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Purdue University Northwest chancellor Thomas L. Keon is under fire after an impromptu racist joke at commencement.

Purdue University Northwest/YouTube

It took less than 15 seconds for Purdue University Northwest chancellor Thomas L. Keon to undermine a résumé forged over decades in academe. An off-the-cuff joke at commencement that mocked Asian languages now has the chancellor facing faculty demands that he resign.

The incident happened in December after a commencement speaker, a local graduate, talked about using a made-up language to calm children, including his granddaughter. Keon then took the stage and spoke in gibberish, adding, “That’s sort of my Asian version of his …” before trailing off. Keon has since issued an apology for his “offensive and insensitive” comment that “caused confusion, pain, and anger” and has been reprimanded by Purdue’s Board of Trustees.

But for Purdue Northwest faculty members—who have been critical of Keon in the past and voted no confidence in him at the end of December—the apology and reprimand weren’t enough. Now, as pressure mounts both on and off campus, Keon is resisting calls for his resignation.

Campus Reactions

Thomas Roach, Purdue Northwest’s Faculty Senate chair, was at commencement on Dec. 10 but didn’t hear Keon’s comment clearly, which he attributes to sound issues in the gymnasium where the event was held. It wasn’t until the next morning, as news reports began to trickle out, that Roach realized what had happened. He contacted Purdue’s Board of Trustees the next day.

“I immediately wrote a letter to the Board of Trustees, asking them to remove him,” Roach said.

On Dec. 14, Keon issued an apology. On Dec. 22, Purdue’s Board of Trustees announced that it had reprimanded Keon for his “offensive and insensitive” joke, which was “unbecoming of his role as chancellor, and unacceptable for an occasion that should be remembered solely for its celebratory and unifying atmosphere.” Board chair Mike Berghoff added, “Although in the Trustees’ estimation, this offensive remark does not reflect a pattern of behavior or a system of beliefs held by Dr. Keon, the Board has made clear to him that a repeat incident of a similar nature would provide grounds for further Board action, including possible dismissal.”

Purdue officials did not facilitate an interview with Keon, as requested by Inside Higher Ed.

The response wasn’t good enough for Roach. The day before the reprimand, the Faculty Senate had passed a vote of no confidence in the chancellor and requested his resignation.

“What he did was reprehensible, and no one who has done anything that offensive should ever be in a position to represent a university,” Roach told Inside Higher Ed. “And the Board of Trustees should know that, and they should have removed him immediately without us having to take that vote. The board is treating it as if he made this little mistake, and they don’t want to damage his career because of one mistake. Well, that’s a pretty big mistake for the chancellor of the university.”

The no-confidence vote, which passed 135 to 20, also included anonymous comments, which Roach shared with Inside Higher Ed. Most faculty respondents were sharply critical of Keon.

“A person who openly mocks Asian people is not fit to lead a diverse institution,” wrote one faculty member.

“Chancellor Keon has crossed all boundaries. Please resign,” wrote another.

“Just leave for God’s sake,” another voter wrote.

While many of the comments called for Keon’s resignation, one voter offered an alternative: “Let’s exercise some tolerance for making a human mistake. Perhaps some diversity training.”

In addition to the faculty, some Purdue Northwest student groups denounced Keon. Condemnations of the chancellor’s actions have also rolled in from outside groups, including organizations that represent Asian Americans in higher education.

“While Chancellor Keon issued an apology, stating, ‘I am truly sorry for my unplanned, off-the-cuff response to another speaker, as my words have caused confusion, pain, and anger,’ our academic leaders must be held to a higher standard, especially if they profess a commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion,” leaders of the advocacy group Asian Pacific Americans in Higher Education said in a statement. “Because of his failure in leadership, APAHE strongly supports the university’s students and faculty in their call for Chancellor Keon’s dismissal or resignation.”

The APAHE letter, which was sent to Purdue’s Board of Trustees, also pointed to rising anti-Asian violence in the U.S., which has spiked since the coronavirus pandemic spread from China in March 2020. The letter notes that between March 2020 and March 2022, 11,500 anti-Asian hate incidents were reported to the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center, which tracks such matters.

What Campus Leaders Can—and Can’t—Get Away With

Institutions of higher learning do not take a uniform approach to handling incidents involving campus leaders. While some presidents have been fired or forced to resign after making offensive remarks, others have clung to power, defying demands that they step down.

Jerry Falwell Jr. was rarely uncontroversial in his 13 years as president of Liberty University. He made comments condemned as racist and vigorously defended candidate and then president Donald Trump, when few supporters would. But despite a string of controversies, it ultimately took a sex scandal for trustees to push Falwell out of the evangelical institution in 2020.

In another controversial incident, in 2021, Deborah Fox, president of Highland Community College in Kansas, compared a Black athlete favorably with Adolf Hitler, praising the Nazi dictator’s leadership skills in a leaked recording. Fox later apologized and, despite pressure to resign, remains in her job.

Other higher ed leaders have not fared as well.

W. Joseph King, for example, resigned as president of Lyon College in Arkansas in 2021, facing pressure from community leaders after he commented on the presence of white supremacists in the area in an interview. As controversy swirled, King bowed to local critics and resigned.

Issues of academic dishonesty, particularly plagiarism, have led other presidents—including those at Hobart and William Smith Colleges and West Liberty University—to resign or not have their contracts renewed.

Institutional responses to leadership controversies are as unique as individual colleges themselves, explained R. Barbara Gitenstein, president emerita of the College of New Jersey and senior vice president for AGB Consulting, an arm of the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges.

“There is no single litmus test” for behavior, she said.

Ultimately, each college develops its own code of conduct and articulation of expectations.

“For instance, one would expect that a Jesuit institution would have a different code of behavior, code of conduct, code of expectations than a public regional institution,” Gitenstein said.

While boards should lay out clear-cut expectations for senior leaders, the consequences of breaking such codes of conduct will vary depending on the nature of the offense, especially if offensive behavior or remarks are isolated and do not represent a pattern of behavior.

“One does not jump to the ultimate act if something was just an example of poor judgment. However, if you are in a senior executive position, if you’re the president or the chancellor, there are expectations about judgment that I think are of a different order than expectations of someone who is not in an executive office, and I think that’s legitimate,” Gitenstein said.

Whether Keon will cling to his job at Purdue Northwest or resign under pressure remains to be seen. For Roach, the Faculty Senate chair, the racist comment at commencement is the final straw. He points to other issues that the faculty is upset about: declining enrollment, budget cuts, an allegedly sloppy merger with another campus and high turnover in the provost’s office.

Given faculty disapproval of Keon and the recent public relations hit caused by his remark, Roach thinks it’s just a matter of when, not if, Purdue’s Board of Trustees pushes Keon out.

“They’re going to have to get rid of him,” Roach said. “This will not stand.”

As for the trustees, per the board’s statement, they “don’t intend to comment further on this personnel matter.”

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