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  • Writer's pictureBonnie Tai

UAC Calls for Purdue NW Chancellor's Resignation

An Open Letter to Thomas L. Keon,

Chancellor of Purdue University Northwest

Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas L. Keon mocked Asian languages in a commencement speech on Saturday, December 10, 2022 in West Lafayette, IN. (Photo from CNN)

We understand. Chancellors are human, too. You make mistakes. And it’s humiliating to make an “offensive and insensitive” gaffe in such a formal, public setting—arguably the biggest event of the academic year for new graduates and their families. You’ve apologized, publicly. The Purdue University board has issued a reprimand, noting that your "offhand attempt at humor was in poor taste, unbecoming of [your] role as chancellor, and unacceptable for an occasion that should be remembered solely for its celebratory and unifying atmosphere." It also included a warning: "a repeat incident of a similar nature would provide grounds for further Board action, including possible dismissal." That should be enough, shouldn’t it?

We argue that it is not, and that you should hold yourself more accountable to further actions, both immediate and long-term. While it is evident from the Board’s public response that it will no longer comment on this matter, the obvious mirth of others appearing in the commencement video at your offhand, hurtful attempt at humor, demonstrates to us that there is more you must do. As a leader who claims expertise in “mentoring for Higher Education Leadership, particularly among under-represented groups,” it is your duty to learn and grow from this moment.

First and foremost, you should resign.

We fully support the Faculty Senate’s calls for your resignation. While your comments at this Commencement ceremony may have been “offhand,” they are apparently not isolated from systemic and structural challenges at Purdue Northwest (PNW) to realize a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive culture. Stepping down acknowledges the importance of centering impacts of our behaviors over intentions and opens a pathway for PNW to hire a leader who can lead with the trust and confidence that PNW deserves.

Purdue Northwest espouses high standards of ethics that call for further accountability on your part. PNW’s Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion states its mission as “Promoting and enhancing a culture of inclusivity, ethical behavior, equitable treatment, equal access and equal opportunity for all community members.” What is a culture of inclusivity if not one in which all community members feel valued for and not in spite of their cultural differences—including their heritage languages? PNW’s Vice President of Ethics and Compliance claims a vision of PNW “To serve as a model to other institutions of higher education of ensuring equal access and equal opportunity.” How can PNW enact this vision when its Chancellor ridicules the heritage languages of 145 of its students and over 3000 paid employees (not including those who identify as biracial with Asian ancestry)?

Criterion 2 of the Higher Learning Commission’s accreditation standards by which PNW must meet is that ‘The institution acts with integrity; its conduct is ethical and responsible.” As the leader of this institution, your conduct should therefore reflect this standard. When your conduct is neither ethical nor responsible given its impact on the PNW community, even if the intent was not meant to harm anyone, then your further action should address the harm done and convince the community that you are taking actions to ensure that this kind of conduct will never occur again.

Some of us were taught growing up that “sticks and stones may break our bones but words will never hurt us.” Yet there is compelling evidence that harmful speech, when given airtime and especially when openly or tacitly approved (such as by the laughter joined by those present on the Commencement dais) can escalate to harmful actions, including physical violence. We have seen this escalation from hateful speech to violent actions in this country following the pandemic with the rise in anti-Asian violence as well as two generations ago in the wake of anti-Asian rhetoric that provoked the murder of Vincent Chin.

If you won’t resign, however…

If you will not resign, then you must earn back the trust you have broken with a majority of the Faculty Senate. Higher education leaders play an outsized role in fostering just the kind of inclusive culture that PNW aims to offer all its students and employees, including those who identify as Asian or Asian-American. If you want to show the PNW students, alumnx, faculty, and staff that you deserve their confidence in your leadership toward a more equitable, diverse, and inclusive university, here are some steps you can take:

  1. Step down from directing the interdisciplinary PRIDE team and delegate that leadership to someone identified by underrepresented and marginalized members of the PNW community, including Asian and Pacific Islanders, who can offer leadership that underrepresented employees and students view as trustworthy and effective. This delegation of leadership gives you the opportunity to learn alongside other employees of PNW. In particular, taking the Implicit Association Test can help you to identify the associations you implicitly make with races, genders, sexualities, and other marginalized identities at PNW. The self-knowledge gained from these test results can help to prevent future unconsidered and hurtful eruptions.

  2. Listen to marginalized students, follow their leadership, and learn the ways in which jokes and other forms of denigrating speech and behavior exclude minoritized community members and create an inequitable educational and inhospitable work environment at PNW. In addition to your promised meeting with the Student Government Association, meet with the Chinese and Indian Student Associations, as well as Latino, Black, and other social justice-focused student organizations.

  3. Lead and fund a charge to participate in Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion training and professional development for all senior administrators and board members. Share what you have learned publicly with the PNW community. Learning how to create a culture of inclusion is not only for students. By participating in and encouraging other institutional leaders to participate in these opportunities for continued learning, you can attempt to earn back the trust and confidence of those students and employees who have expressed no confidence in your leadership.

You may see our open letter from an entity outside of PNW and even outside the state of Indiana as a challenge to your institutional autonomy and your expertise. Instead, we hope you will see it as a response from a group of humans to another human, all prone to making mistakes, constantly learning, while holding ourselves accountable to the responsibilities our position and privilege afford us.


Unified Asian Communities

Action Items

  1. Sign and share this petition to call for Chancellor Keon's resignation.

  2. Share this blog post with your networks - post it on your socials, circulate it at your office, etc!

  3. Learn more about the history of Asian Americans. You can start with this free documentary series on PBS.

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