AP: As Governor, Mitch Daniels Targeted the Teaching of Howard Zinn

July 17, 2013

The Associated Press reports that when serving as Governor of Indiana, current Purdue University President Mitch Daniels sought to remove historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States from Indiana classrooms and explored altering funding for an organization led by a professor critical of Daniels.  Emails (PDF) obtained by the AP via a Freedom of Information Act request document Daniels asking aides to “assure [him] that [Zinn’s book] is not in use anywhere in Indiana” and, if the book was being taught, asking for thoughts on how to “get rid of it.” In the February 2010 email exchange, Daniels also complained about a National Endowment for the Humanities summer course for current educators that included Zinn in the curriculum, stating that “[t]his crap should not be accepted for credit by the state” and asking aides to “disqualify the propaganda.”  In a separate April 2009 email exchange posted by the AP, former Governor Daniels appears to ask aides to explore altering funding for an organization run by Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis Professor Charles W. Little following Little’s public criticism of the state budget. Commenting on an email written by Little to members of the Indiana Urban Schools Association (IUSA), of which Little is Executive Director, Daniels asks that his staff “examine cutting them out” of a planned “surge,” presumably in education spending. (Later that year, Daniels proposed to increase funding for public education.)  The AP notes that the extent to which Daniels’ requests to remove Zinn’s book and to explore the possibility of reducing funding for IUSA were acted upon is unclear. Nevertheless, the emails suggest a troubling lack of consideration for academic freedom and an interest in punishing critics in the academy through funding mechanisms.  Ken Paulson, president of the First Amendment Center and dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University, correctly notes the First Amendment problems presented here:  “What sets this apart is what appears to be a back-channel effort by the governor to limit access to ideas,” said Paulson, also dean of the College of Mass Communication at Middle Tennessee State University. “Under the First Amendment, the government is prohibited from trying to suppress expression with which it disagrees.” FIRE has made this point countless times in our 14 year history, and we make it again today.  The Wisconsin State Legislature cannot ban faculty members from working with a nonprofit journalism organization critical of legislators. New York City Council members must not threaten to cut funding to Brooklyn College because they disapprove of the content of a campus event. The Oklahoma State Legislature should not have investigated the University of Oklahoma for hosting Richard Dawkins on campus. A Maryland state senator should not have threatened the funding of Maryland public universities following an event that included a screening of a pornographic film. The attorney general of Virginia should not have launched an investigation into the research of a former University of Virginia professor.  Governmental intrusions into the academy—whether by threatening to enact retaliatory funding cuts or attempting to ban certain books from campus—are squarely at odds with academic freedom. As the Supreme Court of the United States made clear in the landmark case of Sweezy v. New Hampshire, 354 U.S. 234, 250 (1957)—a case concerning the New Hampshire Attorney General’s questioning of Marxist economist Paul Sweezy for a lecture he had delivered at the University of New Hampshire:  The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. No one should underestimate the vital role in a democracy that is played by those who guide and train our youth. To impose any strait jacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. … Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise our civilization will stagnate and die.  Upon becoming Purdue’s president this January, Daniels strongly endorsed these crucially important principles in an open letter. Daniels wrote: Open inquiry — A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate. It is the wellspring of advancing knowledge and the rationale for academic freedom. No one can expect his views to be free from vigorous challenge, but all must feel completely safe in speaking out. One can hope for a climate of courtesy and civility, and "speech" that attempts to silence or intimidate others must be confronted strongly, but the ensuring of free expression is paramount. This is, if anything, even more important when the point of the expression is to criticize decisions of the university administration itself.  In comments to Inside Higher Ed this morning, Daniels argued that he had not attempted to remove Zinn from college and university classrooms in Indiana, contending 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.” Daniels further stated that “[i]f 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."   We hope that President Daniels will live up to the statements he made when taking office and will demonstrate the respect for expressive rights and academic freedom required of a public university president.