Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University and former governor of Indiana, released a letter Wednesday distancing his institution from the student protest movements taking place elsewhere around the country.
The statement, addressed to the Purdue community, begins: “Events this week at the University of Missouri and Yale University should remind us all of the importance of absolute fidelity to our shared values.”
“First, that we strive constantly to be, without exception, a welcoming, inclusive and discrimination-free community, where each person is respected and treated with dignity,” it continues. “Second, to be steadfast in preserving academic freedom and individual liberty.”
Daniels goes on to highlight the university’s commitment to “protecting free speech,” as underscored two years ago by a student-led initiative resulting in the “We Are Purdue Statement of Values.”
“What a proud contrast to the environments that appear to prevail at places like Missouri and Yale,” Daniels writes.
The university president has been applauded for the statement, which some saw as a defiant contrast to other recent actions by top university administrators such as the resignation of University of Missouri System president Tim Wolfe.
Praised by a Wall Street Journal opinion piece as a rare “adult on campus,” Daniels also garnered support from Twitter users who called his letter a courageous defense of free speech.
Others, on the other hand, pointed out the irony of Daniels’s claim that Purdue is “discrimination-free,” and accused him of trying to preempt a protest on his own campus.
“What on earth is a university president doing, sending this email?” tweeted Roxane Gay, a writer and English professor at Purdue.
Students at Purdue are organizing a Mizzou solidarity rally for Friday afternoon. The Lafayette Journal & Courier reports that the event was planned on Wednesday night, the same day Daniels released his statement.
Organizers are spreading the message through the hashtag #HowManyMoreFires, a reference to 2013 protests held on the campus called “The Fire this Time” — an echo of James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.”
In December of last year, Dave Bangert, a columnist for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, pointed out that Purdue has been no stranger to racial incidents and accompanying protests.
During a #PurdueCan’tBreathe march last December in which demonstrators chanted “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot,” other students could reportedly be heard admonishing them from a distance.
“Don’t they have better things to do?” onlookers asked. “Who do they think’s going to listen?”
In 2012, the N-word was scrawled in black marker over a memorial photo of Dr. Cornell Bell, an African American business professor who focused on minority recruitment. Later that year, Twitter accounts with the handles @OrientalSwag and @Purdue_Asian mocked Asian accents and Asian American stereotypes.
“I sreep for entire crass & stir get better grades than you! :D”, one tweet read.
Similar to protesters at Missouri and Yale — as well as at Georgetown and Emory, now, among others — students at Purdue had a list of demands for the administration which included doubling the number of minority faculty and students, requiring racial sensitivity workshops and mandating expulsion for racist acts.
These suggested actions were raised as early as 2013, then once more last year.
While some are incensed by what they view as Daniels’s attempt to hide a history of racial tension no less salient than that of other campuses, others are simply befuddled by what they read as equivocation on the university president’s part.
“At first glance, he is appearing to take a stance against the racism at places like Mizzou, but by including Yale in his statements he seems to be making a veiled argument against activism that criticizes racist actions,” Purdue graduate student Wes Bishop told the Lafayette Journal & Courier. “I personally think it is a case of speaking out of both sides of your mouth.”
This assessment is in keeping with Daniels’s political reputation. As Indiana governor, he was considered a “middle-of-the-road Republican,” “a sober moderate.” He disappointed many when he announced that he would not be running in the 2012 presidential race. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat wrote in 2010 that conservatives regarded Daniels as someone who would be “the best president of any of them” among a group of possible candidates that included Mitty Romney, Mike Huckabee and Bobby Jindal.
One tweet this week offered a throwback to that period of Daniels’s life: “His letter to Purdue is worth reading but I’m sad looking at the words ‘President Mitch Daniels.’ #WhatMightHaveBeen.”
But Daniels’s political record has previously raised questions about his commitment to academic freedom.
The Associated Press reported in 2013 that during his governorship, Daniels had sent e-mails to a state school board member asking for the removal of Howard Zinn’s textbook “The People’s History of the United States” from all Indiana classrooms.
Zinn was a noted political scientist whose book presented a history of how the American majority has long been exploited by an elite minority. His death in 2010 prompted Daniels’s e-mails.
“The terrible anti-American academic finally passed away,” the then-governor wrote. “The obits and commentaries mentioned that his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page.”
The AP’s investigation into the e-mails prompted 90 Purdue professors to sign an open letter expressing concern that Daniels attempted to censor an academic text while he was governor.
In response, Daniels wrote a letter noting, “I have never made any suggestion that any university cease teaching whatever its faculty pleases, or cease using any book.”