INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue University President Mitch Daniels said Wednesday he never tried to quash academic freedom while serving as Indiana’s governor and criticized an Associated Press report citing emails in which he opposed use of a book by historian and antiwar activist Howard Zinn.
Emails published Tuesday by the AP claim to show that Daniels tried to ensure Zinn’s book was not used in Indiana’s K-12 and college classrooms and that he worked to “disqualify the propaganda” he said was being taught to teachers in training at Indiana’s colleges.
Daniels on Wednesday told reporters at Purdue that the story was “unfair and erroneous.” He had previously told the AP he was only referring to Zinn’s book appearing in K-12 classrooms, and he did not immediately reply to questions from the AP on Wednesday about what he found to be in error.
Daniels’ 2010 emails, obtained by the AP through a public records request, claim to show that Daniels requested Zinn’s writings be banned from classrooms and asked for a “cleanup” of college courses during his second term as governor. In another exchange, the Republican talks about cutting funding for a program run by a local university professor who was one of his sharpest critics.
“This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away,” Daniels wrote, referring to Zinn, in a rapid exchange of emails between top state education officials on Feb. 9, 2010. “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 it 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?”
His education adviser quickly responded by noting the book was being used at Indiana University in a course for teachers. Daniels wrote back: “This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. ... Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?”
David Shane, a top fundraiser and state school board member, replied with a strategy directing Indiana’s higher education commissioner and another education official to review university courses statewide. Daniels signed off on the plan, writing: “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.”
The discovery of the emails has sparked widespread reaction in higher education circles nationwide, with many expressing alarm about whether a university president would try to censor teachings.
“It is ultimately bad for democracy. No head of state should engage in any form of censorship,” said Gerardo Gonzalez, dean of the Indiana University College of Education.
But others doubted it would have much effect on Daniels beyond the immediate discomfort because the emails were written long before he took over at Purdue. He was named the university’s president in January after being unanimously selected by the board of trustees, most of whose members he appointed while governor.
Daniels told the AP in an email Tuesday that it was “encouraging” to find Zinn’s book wasn’t being used in K-12 classrooms but that he never sought to censor universities.
He said at his news conference Wednesday that if Zinn had tenure at Purdue, “I would defend him and his rights not to be dismissed for the nature of his work.”