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US Purdue president apologizes for calling black scholar ‘rarest creature in America’

21:15  05 december  2019
21:15  05 december  2019 Source:   usatoday.com

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – With campus groups and faculty pressuring Purdue President Mitch Daniels to atone for his choice of words when he called an African American scholar “one of the rarest creatures in America” and the “rarest phenomenon,” the former governor of Indiana apologized in a letter sent to members of five organizations on campus.

Mitch Daniels wearing a suit and tie: Purdue president Mitch Daniels speaks during a Purdue board of trustees meeting, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 at Stewart Hall in West Lafayette.© Nikos Frazier | Journal & Courier Purdue president Mitch Daniels speaks during a Purdue board of trustees meeting, Friday, Aug. 2, 2019 at Stewart Hall in West Lafayette.

“I retract and apologize for a figure of speech I used in a recent impromptu dialogue with students,” Daniels wrote in a letter sent Wednesday to members of the Purdue chapter of the NAACP, Purdue’s Black Caucus of Faculty and Staff, Purdue’s Latino Faculty/Staff Association, the Black Student Union and the Latino Student Union.

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“My reference was in praise of a specific individual and the unique and exciting possibility of bringing that particular individual to Purdue,” Daniels 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.”

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Daniels’ comment was made Nov. 20 after a meeting with Purdue Student Government leaders. Student greeted Daniels and asked him to follow up on his thoughts about what Purdue was doing to promote diversity on campus and to make underrepresented minority students feel welcome.

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That night, Daniels had been pressed by students about his administration’s response after a Purdue student had been denied the sale of cold medicine because a clerk and a manager at an off-campus CVS Pharmacy had rejected his Puerto Rican driver’s license as sufficient ID. The incident led to student rallies calling on a response from Daniels, which he’d been reluctant to offer.

During the conversation, Daniels talked about recruiting minority faculty.

“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 said that night, according to a recording made by reporters at the Purdue Exponent newspaper.

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'I’ve never felt so misunderstood before'

When students challenged him on the use of the term “rarest creatures” – “Creatures? Come on,” said D’yan Berry, president of the Black Student Union, said – Daniels followed up: “It’s a figure of speech. You must have taken some, you know, literature. Let me say, rarest birds. Rarest phenomenon.”

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The backlash was swift on social media and among faculty on the University Senate’s Equity and Diversity Committee, which issued a statement calling Daniels’ phrasing “problematic.” The Purdue student chapter of the NAACP on Monday called for an apology in a letter to the Lafayette Journal & Courier, a part of the USA TODAY Network.

And on Wednesday, two weeks later, Daniels’ statements were dissected in a New York Times op-ed by G. Gabrielle Starr, president of Pomona College, a private liberal arts college in Claremont, California. In it, Starr wrote that she was breaking from the “standard etiquette for college presidents,” which “is to let the remarks of another leader pass on by.”

“In just a few sentences, Mr. Daniels seemed to question the possibility of sustained black excellence,” Starr wrote in the New York Times op-ed. “It’s true that the number of black scholars is smaller than one would like. But they’re also suppressed by the fiction that black leadership is an impossible dream – a rare bird.”

Daniels told the Lafayette Journal & Courier two days after his comments: “I’ve never felt so misunderstood before.”

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Two weeks later, he issued this apology.

“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,” Daniels said. “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.”

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Berry said she received the apology via email Wednesday afternoon. Berry said the excitement she felt faded when she saw it had gone to a small collection of people, rather than a public statement sent to the entire campus. Berry called it a half-step for something she said she believed Daniels should have done when she pointed out his language to him that night.

“At this point, it is a public matter,” Berry, a senior, said. “There are other African American scholars all over the world, and people who are not African American scholars, who have taken offense to the statement. At this point, it’s not just a list of 10 people you can apologize to just to put a Band-Aid on the situation.”

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Berry said the murmurs haven’t gone away on campus.

“The campus is very upset, especially in the black community, I can say for sure,” Berry said. “It’s a big issue for people right now, because when you’re paying a lot of money to a university that looks at you like a creature, it kind of rubs you the wrong way.”

Statement comes in wake of CVS incident

Jorge Perez de Jesus, a Ph.D. student in Latin American literature at Purdue, said he’d been emailing Daniels regularly since Jose Guzman Payano, a Purdue junior from Puerto Rico, had been turned away when he tried to buy cold medicine at the off-campus CVS. CVS apologized and promised to investigate. Perez de Jesus helped organize a protest that urged Daniels stand with students, including on off-campus matters.

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In his letter to students, Daniels said that “while I am reviewing past judgment calls,” he regretted not addressing the CVS situation sooner, given that it “precipitated the impromptu dialogue and therefore the misunderstanding.”

“It would have been possible to express the genuine concern we all felt without condemning prematurely any individual or local business establishment before the facts were known,” Daniels said. “That was a misjudgment on my part and a lesson for the future.”

“I am glad that he's finally acknowledge that his words, as our university leader, matter,” Perez de Jesus said Wednesday. “The president’s statement lacks specificity. If he were a student in my class I would point this out. However, it is a step forward, and there is a possibility for further dialogue.”

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Carey Walls, a Purdue student and Indiana NAACP Youth and College president, said he wanted to meet with other member of Purdue’s NAACP chapter after receiving Daniels email, two days after the group called for a public apology. He said he would reserve comment until then.

Audrey Ruple, chair of the University Senate’s Equity and Diversity Committee, said she was “grateful to President Daniels for his statement.”

“I am sure this will have a positive impact on our efforts to address the issues surrounding diversity and inclusion at Purdue University and in our greater community,” Ruple said.

The full text of Purdue President Mitch Daniels' letter

“To my fellow Boilermakers,

“I retract and apologize for a figure of speech I used in a recent impromptu dialogue with students.  My reference was in praise of a specific individual and the unique and exciting possibility of bringing that particular individual to Purdue.  I wasn’t talking about any group or making generalizations. 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.

“While I am reviewing past judgment calls, I regret not making some kind of statement at the time of the CVS incident that precipitated the impromptu dialogue and therefore the misunderstanding.  It would have been possible to express the genuine concern we all felt without condemning prematurely any individual or local business establishment before the facts were known.  That was a misjudgment on my part and a lesson for the future.  Sincerely, Mitch.”

Follow reporter Dave Bangert on Twitter: @davebangert

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This article originally appeared on Lafayette Journal & Courier: Purdue president apologizes for calling black scholar ‘rarest creature in America’

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