Mitch Daniels Responds to Purdue Faculty

Mitch Daniels wrote a response (full text below) to the 90 Purdue professors who wrote to him about the controversy over Howard Zinn. Daniels claimed, “I have never made any suggestion that any university cease teaching whatever its faculty pleases, or cease using any book.” He apparently does not recall his demand in the original emails that the state stop allowing university faculty to teach Zinn’s book in professional development programs.

Daniels also declared, “I believe other, more mainstream textbooks should be used in Hoosier K-12 schools.” This statement shows just how narrow-minded Daniels’ approach to K-12 education is. Why should only one mainstream point of view be allowed in schools? Why can’t K-12 schools be more like higher education and allow a wide range of ideas to be heard?

Daniels wrote, “Most important, no one tried to ‘censor’ anyone’s right to express any opinion they might hold. As many others have observed, this was a careless and inappropriate use of that inflammatory word.” As far as we know, Daniels’ demand for censorship of Zinn’s book was not put into practice only because Zinn’s book wasn’t being used in any Indiana school, not because Daniels opposed censorship. The word “censor” was an entirely accurate and appropriate word for what Daniels sought and has continued to defend.

Worst of all, Daniels took this opportunity to make one more misguided attack on Zinn that suggests a deep misunderstanding of academic freedom and the scholarly work of a university:

Prof. Zinn’s disdain for the idea of objective truth went far beyond American history. In his essay, “The Uses of Scholarship”, Prof. Zinn criticized “disinterested scholarship,” “objective study” and the “scientific method” across the disciplines, thus attacking the foundations of Purdue’s entire research enterprise.

This is absolutely false. Zinn’s brilliant critique of whether scholarship can be objective and disinterested is not an attack on the foundations of Purdue’s “entire research enterprise,” it is a fundamental kind of good research. By writing this, Daniels seems to be suggesting that any professor who fails to use “scientific method” or who criticizes the idea of objectivity, is not actually engaged in research. And since research is essential to getting tenure and promotion at Purdue, this statement (whether intentional or not) suggests that Purdue will be imposing a peculiar right-wing agenda in evaluating faculty, to purge anyone who agrees with Zinn’s critique of traditional scholarship.

As Zinn pointed out in his essay, “There is no question then of a ‘disinterested’ university, only a question about what kinds of interests the university will serve.” Sadly, Mitch Daniels keeps indicating what kinds of interests he wants Purdue University to serve, and criticism of the status quo is not part of it.

 

Response to Purdue Faculty
By Mitch Daniels

Dear Colleagues:

I appreciate your thoughtful letter received this morning, and your giving me this opportunity to respond.

While more extensive exchanges may ultimately be useful, in the interest of responsiveness let me reply in brief fashion today, as your eloquently expressed concerns can be addressed straightforwardly. The short answer is that we are in strong general agreement, much more so than your letter suggests.

1. I am not only in agreement but passionately dedicated to the freest realm of inquiry possible at Purdue. My every word and action to date does I believe support my commitment to this outlook; in fact, we have been examining all existing policies to see if our protection of free speech on the campus needs strengthening in any way. I have never made any suggestion that any university cease teaching whatever its faculty pleases, or cease using any book.

2. I support the tenure system as a protection of academic freedom. There is nothing in my open letter to the contrary, and it is a complete misunderstanding, innocent I am sure, of my letter to assert anything different. I have nothing to do with faculty tenure and promotion decisions and would never seek any role. I have already made it plain that, were Howard Zinn a faculty member, I would defend ardently his right to express his views and publish his particular form of scholarship.

3. I understand fully that there are multiple competing theories of historiography, and of the proper understanding of American history in specific. On this campus, all should be free to contend, with the beneficial consequences your letter discusses. I do respectfully disagree that Prof. Zinn’s work is as widely accepted or as mainstream as you portray it. By his own avowal, it expresses his biases in what it includes and just as notably in what it omits. That is why it has been criticized all across the ideological spectrum, including by so many who share his strongly negative view of the American experiment. That is also why I believe other, more mainstream textbooks should be used in Hoosier K-12 schools, a position that apparently every school board in the state to date shares and has adopted.

One of many faculty members who wrote me supportive messages pointed out that Prof. Zinn’s disdain for the idea of objective truth went far beyond American history. In his essay, “The Uses of Scholarship”, Prof. Zinn criticized “disinterested scholarship,” “objective study” and the “scientific method” across the disciplines, thus attacking the foundations of Purdue’s entire research enterprise.

Just to repeat: My only concern in two e-mail questions years ago was what was being taught to middle school children in their formative lessons in American history. My questions expressed no interest in higher education, only to inquire whether a book I (and legions of other, more expert commentators) consider highly misleading was in use in our elementary or secondary schools, or whether the state should encourage and reward its teaching through professional career advantages it awards as “professional development”.

Please note all that did not happen. I never made any public comment about this topic, or about Prof. Zinn, other than a mention of him in a book I wrote in 2011, until attacked in the recent AP story. No change of any kind occurred with regard to the summer class for K-12 teachers; its participants received credit, and would today if the class was still offered.

Most important, no one tried to “censor” anyone’s right to express any opinion they might hold. As many others have observed, this was a careless and inappropriate use of that inflammatory word.

Protecting the educational standards of middle schoolers, to me an important duty of any governor, has nothing to do with protecting against encroachments of academic freedom in higher education, a similarly central duty of any university president. I have and will attend to the latter duty with the same resoluteness I tried to bring to the former.

I appreciate the civil tone of your letter and the sincerity I know underlies it. I accepted Purdue’s invitation, not to quarrel with anyone, but to support the work of all its scholars and the freedom necessary for them to pursue that work. As time and other duties permit, I will be glad to listen further and respond as needed.

11 thoughts on “Mitch Daniels Responds to Purdue Faculty

  1. Let us see how open minded this president is when a professor who taught or published something Daniels considers objectionable comes up for tenure.

  2. Peter Ciancone:
    “As time and other duties permit, I will be glad to listen further and respond as needed.” What a lovely way to say that such matters, and the actual meaning of my words, aren’t really that important.

  3. I believe that you are attacking a man on his political ideology versus what he can do to make Purdue a great university. I agree that we cannot educate our children on the extreme views without a solid foundation first. Give the man a chance.

    • The fact that this man used his position as governor to try to censor publications he did not disagree with is a red flag in my mind that he is probably not the most qualified person to lead a university. And I believe that irrespective of his politics.

      • More to the point, he has no experience as an employee of any kind, much less a faculty member, at *any* college or university, much less a very large complicated institution like Purdue. He couldn’t be less qualified unless he’d never even been to college. His appointment is nothing but political; anybody who pretends otherwise is lying, and anybody who believes otherwise is delusional.

  4. This man is an unlettered political hack, period. I know of no university of Purdue’s stature with a failed lawyer at its helm. This is a disgrace to Purdue University, and to the people of Indiana, even to the extent that they will, doubtlessly, disagree.

  5. Pingback: An Open Letter to Mitch Daniels from 90 Purdue Professors | Academe Blog

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