INDIANAPOLIS – Former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels pledged to promote academic freedom, not stifle it, when he became president at Purdue University in January.
But emails obtained by The Associated Press through a Freedom of Information Act request show Daniels took rare steps during his second term as governor to eliminate what he considered liberal breeding grounds at Indiana’s public universities, requesting that historian Howard Zinn’s writings be banned from classrooms and asking for a “cleanup” of college courses he called “propaganda.”
In another exchange, Daniels talks about cutting funding to a program run by one of his sharpest critics, Charles Little, executive director of the Indiana Urban Schools Association and an Indiana university professor.
The efforts to silence voices he disagreed with as governor have raised new questions about Daniels’ appointment as president of a major research university just months after critics questioned his lack of academic credentials and his hiring by a board of trustees he appointed.
Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center, said it’s not unusual for governors or mayors to denounce art, music or popular culture. He cited Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s against provocative art in New York City. But he said he couldn’t find any other examples of governors censoring political opponents.
“What sets this apart is what appears to be a back-channel effort by the governor to limit access to ideas,” said Paulson, who also is the dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. “Under the First Amendment, the government is prohibited from trying to suppress expression with which it disagrees.”
Daniels didn’t appear to share that view in a Feb. 9, 2010, email sent to top state education officials, including then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Tony Bennett.
“This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” Daniels wrote , referring to Zinn. “The obits and commentaries mentioned 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. Can someone assure me that 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?”
Daniels’ concerns about Zinn’s book punctuated a sharp, rapid-fire exchange between the governor and his top aides.
Scott Jenkins, Daniels’ education adviser, was the first to respond to the governor’s question about Zinn’s book. He noted it was being used at an Indiana University course for teachers on the Civil Rights, Feminist and Labor movements.
“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?” Daniels asked, three minutes after Jenkins’ note.
David Shane, a top fundraiser and state school board member, replied seven minutes later with a strategy directing Bennett and Indiana Commissioner for Higher Education Teresa Lubbers to review university courses across the state.
“Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in ‘professional development’ and what is not. Who will take charge,” Daniels replied seven minutes later.
Shane replied that a statewide review “would force to daylight a lot of excrement.”
Just seven minutes later, Daniels signed off on it.
“Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings. Don’t the ed schools have at least some substantive PD (professional development) courseware to upgrade knowledge of math, science, etc,” Daniels wrote.
In a separate round of emails, Daniels called for an audit of Little, who teachers at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Little was highly critical of Daniels’ education overhaul in internal emails and often critiqued the governor’s performance at public meetings.
Daniels directed, in an April 11, 2009 , email that Little’s program be audited and potentially be cut out of state funding.
Daniels on Tuesday stood by his demand that Zinn be excluded from Indiana classrooms but said his request was limited to K-12, where the state has control of the curriculum.
“We must not falsely teach American history in our schools,” he told The Associated Press in an email. “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.”
However, the Association of American Universities, which represents Purdue and other top research universities, defines academic freedom in an April 2013 statement as “the freedom of university faculty to produce and disseminate knowledge through research, teaching, and service, without undue constraint.”
Daniels also repeated his contention that “there is need for a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in teaching of our professions.”
“Particularly, I think we need to look at an upgrade of offerings to increase knowledge in the areas of math and science,” he said.
Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois who served six years as president of the American Association of University Professors, was taken aback by the emails.
“It is astonishing and shocking that such a person is now the head of a major research university, making decisions about the curriculum, that one painfully suspects embodies the same ignorance and racism these comments embody,” said Cary Nelson, an English professor at the University of Illinois who served six years as president of the AAUP.
The AAUP often investigates cases of censorship from university officials, Nelson said, but it’s unlikely the group would open an investigation of Daniels unless his censorship has continued through his time as president.
In fact, Daniels has adopted a different public approach since taking over at Purdue. He hosted author Greg Lukianoff in April, with members of the AAUP, for a lecture on speech suppression at universities nationwide. And, in a Jan. 18 “open letter” sent to the Purdue community, he paraphrased a longstanding conservative argument that universities have squashed free speech, rather than encourage it.
“Diversity is prized except in the most important realm of all, diversity of thought,” he wrote. “The academies that, through the unique system of tenure, once enshrined freedom of opinion and inquiry now frequently are home to the narrowest sort of closed-mindedness and the worst repression of dissident ideas.”
J. Paul Robinson, former chairman of the Purdue University Senate, reviewed Daniels’ emails Tuesday and said he was not concerned that they would transfer to Purdue.
“Even though I think that the administrators have grown very powerful at Purdue over the years, the faculty still are the ones that establish the academic standards and the curricula – and we are not easily moved,” Robinson said. “Mitch knows this, and I am pretty sure he respects it – even more now that he is here than when he was outside.”
Purdue University Board of Trustees Chairman Keith Krach, who hired Daniels last year, did not return an email seeking comment. Krach, like the other trustees, were appointed by Daniels when he was governor. The trustees are scheduled to receive a six-month assessment from Daniels as they meet on campus this week.
It remains unclear exactly how successful Daniels was. Zinn’s book is still being taught in some courses and the 2010 course singled out by Jenkins was still taught that summer. But a separate, more expansive push to change the courses available at Indiana’s teaching universities was launched and continues with Daniels appointees to the state Board of Education.