Will the Asian American President of Purdue React to Anti-Asian Racism at Purdue NW?

Here’s a question that will be a test of diversity in 2023.

How will the first Asian American President of one of America’s most conservative public universities, in one of the most conservative states, react to anti-Asian racism in his leadership ranks? 

Will he weed it out with full force and authority? Or simply doing nothing? So far it’s the latter, and a disappointment.

It’s been less than a week that President Mung Chiang took over as the president of Purdue University. On New Year’s Day, Chiang issued a humbling inaugural message “as an immigrant living the American dream,” that is all rah-rah Purdue and diversity. Emil GuillermoEmil Guillermo

But nothing in his online message indicates any corrective action will be taken against Chancellor Thomas Keon, the head of the Purdue University NW campus in Hammond, Indiana, who has made everyone aware of the hypocrisy at Purdue.

You’ll recall Keon’s racist display at the Dec. 10 commencement of Purdue NW. If you missed it, see the video here for full context. You'll see as the keynote speaker ends, Keon walks up and delivers his anti-Asian slur.

This situation potentially could have been a teachable moment for the entire nation about Asian Americans and social justice, had it been handled properly.

We are, after all, coming out of a three-year period where the organization #StopAAPIHate has recorded more than 11,000 hate instances against AAPIs. From minor to major transgressions, from verbal slights to aggressive assaults, sometimes resulting in death. This is the hate that’s emerged in American society since Donald Trump began scapegoating Asian Americans for what he called the “Kung Flu” and “China Virus.”

A slur is more than a minor transgression. And Keon’s slur shows us that both he and the nation still don’t get it. Keon should have stepped down immediately from his leadership role of an institution of higher learning.

It’s an example America needed to see. Instead, Keon, the accounting guy, wasn’t held fully accountable for the harm his public speech caused. He simply tried to will it all away as if no one would notice. Asian Americans are just 3 percent of his campus, after all. When the matter didn’t go away, Keon finally issued a kind of bureaucratic apology for the files on Dec. 14, indicating the slur didn’t express his values or the university’s. The board of trustees, not wanting controversy, hastily accepted his story.

That’s when the faculty senate became enraged and voted to demand Keon’s resignation. When Keon didn’t resign, a majority of Purdue Northwest’s tenure-track and clinical faculty, including department heads and deans, gave Keon a “no confidence” vote.

The vote was not close: 135 to 20.

Keon still didn’t resign, even though this was his second no confidence vote. And yet the attempts by the board to save Keon’s job have been extraordinary. Most amusing is how everyone knows it’s racist, and yet, there is such a willingness to discount it as if there is no real infraction. Even national writers have taken on the “Poor Keon” tone, acknowledging racism but saying that Keon shouldn’t lose his job or be forced into retirement.

It’s a kind of gaslighting 2.0. It happened; we’re not going to pretend it didn’t happen. But we’re going to treat the perpetrator like it didn’t happen.

Everyone thinks about poor Chancellor Keon. No one thinks about people like Vicha Ratanapakdee, the 84-year-old Thai man who was killed in San Francisco on Jan. 28, 2021, after a man shoved him to the ground in a hate attack. Or Filipino American Vilma Kari in midtown Manhattan, who was knocked to the ground and kicked in the face as she was walking to church in 2021. Or another Filipino American, Noel Quintana, who was slashed with a knife across the face in a New York City subway.

Asian American hate? It begins with that accent that “others” us and makes AAPIs vulnerable.

That’s what Keon knows he did. Once in public should be enough, but the Purdue Board of Trustees, though recognizing the racism, wants to see a pattern in Keon’s behavior before they go beyond a reprimand. And that’s where we are. A simple reprimand, your basic tap on the wrist.  

AAPI faculty members are outraged.

“There should be consequences for his behavior, and a reprimand is not the answer,” one faculty member of PNW emailed me. “His behavior is a trigger for many and is still disturbing. He should resign or be fired. I am still livid.”

I gave the faculty member anonymity to allow for full candor.

“I know many Asian faculty that have experienced micro-aggressions from students, faculty, and leadership,” my source told me. “This behavior triggered deep pain for my colleagues.”

And then the person admitted to experiencing micro-aggressions from a colleague. “I followed procedure [went to HR and reached out to my department chair]. The faculty member was tenured and nothing happened.”

That appears to be the way these things are handled at Purdue.

If the board of trustees won’t act, that leaves punishing Keon up to the new president , Dr. Mung Chiang.

Chiang is a young hot shot academic, a Hong Kong immigrant who went to Stanford, starred in engineering at Princeton, and was lured to head the engineering school at Purdue the last five years.

More revealing is his stint as science advisor to the xenophobic and racist Trump administration.

Will he or won’t he rock the boat now? Chiang’s response as president could turn Purdue’s failure to act in 2022 into a new sign of hope in 2023.

The first Asian American president fires the racist chancellor who told a bad Asian joke? That could signal a real change in America.

But so far, from Chiang, we hear nothing. Or tacit approval?

New president. Asian face. Conservative leadership. Any real change from the standard institutional racism found in higher ed? Not at Purdue.

Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. Contact: www.amok.com