Revealing Metaphors

Mitch Daniels–formerly the Governor of Indiana–is the current President of Purdue University. He was appointed by Trustees of the University who–not so coincidentally–he had appointed to those positions, a somewhat incestuous situation that raised a lot of eyebrows.

Daniels’ performance as President, while entirely satisfactory to those same Trustees, has been controversial among educators. There was, for example, Purdue’s acquisition of for-profit Kaplan University, in order to create Purdue Global, a marriage which is evidently not going so well. Forbes reports that Purdue Global had a net operating loss of $38.4 million last year. There was also an initiative encouraging students to finance their educations by pledging a percentage of their future earnings to investors, which some have dubbed “indentured servitude.” But most grumbling has been quiet.

Remarks Daniels made a few weeks ago, however, sparked a national discussion. As G. Gabrielle Starr, the President of Pomona College, wrote in the New York Times,

In late November, the president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels, told students that he will soon “be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America — a leading, I mean a really leading, African-American scholar.”

“Creatures?” a student asked. “Come on.”

“It’s a figure of speech. You must have taken some literature,” Mr. Daniels said. “One of the rarest, let me say, rarest birds, rarest, rarest, rarest phenomena.”

In just a few sentences, Mr. Daniels seemed to question the possibility of sustained black excellence. In response to the uproar that swiftly followed, he complained that he had “never felt so misunderstood” and that he had simply used a “figure of speech.” On Wednesday, he apologized and retracted the statement.

When I learned about Mr. Daniels’s words from another African-American scholar on my own campus, I felt indignant but also constrained. The standard etiquette for college presidents, like me, is to let the remarks of another leader pass on by.

Even though he apologized, I can’t do that. The idea that scholars of color are rare is a damaging fiction. Yet it’s pervasive in academia, causing untold damage. It allows some faculty deans to simply throw up their hands and give up on their recruitment efforts. It leads to small recruitment budgets for minority candidates.

Dr. Starr noted that the Purdue faculty had pushed back on the notion that black scholars are “rare birds” and he went on to identify a few of the many outstanding African-American scholars:

After Mr. Daniels’s remarks, Purdue faculty members said in a statement that “the idea that there is a scarcity of leading African-American scholars is simply not true.” Indeed, one might look to scholarly societies for leading figures: Alondra Nelson, president of the Social Science Research Council; Elizabeth Alexander, president of the Mellon Foundation; Cecilia Conrad, a managing director at the MacArthur Foundation; and Claude Steele, chair of the board of the Russell Sage Foundation. Or leaders at American colleges and universities like Jonathan Holloway, provost of Northwestern; Raynard Kington, president of Grinnell College; and Michael Drake, president of Ohio State University.

Starr’s column is eloquent, and worth reading in its entirety, but I remain bemused by the nature of the outcry that followed Daniels’ remarks. Most of the criticism I saw focused not on the inaccurate and damaging notion that black academic success is rare, but on Daniels’ use of the term “creature.”

I do understand black sensitivity to language that seems to equate African-Americans with animals, given America’s unfortunate racist history. But we are all creatures, and this reference seemed– to me at least– far less reprehensible than Daniels’ obvious assumption that black intellectuals are few and far between.

I’ve taught at the university level for twenty years, and during that time, the number of African-American scholars on our campus has grown significantly. My black colleagues have contributed enormously– to the educations of our students, to the scholarly literature, and–perhaps more importantly–to the creation of an inclusive, multicultural campus culture. I have to assume the same is true at Purdue.

Do we have a way to go? Sure. But ignoring the substantial presence of black scholars in academia isn’t just inaccurate. It’s evidence of implicit bias–and it deserves to be called out.


  1. Shelia, you are too kind to old Mitch. He is responsible for much of this stinking mess that is the State of Indiana.

  2. I have had a question since scrawny, balding, macho-motorcycle man Mitch became president of Purdue University where motorcycles were not allowed on campus. Was that restriction repealed or does the Republican president of Purdue do whatever he pleases as the president of the United States does? They both seem to work from the same playbook where rules change with their whims.

