June 21, 2012, marked a dividing line in the professional life of Mitch Daniels.
Before walking off the Loeb Playhouse stage that day, announced as the 12th president of Purdue University even though he still had months to go as Indiana governor, Daniels vowed to put partisan politics aside, starting at that moment.
“I don’t think there was any alternative to it,” Daniels said a day after being introduced on campus. “To me it was very, very straightforward. My responsibilities are going to change in six months, but my association with Purdue started [June 21].”
That was no small promise for a sitting governor who made no bones about his conservative politics, his partisan GOP position and the lengths he’d go to prove that his way was the way to go.
It also was a promise met with plenty of skepticism on campus, in the community and across the state. Was it possible for a guy only a few months removed from consideration for a run for the White House to switch it on and off? And was it possible for this particular politician — simultaneously lauded and reviled for his hardball stance on everything from education reform to collective bargaining — to really get the nuances of academic freedom?
Since June 21, 2012, I’ve worked a version of this question into conversations with faculty members: “What’s your take on your new boss’ adjustment?” There’s no single answer. The consensus, from the “My Man Mitch” crowd to the initially skeptical, has been that Daniels has been true to his word to keep academic freedom up front and politics at the side of the road.
But with this caveat: Everyone’s watching and waiting.
Last week provided a revelation via the Associated Press that Daniels, in a series of 2010 emails, looked to stifle the works of left-wing historian Howard Zinn. The then-governor branded Zinn a “fraud” who “force-fed a totally false version of our history” in Indiana classrooms.
It was the bombshell the academics and Daniels’ skeptics were waiting for.
Forget, for now, a brutal assessment that seems to revel in the historian’s death — “This terrible anti-American academic finally passed away,” he wrote to staff members on Feb. 9, 2010 — as if to say: At least Zinn’s lies are finished.
But for Daniels, who has worked hard to separate the two versions of himself, the two-year-old emails show that it doesn’t take much to scratch the veneer and reveal the political boss he once was.
Last week, a day after the AP account broke, Daniels was claiming the story mixed academic metaphors.
As governor, he said, he had an obligation to weed out “shoddy work” from the state’s K-12 schools. He insisted that his Zinn tirade was aimed only at primary and secondary schools, even though the email exchange talked about bringing Teresa Lubbers, commissioner for higher education, into a conversation about education school standards.
And Daniels stood by his assessment that Zinn’s works — particularly the ground-up view offered in “A People’s History of the United States” — was the work of someone who “by his own admission [is] a biased writer” and who “purposely falsified American history.”
As university president, though, Daniels said he would defend Zinn’s academic freedom and his job.
But it’s hard to hide the visceral tone of emails intended to mobilize Daniels’ Statehouse team to wipe Zinn from the curriculum: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. ... Sounds like we need a cleanup of what is credit-worthy in ‘professional development’ and what is not.”
After an emailed suggestion from David Shane, a state board of education member, that it “would be useful (& fun)” to work with Lubbers to review professional development programs in education schools — “Would force to daylight a lot of the excrement,” he wrote — Daniels replied: “Go for it. Disqualify the propaganda ...”
It’s one thing to say work isn’t good enough. It’s another to conspire, through official channels and with the weight of the highest office in the state, to squelch it at the university level.
Daniels understands that appearances matter in his role as Purdue president. And those emails, at the very least, appear to cut close to the bone on a subject near and dear to his new colleagues among the faculty: academic freedom.
On Jan. 18, the week Daniels moved his things into Hovde Hall, he wrote an open letter to everyone on campus, laying out his vision for the job, some of his expectations and what he considered to be the challenges. Among them: A dedication to “open inquiry.”
“A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate,” he wrote. “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.”
As governor, did Daniels attempt to silence an academic voice? Absolutely. “Can someone assure me that [Zinn’s book] is not in use anywhere in Indiana?” Daniels wrote. “If it is, how do we get rid of it ...?”
The trust Daniels has built at Purdue has always been hitched to his past. Daniels has to hope there’s grace in that June 21, 2012, dividing line between partisan Mitch and President Mitch.
Either way, his job at Purdue just got a lot tougher. His politics aren’t as far behind him as he thinks.
Dave Bangert is a columnist for the Journal & Courier of Lafayette. Contact him at email@example.com.