As Professors at Purdue University, like many others, we were horrified and angered by the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the subsequent acquittal of George Zimmerman. But these events are not something that happened in isolation in a gated community in distant Florida. Recent events at our land grant University and in our state, Indiana, have forced us to understand the alarming connections between the national drive for privatization of education, and the variety of dangers and threats they pose to people of color.
The American Legislative Exchange Council, a shadowy national corporate-sponsored policy group, just celebrated its 40th birthday in Chicago. According to a report by the Center for Media and Democracy, ALEC wrote 466 bills in its 2013 legislative session, including bills which promote privatization of public education, limit the rights of workers to organize or raise the minimum wage, promote fracking – and most significantly – advocate for voter ID and “stand your ground” type laws.
In 2006, Indiana, became after Florida one of the first states in the US to pass an ALEC-sponsored “Stand Your Ground” law. The law was signed by then Governor Mitch Daniels. In 2008, Daniels was a featured keynote speaker at ALEC’s national conference. In 2012, Daniels wrote the Foreword for ALEC’s annual “report card” on public education. On a more personal note, Mitch Daniels, along with his fondness for Harley Davidson motorcycles, is an advocate for open-carry gun laws.
Organizations like ALEC and men like Mitch Daniels do not usually come to mind when we think of communing with scholarly women and men who spend most of their time in libraries and research laboratories. And yet, last year the Purdue Board of Trustees appointed Mitch Daniels as the President of Purdue, a public land grant university.
When a man like Mitch Daniels is hired to head a major University, what message does that send to people of color both locally and across the nation? Will this hire attract students and faculty of color to work at Purdue? More importantly, will a hire like this help strengthen the mission of public education?
We should take a close look at Mitch Daniels’s road to power. Intellectually, Daniels is a proponent of the work of Charles Murray, co-author of The Bell Curve and notorious for applying his eugenics theory to public education. Daniels was hired at Purdue by a Republican-controlled Board of Trustees – some of whom had contributed money to Daniel’s election campaign and its policies. How did those policies affect non-white citizens of Indiana? At the end of his term as governor, Black unemployment in Indiana had risen to 19.8 percent, far higher than the national average and nearly three times the rate for Whites. Daniels, with ALEC backing, also pushed through Right to Work legislation which disproportionately affects women and minority workers who make up a high percentage of unionized labor. Black incarceration rates in Indiana are now proportionately higher than those in traditional slave-holding states such as South Carolina and Mississippi.
Purdue, like all large public Universities, is a reflection of the world around it. It should not be surprising then that the walls of our University are not strong enough to protect against Indiana’s programmatic attack on people of color.
According to the FBI, Purdue now ranks second in reported hate crimes among all public and private colleges in the country and the highest among all Indiana colleges.
Purdue also ranks second from the bottom among the Big Ten universities and other peer schools in minorities (5 percent) and women (30 percent) among full-time faculty and female students. Purdue also ranks fourth from the bottom, at 13 percent, for enrollment of domestic minority students.
The question must be asked: in a world where Trayvon Martin never gets to finish high school, how many students and faculty of color do we hope to attract to a University whose President is the public face of Stand Your Ground?
We both chose to teach at a Public university because we thought that we were contributing, in a small way, not just to academic achievement, but towards the common good. With Malcolm X, we believed that education was not just about books and exams but a “passport to the future.” But recent attacks on public education combined with the instances of racial violence on our campus and across the country have convinced us that it is no longer enough that we speak out only in the classroom. We believe that we need to join with others on the street to fight for what Dr. King called “beloved community”. Because the students of tomorrow who we hope will fill our classrooms, the future graduates who we hope will become our colleagues, need first to be able to walk home safely with a bag of skittles.