Cambridge University been criticised for appointing a white academic to oversee its study into the institution's historic links with slavery.
It was announced this week that Professor Martin Millett will head a two-year investigation into Cambridge's contribution to the slave trade.
The university described it as a bid to "acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history".
But Trevor Philips, the former chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission, said it was "bizarre" that the university had not given the job to a black academic.
And he said that Cambridge University would be making a more useful contribution by commissioning research into modern-day problems faced by people from ethnic minorities, such as discrimination resulting from the use of artificial intelligence.
Mr Philips told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It is bizarre that, if they are trying to send a signal about what they are like, they couldn't find a black academic to lead this.
"That would have sent a great signal to the world that Cambridge understands that black folks are not just great entertainers or sportspeople, but that we can also be brainy."
Mr Philips named the philosopher Professor Kwame Anthony Appiah and the author Professor David Dabydeen as examples of academics from ethnic minority backgrounds who could have been chosen to head the study.
"I've got nothing against the guy they have put in charge, but he is an expert on Roman archaeology," said Mr Philips. "It just seems bizarre."
A University of Cambridge spokesman responded: "The panel represents a diverse range of experience - with five out of eight members from a BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) background.
"The investigation will also be drawing on the wide views of the BAME academic community.
“The role of the chair is to facilitate, not direct, the investigation and ensure all views are brought to the fore."
Announcing the study earlier this week, Cambridge vice-chancellor Professor Stephen Toope said: "There is growing public and academic interest in the links between the older British universities and the slave trade, and it is only right that Cambridge should look into its own exposure to the profits of coerced labour during the colonial period.
"We cannot change the past, but nor should we seek to hide from it. I hope this process will help the University understand and acknowledge its role during that dark phase of human history."