Dozens of Purdue University professors questioned their new school president's commitment to academic freedom Monday following the release of emails showing that as governor Mitch Daniels tried to keep a liberal historian's textbook out of Indiana classrooms.
Ninety professors signed the open letter to Daniels, saying they were more troubled by his continued criticism of Howard Zinn's writings since becoming Purdue's president than they were by the emails he sent as governor more than three years ago.
"However much we disagree with your past statements, we are more troubled by the fact that you continue to express these views today, especially since you are now speaking as the chief representative of Purdue University with the responsibility to embody the best of academic inquiry and exchange," the professors wrote.
Daniels' efforts to keep Zinn's "A People's History of the United States" out of the hands of K-12 students and educators has created a firestorm in academic circles since The Associated Press last week published emails in which he urged advisers to "disqualify the propaganda" from teacher training courses. He also called Zinn's book "a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page."
In his letter, Daniels said, "I have never made any suggestion that any university cease teaching whatever its faculty pleases, or cease using any book." The emails, however, show that after Daniels was told Zinn's book was being used at Indiana University in a professional development course for existing teachers, he replied, "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state" and he then signed off on a suggestion that officials review such courses across the state.
A Republican fundraiser and state Board of Education member then suggested a review of all teacher preparation programs at Indiana's universities, and Daniels quickly signed off on it.
"Go for it," Daniels wrote. "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."
He has continued to defend his emails, issuing a statement last week reiterating his argument that Zinn's work distorts history and quoting numerous scholars who also have spoken against it.
The 90 professors represent only about 5 percent of Purdue's nearly 1,800 faculty members, but the letter was only circulated among liberal arts colleges. Purdue's Board of Trustees, most of whose members were appointed by Daniels while he was governor, reaffirmed its support for him last week. The University Senate has not taken a position on the Zinn issue.
The former Indiana governor responded to their concerns Monday with many of the same arguments he made last week, saying his objections only dealt with K-12 schools.
"Protecting the educational standards of middle schoolers, to me an important duty of any governor, has nothing to do with protecting against encroachments of academic freedom in higher education, a similarly central duty of any university president. I have and will attend to the latter duty with the same resoluteness I tried to bring to the former," Daniels wrote.
He also added a new charge, that Zinn undercut the foundation of scientific inquiry and research in an article titled "The Uses of Scholarship."
Daniels has come under fire at Purdue before. Some faculty expressed skepticism last year that a non-academic would be an ardent supporter of higher education. But concerns had quieted down as Daniels met with faculty and listened to their concerns.
Kristina Bross, a Purdue English professor who coordinated the faculty response, said Daniels should publicly defend his claims about Zinn in a forum and called on him to explain to faculty how he came to his conclusions.
"This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away," Daniels wrote in a Feb. 9, 2010, email after Zinn's death. "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."
Daniels has insisted Zinn should not be taught in Indiana's K-12 classrooms and believes he presents a "falsified" version of history. Zinn's 1980 work explores history through the viewpoints of Native Americans and others who he said weren't represented in traditional textbooks.
Daniels said last week he would support Zinn's academic freedom if he were tenured faculty at Purdue.
In his letter Monday, he said that he never had made any public comment about Zinn, "other than a mention of him in a book I wrote in 2011, until attacked in the recent AP story."