  3. Mitch Daniels has a history of “shooting from the hip.” He predated Trump in Washington, but as director of the OMB he has contemptuous of anyone in Congress who questioned edicts from the Executive branch. Then he ran Indiana as his personal fiefdom. Remember the “need” to switch to Daylight Savings Time? Purdue was the perfect place for him to go to, because it has always been run as a “top down” organization. What the guy on top say, goes. No questions asked. It seems that he and Trump were cast from the same mold.

  4. I continue to do my part by refusing to donate to Purdue as long as they have a political hack as their President. Those are the exact words I use to the students they have calling me to ask for money. Unlike so many who have moved from positions in an Administration to university presidencies, Mitch was never an academician and is more unfit to serve in his current position than he was his former.

  5. In addition to being reprehensible, his remark likely made recruiting a minority scholar much more difficult. Who would want to answer that call and work for Mitch? Perhaps it was intentional. He could say he tried, but no one responded. Duh!

  6. Competence is simply no longer a word in Republican’s version of English. The only qualification that they recognize for jobs in government and business are ideological. Does he {or rarely she) toe the line? What idealology you ask? Authoritarianism.

    The good ol’ boy network has taken them over.

  7. Mitch is a minor league dictator who took “the power of the purse” away from a compliant super majority and lived out his dreams of power before going up to West Lafayette to continue his new quest for power in a different setting. Such a move is near the equivalent of having Trump’s serving two terms and then becoming president of Harvard. I for one do not accept his attempt to explain how his faux pas was misunderstood. “Figure of speech,” after all, assumes some standard from which the words deviate, and in words of the street, I got the picture.

    He might well have substituted “women” for “Africans,” ignoring the Meirs, Merkels, Thatchers, Hillarys, black heroines and assorted Supreme Court justices of this world, as we once did with the Irish where taverns had signs behind the bar reading “No dogs or Irish allowed,” thus adding nationality to race and gender hatreds. I do not wish him well in the job he purchased and his rigged choice for the job via his appointment of trustees, though I hope Purdue can recover from his reign some day, and the sooner the better.

  8. Contrarian of the day, folks. As a former English teacher, I can see why he might have been saying that getting a “leading” researcher in that subject would be rare for a university like Purdue, I believe known as an engineering school.

    As for the offense taken by African-American profs, I quote (do I really?) someone in DC – “Get over it”. We have MUCH deeper issues for people of color than that. I know it is hard for us liberal folks to admit it – but there is a bit of energy out there that smacks of political correctness.

    Real political correctness is talking about and taking care of real racist issues.

    Side note – is there something about guys named Mitch???

  9. Mitch has received a pass since he was not one of those cultural warriors like Pastor Pence. He was supposed to be one of those ancient species of fiscally conservative Republicans, who did not wear some Evangelical Badge of approval at least in public.

    Daniels revealed himself after Howard Zinn died.

    Based on e-mail exchanges Daniels and staffers had while he was governor of Indiana. In those exchanges – which came shortly after Zinn died in 2010 – Daniels wanted to be assured that Zinn wasn’t being taught in the state, and he discussed trying to make sure that university courses used to train teachers didn’t include Zinn’s works. In fact, to Daniels’s distress, some of these programs were using Zinn’s work.

    “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state” – has alarmed many academics, who wonder why a governor would want to make books off-limits.

    Zinn if you read his book, A People’s History of the United States, is a read of history from the bottom -up. It is a history of how the forces of corporatism, and racism used hired thugs and the Corporate-Police State to suppress the 99%. For someone like Daniels this history by Howard Zinn was the opposite of his beliefs of Capitalism over All.

    As far as the word “creature”, the word conjurers up something horrible and not fully human. It is word you would expect from President Agent Orange.

