(update: Purdue provides statement)

Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University and the former governor of Indiana, told students during an informal conversation that an African American scholar he was attempting to recruit was “one of the rarest creatures in America.” After a few weeks of controversy, he has now apologized and said his word choice was “clumsy.”

Wednesday’s apology came a few weeks after the Purdue Exponent, the school’s independent newspaper, reported that Daniels made the comment during a conversation with several students in a campus hallway after a Nov. 21 meeting of the Purdue Student Government, which Daniels attended. One of the students in the hallway discussion asked Daniels about the public research university’s efforts with minority students.

His response drew a reaction from Black Student Union President D’Yan Berry. The Exponent reported the conversation this way:

“I will be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America: a leading, I mean a really leading African American scholar,” he said.
“Creatures?” echoed D’Yan Berry, president of the Black Student Union. “Come on.”
“It’s a figure of speech, you must have taken some literature,” he said. “One of the rarest, let me say, rarest birds, rarest, rarest, rarest phenomena.”
“Person,” Berry responded. “Students. It’s words to make us humanized.”

A few days after the November discussion with students, Daniels was quoted by the Journal & Courier as saying: “I’ve never felt so misunderstood before.”

Amid growing criticism of his comments, Daniels emailed a note of apology to several campus organizations Wednesday. The apology, first reported by the Exponent and then provided by Purdue officials, said in part that Daniels’s reference was “in praise of a specific individual and the unique and exciting possibility of bringing that particular individual to Purdue.”

“The word in question was ill chosen and imprecise and, in retrospect, too capable of being misunderstood,” the email said. “I accept accountability for the poor judgment involved.”

Daniels had attended the student government meeting after an October incident in which a Purdue student at a CVS was said to have been denied nonprescription cold medicine after he was told his Puerto Rican driver’s license was not sufficient identification and was then asked about his immigration status, according to the Journal & Courier. CVS later apologized to the student and his mother and said it was an isolated incident, the Daily News reported.

Daniels refers to this incident in the email he sent to these organizations: the campus NAACP chapter, the Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff, the Latino Faculty and Staff Association, the Black Student Union, and the Latino Student Union, the Exponent reported. Here’s his complete message:

“I retract and apologize for a figure of speech I used in a recent impromptu dialogue with students. My reference was in praise of a specific individual and the unique and exciting possibility of bringing that particular individual to Purdue. I wasn’t talking about any group or making generalizations. The word in question was ill chosen and imprecise and, in retrospect, too capable of being misunderstood. I accept accountability for the poor judgment involved.
“To be clear, I sincerely believe that individuals of every race and ethnicity are capable of and demonstrate academic excellence and achieve top recognition in all of the academic disciplines. I also recognize that more needs to be done to recruit, support and encourage individuals from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education. My word choice, as clumsy as it was, was an expression of my excitement with the progress of one such effort.
“While I am reviewing past judgment calls, I regret not making some kind of statement at the time of the CVS incident that precipitated the impromptu dialogue and therefore the misunderstanding. It would have been possible to express the genuine concern we all felt without condemning prematurely any individual or local business establishment before the facts were known. That was a misjudgment on my part and a lesson for the future. Sincerely, Mitch.”