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 anti-war activist Howard Zinn.
Conservative free-speech advocates rose to his defense, saying it was appropriate for Daniels to express concern about what was taught in the state's public institutions. The leader of the school's faculty senate, meanwhile, said it was too soon to say if the university's professors would conduct a review of Daniels' actions.
Emails published Tuesday by the AP show Daniels tried to ensure Zinn's book was not used in Indiana's K-12 classrooms and colleges, and that he wanted to "disqualify the propaganda" he said was being taught to teachers in training at Indiana's colleges.
In a statement posted on Purdue's website on Wednesday, Daniels said, "In truth, my emails infringed on no one's academic freedom and proposed absolutely no censorship of any person or viewpoint."
"In fact, the question I asked on one day in 2010 had nothing to do with higher education at all. I merely wanted to make certain that Howard Zinn's textbook, which represents a falsified version of history, was not being foisted upon our young people in Indiana's public K-12 classrooms."
The emails show, however, that Daniels ordered a "cleanup of what is credit-worthy" at Indiana's colleges after he was told Zinn's book was being used at an Indiana University summer course for teachers. And in another email unrelated to Zinn or K-12 classrooms, he discussed cutting funding for a program run by a university professor who was one of his sharpest critics.
Daniels called the AP report "unfair and erroneous" in interviews with reporters at Purdue on Wednesday, but declined to speak with the AP. Neither he nor his spokesperson replied to questions about his statement's focus on K-12 classrooms despite the emails' references to classes taught at the state's public universities.
Zinn was a historian, playwright and activist who taught political science at Boston University until retiring in 1988. His book, "A People's History of the United States," addresses American history from the viewpoint of those whose plights he said were often omitted from most history textbooks. It has been widely criticized by many conservatives and scholars and characterized by historian Eugene D. Genovese as "incoherent left-wing sloganizing."
In an email on Feb. 9, 2010, obtained by the AP through a public records request, Daniels called the book "a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page." He noted that it was widely used in high schools and colleges around the country.
His education adviser responded that the book was being used at Indiana University in a course for licensed teachers, who need such college credits to retain their license. Daniels quickly replied that the course should not be recognized for licensing teachers in Indiana.
Purdue spokeswoman Julie Rosa said Wednesday Daniels was questioning "whether the state should endorse through its regulatory approval 'professional development' training of already licensed teachers to use false history in their classrooms."
The publication of the emails sparked reaction in higher education circles, with some educators expressing alarm that a top state official 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.
Purdue alumni who opposed Daniels' selection last year renewed their call for his removal. They had earlier questioned his academic credentials and suitability for the position.
"I'm hopeful that this new information, which shows more people the side of Daniels we have always known existed, will energize people to work to have him removed," said Aaron Hoover, a spokesman for Society for an Open and Accountable Purdue and a 2008 graduate.
But some doubted the email revelation would have much impact on Daniels beyond initial discomfort because they 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. They reaffirmed their support for him on Wednesday.
"President Daniels has stated and demonstrated his complete commitment to freedom of inquiry and has been an emphatic voice for that freedom," the board said in a statement.
Robert O'Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and a leading expert on academic free speech issues, said the broader response to the emails would depend on whether such expressions by Daniels were limited to his time as governor or continued after taking over at Purdue.
"I suspect there are some Purdue faculty who would give him a pass and others who would find it censurable," O'Neil said.
David Williams, chairman of the Purdue University Senate, said he is waiting to see how the story is received before deciding to conduct any review of Daniels. He added he is confident Daniels has little power as president to quash dissenting views at the university.
"The academic side of Purdue University is controlled by the faculty. Period. End of story," Williams wrote in an email.
Daniels emails reflect his effort to change how teachers are trained in Indiana, including pushing students away from colleges of education, which conservatives nationwide argue instill liberal ideology in their students. The effort stalled somewhat after Daniels left office, but is still being pushed by his appointees to the State Board of Education.
Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, a group associated with conservative academic causes, said it was appropriate for Daniels to express concern about was taught in public institutions and to object to the use of Zinn's book, which Wood called "trashy pseudo-history."
"Faculty members make their own best judgments about what to teach and how to teach it," Wood said. "But that's not an absolute principle. They have to recognize that that academic freedom they enjoy comes with responsibilities."