By TOM LoBIANCO
INDIANAPOLIS — Purdue University President Mitch Daniels fended off calls for his ouster Wednesday and denied trying to quash academic freedom while serving as Indiana’s governor, a day after an Associated Press report cited emails in which he opposed use of a book by historian and antiwar 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 public institutions.
Emails published Tuesday by the AP show Daniels tried to ensure Zinn’s book was not used in Indiana’s K-12 and college classrooms and that he wanted 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. Neither he nor a spokesman replied to questions from the AP Wednesday about what he found to be in error.
Daniels said at his news conference that he would never censor academic views. If Zinn had tenure at Purdue, he said, “I would defend him and his rights not to be dismissed for the nature of his work.”
Daniels’ 2010 emails, obtained by the AP through a public records request, showed the governor requested that Zinn’s 1980 book examining American history with a focus on violence against Native Americans and on class inequality be banned from classrooms. The Republican also asked for a “cleanup” of college courses and talked 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 an 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. “
His education adviser responded that the book was being used at Indiana University in a course for teachers. David Shane, a top fundraiser and state school board member, also recommended a strategy for reviewing the content of university courses.
The publication of the emails sparked reaction in higher education circles nationwide, with some educators expressing alarm about whether a university president with such intentions 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 questioned whether the email revelation would have much impact on Daniels beyond initial 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.
Robert O’Neil, former president of the University of Virginia and a leading expert on academic free speech issues, said the response would depend on whether such expressions by Daniels were limited to his time as governor, or whether they 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.
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.”
In his exchange of emails with education officials in 2010, Daniels asked whether Zinn’s book was used.
“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?”
After his education adviser replied that it was used in a teacher training course, 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?”
When Shane offered a strategy directing Indiana’s higher education commissioner and another education official to review university courses, Daniels signed off on the idea, 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.”