Almost every Asian person has encountered racial mockery by someone aping an Asian language. I first experienced it on an elementary school playground. Never did I imagine that I would witness it by a prominent university leader during a commencement ceremony. Yet Purdue Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon did exactly that when he opened his remarks to his university’s commencement ceremony last week with incoherent “Asian” gibberish.
Chancellor Keon serves as the public face of Purdue Northwest. He knowingly made a racist provocation in his capacity as Chancellor while convening a university-sponsored public event. He did so while dressed in his university’s academic regalia, formalwear that symbolizes the honor and prestige bestowed upon the individual wearing it.
The response to Chancellor Keon’s provocation is also revealing. Some individuals seated behind the podium appeared uncomfortable or surprised. Others—including James E. Dedelow, the commencement speaker and a recent alum of Purdue Northwest whose speech Chancellor Keon was responding to—let out visible chuckles. The audience erupted in open laughter.
Chancellor Keon performed his racial mockery in full display, and others followed his lead. I can only imagine how the Asian graduates and their parents very likely in attendance must have felt during what should have been a celebratory moment of academic achievement. Instead, it was a shameful moment for Purdue Northwest.
What makes this moment particularly jarring is that Purdue Northwest and similar campuses have gone to great lengths to recruit international students, primarily from Asian countries, in their bid to become world-class institutions of higher learning. Across the Purdue University System of which Purdue Northwest is a part, the number of international students from Asia has increased substantially over the last decade. At the flagship campus in West Lafayette, for example, international students are the largest demographic after White domestic students. Purdue University also has a sizable Asian American student population who come from within the United States. Together, Asian international students and Asian American students constitute a notable proportion of the student body across the Purdue campuses.
But anti-Asian hate and violence have also heightened across the United States, fueled by inflammatory rhetoric like the derisive comments made by Chancellor Keon. Indeed, he is just another addition to a long line of prominent figures who have openly mocked Asians in the last few years—the most prominent to do so being the former President of the United States. This has had real effects across the American higher education sector: since 2016, new international student enrollment had been decreasing year over year across colleges and universities in the United States, even before it plummeted in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
So what does it mean when a university leader publicly mocks its Asian students even as he leads an institution that courts their very presence? For the last decade, I have conducted research on Asian students’ experiences on American campuses. My research has taken me to different universities from California to Washington, DC to overseas. I found that universities often frame Asian students’ increasing presence on campus as a financial decision without regard for the climate or culture that awaits them upon arrival.
Chancellor Keon’s performance is emblematic of a wider problem in American higher education: that Asian students are often regarded as a monolithic group of cash cows, plagiarizers and cheaters, objects of ridicule, or all of the above. Seldom are they recognized as diverse individuals who have hopes, dreams, and anxieties about the future like most college students today. The very fact that Chancellor Keon doesn’t even distinguish which Asian language he mimics reflects how he views Asian students—both Asian international and Asian American—as indistinguishable people, a sentiment that is unfortunately quite common across the American higher education sector.
In his apology statement, Chancellor Keon touts the fact that Purdue Northwest recently welcomed its most diverse study body in history. That is wonderful news. However, the problem is not that the university lacks diversity. Rather, the problem is that the university has not sufficiently fostered a welcoming campus environment for the diverse student body it claims to value. This was made painfully visible by the very leader of the university himself. By continuing to serve in his leadership role at Purdue Northwest, Chancellor Keon’s proclamations that his university values diverse students ring as hollow as the gibberish he spouted.
Dr. Stephanie K. Kim is an Associate Professor of the Practice and Faculty Director of Higher Education Administration at Georgetown University.