  10. Purdue, an excellent vocational school. IU, an excellent university. No wonder Rs favor one over the other.

  11. Just a brief article on Kaplan and Purdue:

    A little more than two years ago, a very odd education couple got hitched.

    Joined in union were Purdue University, one of Indiana’s flagship public universities, and Kaplan University, the large, for-profit, mostly online college. They became one when Purdue announced a deal to buy Kaplan University. They were an odd couple and together they would create Purdue Global.

    The reasons for the union were straightforward. For-profit colleges were collapsing, and in Purdue, Kaplan found an exit from that gloomy, nearly certain future.

  12. So, I don’t know much about Mr. Daniels, but, it’s obvious that he does not have a shred of compassion or empathy for students of color in his realm. Unfortunately, for him, you DO have liberal minded students who are not of the so-called minority who find his comments atrocious.

    If you call an obese person fat, it’s insulting, if you call a developmentally challenged person retarded it’s an insult, if you call a person with limited mobility, crippled, it’s an insult. If you call young men and women, or their intellectual teachers, creatures, not only is an insult, but it is completely ignorant and narrowminded.

    In 1787 a compromise was reached on how slaves would be counted to determine the state’s total population. So they compromised!? They compromised in a way that was completely disgusting and demeaning to any human, they were judged to be 3/5 human! Now, I’m sure some will say, that it was a long time ago and has nothing to do with me. But the fact remains that during that period of time people of African descent had their families ripped apart, they were lynched, they were whipped, they were bought and sold as pieces of property! This affected African American families to this day. In many families, African American families, are trying to navigate the onslaught of racism and Inequality that still exists in this country! They smile in your face and throw your applications in the trash bin. Is it any wonder that people are upset about Mr. Daniels statement?

    Would Mr. Daniels call himself a creature, or better yet A rare creature? I highly doubt, even if someone were to say, that a Neanderthal can ride his motorcycle to the college that he’s president of, (now that would be a rare creature indeed), he would be accepting of that description, as accurate as it is!

    Not only are people of color dealing with centuries old prejudices, we are also trying to navigate this current climate of exclusion and restriction. You can see how the South, the old South, is rising again, it has authorization from the highest levels in government. There are no dog whistles anymore, and a large segment of our population is happy about that. They can be blatant about their alternate realities.

    Is it any wonder, that the ruling class of this country which is predominantly white male, feel threatened by people of color and women? People, people of color, and women were once considered possessions, human beings, were considered possessions! Possessions to work the the land in an agrarian society, possessions to birth heirs to a name and status.

    Don’t be too sure that this was just an ignorant statement by Mr. Daniels, it is not an ignorant statement by the highest levels of government (So they claim), and although, we have guaranteed freedom of speech by the First Amendment of our Constitution, that free speech was grudgingly given over a period of decades, many decades, of toil and blood. For someone who is supposedly a president of a University, or even president of the United States, to be so completely clueless, is an unacceptable tack.

    I won’t even get into the Native American issue and the broken treaties and wholesale slaughters of complete tribes including women and children. When we forget this history, it is bound to repeat itself! We can see, the correlation between America’s treatment of its native population, also those that it imported to build this country, including the White House, and Nazi Germany who marginalized its Jewish population that had lived in that country for centuries as “Ticks” “Mongrels” “Rats” obviously also sub-human.

    The German ideal of “Lebensraum” or blood and soil/living space, was directly taken from American”Manifest Destiny!”

    Make no mistake, the evil tendencies of men, are not eradicated by legislation. And, when enough time has passed, or when they believe enough time has passed to negate a lot of the pain, they rise again with their outlandish, misrepresented, and completely manipulated methodology to subjugate their fellow man and remain the ruling class of society. These individuals are not Christian, they have no clue to what Christianity is, after all, Jesus Christ was a Jew. If you go back to the Mosaic law, and the Scriptures that Jesus Christ quoted concerning the Mosaic law, mankind is supposed to love his neighbor, mankind is supposed to take care of the fatherless children (not put them in cages), mankind is supposed to take care of the widows, mankind is supposed to have compassion and empathy towards his fellow man, and, lastly, as Christians believe, or those who claim to be Christians believe, that Adam and Eve were the beginnings, the father and mother of everyone on this planet, then that means everyone of us are brother and sister! Why? Why! Why would you, or any human, treat their brother and sister as subhuman?

