by John Krull
Mitch Daniels calls to express some concerns about a column I’d written about him, the late Howard Zinn and academic freedom.
Daniels, former Indiana governor and current Purdue University president, tells me that the stories about an email exchange between him and his education advisors while he was the Hoosier state’s chief executive have been misrepresented. The emails questioned whether Indiana students should be taught Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. In the column, I criticized Daniels for attempting to squelch free speech and academic freedom.
Now, as we talk in a civil and respectful fashion, I tell him that I want to hear what he has to say. I tell him that we could do what I did once when Evan Bayh was governor and thought I’d treated him unfairly in a column. I’ll listen to him and then write another column that simply expresses his point of view.
Daniels says he would appreciate that.
He says that suppressing the free expression of ideas on college campuses was the furthest thing from his mind. He says that, in the emails, he merely wanted to be certain that Zinn’s book wasn’t being taught in Indiana middle-school classrooms.
It wasn’t appropriate, he says, for eighth-graders to read and that’s what he wanted to stop if it were happening.
His commitment to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses, he says, is pretty close to absolute.
Daniels says that his commitment to academic freedom was the reason he invited Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education – FIRE – to Purdue’s campus this spring. FIRE defends free expression rights for faculty and students on American campuses and has a history of defending unpopular expression on both the left and right.
“We want to get an A rating from them,” Daniels says. He notes that not many schools have grades that good from FIRE and that Purdue is working on places it could improve.
Daniels adds that, if Howard Zinn still were alive and a Purdue faculty member, Daniels would defend to the end Zinn’s right to believe, say, write and teach what he wants. Daniels says he believes that strongly in the principle of academic freedom.
That does not mean, he says, that he believes that Zinn was a good historian.
“If someone wants to discuss whether what he has done is valid history or not,” Daniels says, “we can have the debate all day.”
He begins to list the many ways he finds Zinn’s work to be in error – a list that gets expanded upon when a Daniels assistant emails me still more examples.
Daniels notes that Zinn’s work does not include mentions of the battle of Gettysburg, the Gettysburg Address, Washington’s Farewell Address, Appomattox, the Treaty of Versailles or historical figures such as U.S. Grant, Robert E. Lee or George Patton.
Daniels says that Zinn’s work, though, does feature passages that charge Abraham Lincoln with holding racist views, the founding fathers with favoring a strong central government in order to protect the interests of the wealthy and Bill Clinton with emphasizing crime prevention, welfare reform and foreign policy as to distract attention from “the failures of the American system.”
Daniels also notes that many historians – including those with liberal leanings, such as the late Arthur Schlesinger Jr. – had disparaged Zinn’s work or dismissed Zinn as a polemicist, not a historian.
But, all of that aside, Daniels says that if Zinn were alive and a member of the Purdue faculty, he would defend Zinn’s right to say or write what he wants.
Daniels says that he normally lets stories critical of his performance as governor – what he calls “my previous job” – slide by without comment.
This story, though, is different for two reasons, he says.
The first is the stories’ implied argument that he supports censorship.
“Once that gets out there,” Daniels says, “it stays forever, even if it’s not fair.”
The second reason is that this controversy affects more than just his reputation.
“It reflects upon Purdue,” Daniels says. “And the university has done nothing to deserve that.”
Mitch Daniels closes the conversation by saying that he appreciates the chance to be heard – and then turns to his next duty as Purdue University’s president.
Schools: Purdue University