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Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, should be fired. That’s a statement I don’t make lightly. It’s also a statement I don’t make because of Daniels’ idiotic comments demeaning historian Howard Zinn. Instead, the problem with Daniels is his failure to understand or protect academic freedom, which is one of the fundamental principles of a university and a basic part of the job description for a university president.
This week, the Associated Press published emails from Daniels’ time as governor that revealed his hatred of Zinn. On Feb. 9, 2010, Daniels was inspired by obituaries about Zinn to write a memo to top state education officials noting that “This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” Apparently referring to Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, Daniels wrote, “It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that it is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”
Upon learning that Zinn’s work was being used at Indiana University for a professional development course for teachers on the Civil Rights, feminist and labor movements, Daniels wrote, “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?”
David Shane, described by the AP as ”a top fundraiser and state school board member,” responded to Daniels with a plan to “quietly” do “a ‘what’s needed’ list (subject matter knowledge plus results-focused pedagogy) & then ‘survey’ each of the major institutions & see how it matches up. Would force to daylight a lot of the excrement.” The fact that Shane wanted to do this “quietly” (meaning, without any educational experts standing in the way) and that he put “survey” in quotation marks suggests that this was just a scam to seek out liberal views in education schools and try to suppress them.
Daniels embraced Shane’s plan: “Go for it. Disqualify propaganda…” It’s not clear if Daniels’ underlings ever actually did anything, but Daniels’ intent was quite clear: a political purge of any left-wing teaching. Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, called it “a back-channel effort by the governor to limit access to ideas.”
I don’t want to defend Zinn’s reputation, because others are more capable than me of doing so. Like many historians who write for a popular audience, and who express strong opinions, Zinn had his detractors. But I know of no academic except Daniels who imagines that Zinn purposefully lied in his work.
I believe that academic freedom protects everyone at a university, including college presidents. I believe Daniels should be free to express his incredibly stupid views about Zinn, without fear of any retaliation. But what Daniels did as governor went far beyond expression. He actively suppressed academic freedom. Had Daniels’ actions (not his views) been known at the time he was being considered to become president, it is doubtful that any responsible Board of Trustees would have hired him. The fact that these actions remained secret until now should not be used in his defense. If he did not deserve to be hired, and continues to defend his actions as governor without apology, then he deserves to be fired.
Yes, it is more than a little repulsive to know that the governor of a state took the opportunity of a historian’s passing to celebrate his death and then seek to have him banished from every educational institution in the state. The problem here is not Daniels’ dancing on Zinn’s grave (which is protected by academic freedom), but his effort to take a shovel to the career of anyone in the state of Indiana who supported Zinn’s approach to history.
Today, Daniels claimed to Inside Higher Ed, “If Howard Zinn had been a tenured professor on this campus, I would have defended anything he would have wanted to write, but not to be immune from criticism.” Really?
In response to the AP, Daniels sent an email: “We must not falsely teach American history in our schools. Howard Zinn, by his own admission a biased writer, purposely falsified American history. His books have no more place in Indiana history classrooms than phrenology or Lysenkoism would in our biology classes or the ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ in world history courses. We have a law requiring state textbook oversight to guard against frauds like Zinn, and it was encouraging to find that no Hoosier school district had inflicted his book on its students.”
If Daniels genuinely believed that Zinn was a “fraud” who “purposely falsified American history” then it would be a dereliction of duty if Daniels did not pursue efforts to punish a professor like that. Either Daniels was lying when he called Zinn a “fraud,” or he was lying when he said he would protect the academic freedom of a professor like Zinn.
And since Daniels believes that Zinn’s work is the equivalent of phrenology and “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” which has no place in “Indiana history classrooms,” it’s hard to believe he would support allowing Zinn’s work in college history classrooms.
Daniels claimed about Zinn, “no one credible defended his versions of history.” Actually, plenty of excellent scholars do. The fact that Daniels would make such an extraordinarily broad claim indicates not merely his ignorance of the field of history, but also his willingness to infringe the academic freedom of any scholars who praise Zinn. By asserting that “no one credible” defends Zinn, that would seem to indicate that any professor who might do so is illegitimate. And certainly any professor at Purdue who agrees with Zinn would have good reason to fear a president who thinks this work is academic fraud.
It’s also alarming that Daniels doesn’t back down at all from his attacks on academic freedom. According to Inside Higher Ed,
Daniels repeated his contention from the Zinn email exchanges that “there is need for a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in teaching of our professions.”
Even worse, Daniels seems to think that academic freedom does not apply to education programs. IHE noted that Daniels
said that his concern about Zinn was appropriate because elementary and secondary school teachers were taking professional development courses at public universities that could have been teaching Zinn’s work, and he did not want these teachers — and their students — exposed to “falsifications” of history. He said that there was “no implication for academic freedom” from his inquiries, and that no efforts were made to stop Zinn from being taught in higher education…
Contrary to what Daniels imagines, professional development courses for K-12 teachers taught by university professors are, in fact, a part of higher education, and Daniels’ attempt to suppress this teaching is a violation of the academic freedom of higher education professors. (Not to mention the fact that we should worry about someone like Daniels who thinks that K-12 teachers aren’t even entitled to the pretense of academic freedom that he offers to college professors.)
Back in January, I wrote on Academe Blog about Daniels’ letter to the Purdue community, criticizing some of his ideas but noting “positive elements” such as his statement on academic freedom:
A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate. It is the wellspring of advancing knowledge and the rationale for academic freedom. No one can expect his views to be free from vigorous challenge, but all must feel completely safe in speaking out. One can hope for a climate of courtesy and civility, and “speech” that attempts to silence or intimidate others must be confronted strongly, but the ensuring of free expression is paramount. This is, if anything, even more important when the point of the expression is to criticize decisions of the university administration itself.
I wrote, “It’s rare today to hear a college president explicitly defend the importance of protecting academic freedom for those who criticize college presidents.” But the man who explicitly defended freedom of expression to criticize administrators was, in reality, ruthless in dealing with his academic critics when he was governor.
The AP story noted,
in April 2009, Daniels called for an audit and possible funding cut for a program run by Charles Little, executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association and a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Little had been highly critical of Daniels’ education overhaul in internal emails and he often critiqued the governor’s performance at public meetings.
I concluded in my blog post, “If Daniels is willing to live up to his words, if he is willing to take left-wing critiques of higher education as seriously as the right-wing ones, and if he is willing to find some fault with his fellow politicians rather than exclusively with academics, then Daniels has the potential to be an excellent college president rather than just another politician hired to curry favor with Republicans.”
Now it’s clear that Daniels all along was just another lying politician, a hypocrite willing to spout off about academic freedom when it makes him look good, while behind the scenes he doesn’t believe in the concept for those with views he dislikes. Daniels is an unrepentant enemy of academic freedom, and he has no business being a university president.