  13. Sheila – you are right on target. The rarity comment was at least as if not more offensive as the creature comment.

    What has grown dangerously rare is the Republican politician who understands that an education is about much more than how much money you can make after you graduate.

  14. It definitely is difficult to justify tithing yourself to a university! Tithing in itself, is not even a Christian tenant, it’s a tenant of the Mosaic law. A 10th of your crops/earnings were to go to the tribe of Levi/Levites who were the priestly class. So unless Mr. Daniels thinks his church, whoops, University is a synagogue, his thought process is inexplicably, or maybe explicably troglodyte-ish and ignorant of history!

  15. Here’s Daniels more complete response. (I have no position on the matter other than agreeing with Lester that ” We have MUCH deeper issues for people of color than that”)

    “I’ve never felt so misunderstood before,” Daniels told the J&C, after comments he made in an impromptu conversation with students Wednesday night in Pfendler Hall spread across campus.

    “I was saying that, this very week, we’re working on a superstar who happens to be African American,” Daniels said. “Extraordinarily rare talent and one of our target populations. That’s what I said. And to have that stood on its head as an indifference to diversity, or worse, it hurts. That’s all I’ll say.”

  16. This was sent to my E-mail, Bonnie allowed me to post it.

    Bonnie Kaucnik,

    Narcissists who can’t admit/accept failure! Germany’s defeat during WWI resulted in Hitler looking for scapegoats. To shore up his GIGANTIC ego, he ‘tickled’ “many conservative Germans’ minds, which wasn’t a difficult task. It’s easy to ‘create’ hatred. His plan, among other things, was “mass starvation,” of tens of millions of people. YES, we listen to the blame-game, ad nauseam EVERY DAY, right here in America, and the pathetic thing is that countless “conservative” Americans are passionately gulping down the Kool Aid of “imperialist, nationalist, and racist currents that contribute to” hatred! So, what else is new?? Solomon said: “ALL things are wearisome; No one can even speak of it. The eye is not satisfied at seeing; Nor is the ear filled from hearing. What has been is what will be, And what has been done will be done again; There is nothing new under the sun. Is there anything of which one may say, “Look at this—it is new”? It already existed from long ago; It already existed before our time.” Ecclesiastes 1:8-10
    In the end, it’s up to the individual to discern what the will of GOD is. The half-brother of Jesus explained what WE should do while living in such a climate of divisiveness: Jude 16-23: “These men are murmurers, complainers about their lot in life, following their own desires, and their mouths make grandiose boasts, while they are flattering others for their own benefit. As for YOU, beloved ones, call to mind the sayings that have been previously spoken by the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ, how they used to say to you: “In the last time there will be ridiculers, following their OWN DESIRES for ungodly things.” These are the ones who cause divisions, animalistic men, not having spirituality. But YOU, beloved ones, build yourselves up on your most holy faith, and pray with holy spirit, in order to KEEP YOURSELVES IN GOD’S LOVE, while you await the MERCY of our Lord Jesus Christ with everlasting life in view. Also, continue showing mercy to some who have doubts; save them by snatching them out of the fire. But CONTINUE SHOWING MERCY TO OTHERS, doing so with fear, while you HATE even the garment that has been stained by the flesh.” Amen

  17. <> per Misses, North Star, 9/16/2019, and those fortified Mounds are not by the Thames. A university registrar cannot be perceived literate in expression by using old handouts or books in a three-mile range, borrowing others’ words habitually. That can rule out 100% of those -American fathers and mothers who own and manage the K-20 schools.

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