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A Presidential Apology at Purdue

December 6, 2019

Purdue University president Mitch Daniels apologized Wednesday for making a controversial and, according to his critics, inaccurate comment about the scarcity of black scholars, which he called “one of the rarest creatures in America.”

“I retract and apologize for a figure of speech I used in a recent impromptu dialogue with students,” he wrote in a letter emailed to members of the Purdue chapter of the NAACP, the Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff, the Latino Faculty/Staff Association, the Black Student Union and the Latino Student Union, according to The Exponent, Purdue’s student newspaper, and other news outlets.

“My reference was in praise of a specific individual and the unique and exciting possibility of bringing that particular individual to Purdue,” he wrote. “The word in question was ill-chosen and imprecise and, in retrospect, too capable of being misunderstood. I accept accountability for the poor judgment involved.

“To be clear, I sincerely believe that individuals of every race and ethnicity are capable of and demonstrate academic excellence and achieve top recognition in all of the academic disciplines. I also recognize that more needs to be done to recruit, support and encourage individuals from groups that have been historically underrepresented in higher education. My word choice, as clumsy as it was, was an expression of my excitement with the progress of one such effort.”

Daniels made the comments about black scholars on Nov. 21, during an impromptu conversation with a group of students who approached him after he’d formally met with members of the student government to discuss campus diversity issues.

“At the end of this week, I’ll be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America -- a leading, I mean a really leading, African American scholar,” Daniels told the group of students, according to a recording made by The Exponent.

The reaction on and off campus was swift. Daniels was widely lambasted and the hashtag #IAmNOTACreature began trending.

The campus chapter of the NAACP demanded an apology. An African American college president called Daniels out in an op-ed in The New York Times. And faculty on the University Senate’s Equity and Diversity Committee issued a statement saying that “the idea that there is a scarcity of leading African American scholars is simply not true,” according to the Journal & Courier newspaper. The faculty committee called for training for university personnel to understand what the professors called “problematic” language from Daniels.

For his part, Daniels said he has “never felt so misunderstood.”

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