Mockery of Asian language sparks calls for Purdue chancellor to step down

Faculty leaders are demanding the resignation of Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas L. Keon.

Faculty leaders have demanded the resignation of Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas L. Keon after he blurted out a string of gibberish in a failed, offensive joke he made during a commencement ceremony. Keon was apparently trying, but not succeeding, to poke fun at the previous speaker’s anecdote about speaking a (seemingly non-offensive) made-up language with his granddaughter.

During the Dec. 10 ceremony at the Chicago-area branch campus, Keon followed the speaker to the podium, barked out the line of gobbledygook, and said “That’s sort of my Asian version of his, uh …” before trailing off and moving on to the next matter of business. Video of the comment has since gone viral (Keon’s remarks occur at about 1:10 into the footage that remained on the university’s YouTube channel as of Tuesday afternoon.)

His “inexcusable behavior caused national and international outrage” and insulted the Asian American and Pacific Islander community, including faculty, staff, and students at Purdue Northwest, the Faculty Senate said in an open letter sent to Keon.

“Though Chancellor Keon, in response to the widespread criticism he has received, has insisted that he ‘did not intend to be hurtful,’ this suggests, at best, a highly troublesome level of ignorance, insensitivity, and lack of judgment on his part,” the Faculty Senate said in a separate statement. “But it is more than any personal racism by one particular university official; it suggests the all-but-complete ignorance of the institutionalized racism faced by Asians and other peoples of color in this country.”

If Keon does not step down, the Faculty Senate intends to call a no-confidence vote against the chancellor, ABC7Chicago reported.

In an apology posted by Keon a few days after the ceremony he said he and Purdue University Northwest take pride in being welcoming and inclusive. “I am truly sorry for my unplanned, off-the-cuff response to another speaker, as my words have caused confusion, pain, and anger,” he wrote on the university’s website. “We are all human. I made a mistake, and I assure you I did not intend to be hurtful and my comments do not reflect my personal or our institutional values.”

Keon also noted that the university had enrolled its most diverse student body within the last year and touted the creation this fall of the PRIDE Team initiative (PNW Respecting Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity) to “promote an open, respectful and welcoming culture.” The school had also assembled a group of faculty and staff with expertise in various cultural backgrounds to coordinate campus celebrations. Keon said he is now directing this group “to specifically understand and address issues of importance to the Asian American Pacific Islander community at PNW.”

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Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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