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.