Mitch Daniels, as an unconventional choice to become Purdue University's president, has repeatedly pledged his strong commitment to academic freedom. And many professors -- including some who had questioned the wisdom of appointing a governor as university president -- have given him high marks for the start of his work at Purdue.
But on Monday, the Associated Press published an article based on e-mail records it obtained under Indiana's open records laws. Those e-mail records showed Daniels, while governor of Indiana, asking that no public universities teach the work of Howard Zinn, seeking a statewide investigation into "what is credit-worthy" to see that similar works were not being taught for credit, and considering ways to cut state funds to a program led by a professor who had criticized him.
It is not unheard of, of course, for governors to periodically speak out against controversial professors or books (although most academics would prefer that governors not do so). But the case of Daniels appears different in that he didn't speak out, but rather exchanged e-mail messages with state education officials about how to take action against certain works and professors. While Daniels is known as a strong fiscal conservative (as a politician and university leaders), his reputation has also been as someone who was more interested in balancing budgets than in waging culture wars.
In a statement to the AP, Daniels indicated that his e-mail messages were only about elementary and secondary schools, but the AP descriptions of the e-mails suggest otherwise. While the e-mails show concern about how teachers were being trained, that training was going on at universities.
The first e-mail discussed is about Zinn, a longtime Boston University professor best known for 1980 book, A People's History of the United States, which describes American history from the perspective of black people, women, low-income workers and others whom Zinn argued were ignored in more mainstream history. The book has sold well through several editions, and earned Zinn generations of student and faculty fans, generally from the left. He has also been repeatedly criticized by conservatives (and by some who are not conservative, but who have argued that Zinn oversimplified many issues).
Shortly after Zinn died in 2010, Daniels e-mailed various education officials about Zinn, the AP said. His e-mail said: "This terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. 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?"
When an aide responded by saying that a course at Indiana University did use Zinn's work, Daniels wrote that something should be done about it. "This crap should not be accepted for any credit by the state. No student will be better taught because someone sat through this session. Which board has jurisdiction over what counts and what doesn’t?” Daniels wrote.
The e-mails show Daniels endorsing a plan to have Teresa Lubbers, the commissioner of higher education, review courses throughout the state, while the State Board of Education conducted a similar review. Wrote Daniels in approving the plan: "Go for it. Disqualify propaganda and highlight (if there is any) the more useful offerings."
The AP article does not indicate whether Lubbers carried out the plan. She did not respond to e-mail messages from Inside Higher Ed Tuesday night. [UPDATE: On Wednesday, Lubbers said that she was never asked to conduct the survey of courses described in the e-mail exchanges, and that her office did not conduct such a survey.]
UPDATE: Wednesday morning, after this article was published without this paragraph, Daniels reached out to Inside Higher Ed to discuss the AP article. He said that his concern about Zinn was appropriate because elementary and secondary school teachers were taking professional development courses at public universities that could have been teaching Zinn's work, and he did not want these teachers -- and their students -- exposed to "falsifications" of history. He said that there was "no implication for academic freedom" from his inquiries, and that no efforts were made to stop Zinn from being taught in higher education, despite what he characterized as a few e-mail messages that he had long forgotten about before the AP article. "If Howard Zinn had been a tenured professor on this campus, I would have defended anything he would have wanted to write, but not to be immune from criticism," Daniels said, adding that "no one credible defended his versions of history, and neither does academic freedom confer an entitlement to have one's work used in the k-12 public system."
While Zinn was dead when Daniels sought to have his books no longer taught, another target of the governor remains very much alive. He is Charles Little, a professor of education at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis and a frequent critic of Daniels's education policies. In a 2009 e-mail, the AP reported, Daniels asked that Little's program be audited and potentially cut from receiving state funds. Little did not respond to an e-mail message from Inside Higher Ed seeking comment.
The AP has now released the e-mails' texts, which include swipes at the National Endowment for the Humanities (for sponsoring a seminar where Zinn's works were discussed) and at Indiana University. One Daniels adviser wrote during the exchanges that "this is why my children will not go to IU."
But while the e-mail exchanges included such bashing of Indiana University, they did not note that Purdue -- where Daniels is now president -- actually has taught Zinn as well, at least per our search of the university's website. Two chapters of A People's History can be found on a fall 2010 English course syllabus and three chapters are on a syllabus for a study abroad program in Honduras.
Professors took to Twitter Tuesday night to express outrage. Among the comments: "Who better to run a university than someone who despises the entire concept?" and "I'd never assign Howard Zinn, but I'd fight like heck to preserve my right to assign him."
No Apologies for Teaching Zinn
One professor who teaches Zinn's People's History every year -- and who intends to go on doing so -- is Robert J. Helfenbein, director of the Center for Urban and Multicultural Education at Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis. In an interview Tuesday night with Inside Higher Ed, Helfenbein said he was "shocked and concerned" that a governor could be trying to dictate which works are taught by professors.
Helfenbein also said that Daniels was overstating the extent to which Zinn's ideas pervade schools and colleges. He teaches Zinn in a course for future secondary teachers in social studies. Most of the students are undergraduates, and the vast majority have never heard of Zinn and relatively few are familiar with his ideas, Helfenbein said.
"Part of what I try to teach future social studies teachers is multiple perspectives of history, so even those who disagree with it see a worth in reading a historian take on this very different perspective" from what they have learned before. He said that students write a "reaction paper" to Zinn, and that grading is based on the reasoning and writing, not whether they endorse Zinn. "They can agree with it, disagree with it, agree with some sections and not others, and if they argue well, they get an A," he said. Students tend to emerge with a range of views on Zinn's take on history, he said.
Helfenbein said teachers need to be comfortable teaching books with a range of views, and not fear that they have to ban those they disagree with, or that the governor doesn't like. "I think these e-mails show a massive over-reach of political power in trying to say what teachers should teach and what academic freedom is about in higher education," he said. Faculty members at Purdue, he said, "should be very, very concerned."
Read more by
Today’s News from Inside Higher Ed
What Others Are Reading