Thomas Keon, who is currently serving as the chancellor of Purdue Northwest (PNW), announced he would be transitioning to faculty next year, which drew outrage among university officials.
In an email obtained by the Chicago Tribune, Keon said the transition would happen after June 30, 2024, explaining that the move was in line with the limit in the Purdue University system on how long a chancellor may serve in the position.
For the last few years, I have known that my last day as Chancellor will be June 30, 2024. This leadership transition is a part of the evolution of PNW and these kinds of transitions have occurred over the last 75 years. I have appreciated and enjoyed serving Purdue Northwest, its students, faculty, staff, and community and I will continue to do so for the next year and beyond.
Alongside the transition announcement, Purdue University President Mung Chiang and the Board of Trustees also announced that a search advisory committee tasked with selecting the next chancellor will be formed.
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The committee will be headed by Trustee Malcolm DeKryger, whom Gov. Eric Holcomb appointed in August 2022, and Associate Vice President of Human Resources Amy Boyle.
Speaking to the Chicago Tribune on Friday, PNW Faculty Senate Chair Thomas Roach took issue with how the university plans to search for the next chancellor, a responsibility the faculty senate has been carrying out for years.
All the previous searches have been headed by the Faculty Senate; I appointed (the committee) in 2012, when Keon was chosen. When we were asked if a trustee could be part of the committee, we allowed it. But they’re now exceeding their authority, and they’re arrogant enough to think they know what we need. We need to have a statewide discussion (among the campuses) about how to be a trustee; now, you just have to be successful in business or politics to be chosen, and that was never intended.
Several Purdue Northwest officials and other academics also expressed outrage at Keon’s announcement, which stemmed from the chancellor’s racist joke that mocked Asian languages during the school’s commencement ceremony on Dec. 10, 2022.
In a statement to WBAA-AM, Roach expressed outrage that the board of trustees allowed the chancellor to remain in position despite the incident.
Part of what I’m concerned with is what does this say to the Asian community, and community of minorities, and part of me is concerned about what is going to happen to our university? We’ve got a board of trustees that really isn’t paying much attention to what is going on.
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PNW Faculty Senate Vice Chair David Nalbone believes that the university is showing a lack of care by allowing Keon to transition to faculty.
“It means the board doesn’t care about the faculty, the board doesn’t care about the quality of this university, and it doesn’t care about Purdue’s reputation,” Nalbone told WBAA-AM. “It’s far more interested in poking the eye of anyone who would have the effrontery to say ‘Maybe we shouldn't tolerate racist comments.’”
Meanwhile, Charissa Cheah, a professor of psychology at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, told the Chicago Tribune what the university did in Keon’s case is “egregious,” referencing the school’s lack of action in holding Keon accountable.
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In a statement, Cheah said Purdue Northwest’s decision has reinforced “the idea that acts of racism have no to little consequences for perpetrators with racial and economic and other social positioning privileges," adding that the situation is an example of institutionalized racism that "systematically upholds White supremacy."
“For the Purdue AAPI and other minoritized communities, the take home message is that harm against the AAPI and other minoritized communities is acceptable,” Cheah continued.
Keon has faced growing pressure from the AAPI community to resign following the controversy.
Keon eventually issued an apology four days after the PNW commencement ceremony. In his letter, the PNW chancellor assured the community that he did not intend to hurt people and that his comments “do not reflect my personal or our institutional values.”
Days following the incident, Roach initiated an anonymous campaign that resulted in a majority no-confidence vote against Keon’s leadership. The anonymous ballots were sent to roughly 238 members of the university’s staff and faculty.