Purdue’s president takes aim at the left

October 12, 2017

Mitch Daniels has decided that the real enemy on the Purdue campus isn't the far right threatening harassment and violence, but left-wing activism, writes Elizabeth Schulte.

PURDUE UNIVERSITY President Mitch Daniels made it clear to anti-racists that he's more interested in attacking them than the fascists who are organizing on campus in a letter to well-known pro-Palestine and anti-racist professor Bill Mullen that accuses Mullen of being "anti-Semitic."

Daniels, the former governor of Indiana and a Bush Jr. administration official, wrote the letter in response to a statement sent by Purdue's Campus Antifascist Network chapter, calling on him to look into several examples of fascist organizing on campus, including flyers circulated by the white nationalist Identity Evropa.

Instead of taking the threat of the far-right organizing seriously, Daniels saw this as an opportunity to attack Mullen, writing, "In the past, I have had to defend your right to speech that was widely interpreted as racist, in the form of that oldest of bigotries, anti-Semitism."

Mullen has been a supporter of the Palestinian boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel apartheid, and he helped organize within the American Studies Association for a resolution to boycott Israeli universities, which passed in 2013.

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels (Paul Morigi | flickr)

For many years, opponents of the movement for justice in Palestine have tried to tar its supporters as "anti-Semitic," an accusation that has no basis in fact. "It is the most clichéd right-wing and Zionist accusation, and Daniels is simply recycling it," Mullen said in an interview. "He's trying desperately to change the subject from his failure to act against white supremacy on campus."

The letter, which Daniels' office released after a query by the Lafayette Journal and Courier, also incorrectly claims that Mullen and the Campus Antifascist Network are affiliated with Antifa.

In reality, Daniels' statement encourages attacks on left-wing campus activism. Mullen said that he'd already received an e-mail that called him a "faggot" and threatened a physical attack.

WHILE DANIELS focuses on attacking the campus left, the far right is trying to sink roots at Purdue. Two weeks after Trump's election, the neo-Nazi American Vanguard put up posters, which included Third Reich iconography, on campus.

"Daniels said it was 'not clear' what the posters meant," said Mullen. "After public outrage at his remarks, he again said he wouldn't give the Vanguard unwanted attention by acting on them."

Since then, there have been five more incidents of white supremacist or white nationalist fliers on campus. Two weeks ago, tables in the Purdue University's Honors College and Residences were found arranged in the shape of a swastika. The meaning of this should be clear, even to Daniels.

While Daniels condemns left-wing activists as "racists," he does all he can to make sure conservative ideas get a wider audience. "This is the first time he's attacked me personally," Mullen said, "but what he's done is create a hostile environment on campus for progressive thought, minority students and left political dissent."

Since taking over as university president, Daniels has adopted the "freedom of expression" policy developed by the University of Chicago, which he uses "to expand space for conservative thought and speech...[and] as a cover to diminish and restrict progressive speech," said Mullen.

For example, Chief Diversity Officer Christina Taylor was fired not long after she helped organize campus talks by Angela Davis and Cornel West. Yet Daniels hosts the most visible lecture series on campus, stacked with white male conservatives such as George Will, Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State George Schultz, and Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance.

SINCE TRUMP'S election, right-wingers like Daniels--whose record of attacks on immigrants, reproductive rights and unions is clear from his time in public office--have been even more emboldened to broadcast their right-wing agenda. Part of that agenda includes silencing the left.

"Daniels has helped lead a two-pronged charge against radicals, leftists and progressives: pushing hard to expand free speech to the right---and for the right---and restricting the space and practice of left voices," said Mullen. "This is a pincer move being practiced across the country that many of us are caught up in, and must expose and resist."

Daniels' smear campaign against Mullen is one example of a wider threat. This week, Drexel University placed outspoken left-wing professor George Ciccariello-Maher on leave for comments he made on social media. Several academics have become the direct targets of right-wing threats, such as Princeton University's Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, who got death threat after criticizing the president in a commencement address.

The message of the right is clear: If you are a professor and you speak out, your job could be at risk.

If attacks like these go unconfronted, they will generate an atmosphere of fear for people on the left and pave the way for far-right groups like Identity Evropa that are on our campus this year on a drive to recruit.

There are a number of things campus activists can do to resist this assault, Mullen says:

The first thing we need to do is win political arguments that matter: against racism, against sexism, against homophobia, imperialism, capitalism and Trump. Winning political arguments in a time of crisis is the quickest way to make sure better ideas prevail in the university and on the streets.

The next thing we need to do is continue to organize broadly in a united front against the right. Specific to attacks on professors, we need permanent coalitions to protect university faculty from attack. One of these I'm involved with is the Campus Antifascist Network...

A third thing is to join and build academic unions who can help defend faculty from attack. I am a member of the Purdue American Association of University Professors chapter, which has a history of filing actions against Universities that ignore faculty rights or governance...

Fourth, faculty and students need to work in coordination. LGBTQ, African American, Latinx, Palestinian students and student groups should be involved with defense of faculty campaigns...

Last, campus groups should work with trade unions and progressive non-academic organizations to protect faculty. An attack on a teacher for holding and expressing antiracist views is an attack on all workers holding and expressing those views. As we always say, "An injury to one is an injury to all."

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