the notion of “cancel culture” is overblown to some extent, he said in an interview. But it definitely exists, and social media perpetuates it, allowing people to self-select the opinions they want to hear. If you dislike your friend’s political opinion, you can unfriend him.
Crutcher understands people are worried about the deep politicization of the country. He believes his life is an example of how people can come together. The key is getting people of different backgrounds, races or political parties to sit down, talk and try to understand one another.
“In my experience,” he wrote, “intergroup dialog is the best pathway toward changing hearts and thus deepening a collective understanding of the impact of racism on daily life in America.”
After he steps down from the presidency, Crutcher and his wife, Betty Neal Crutcher, will take a sabbatical in Germany. Then Crutcher will return to the University of Richmond to teach music. He has no plans to retire or to leave the conversation.