Senate Chair Response to NYT Op-Ed

February 8, 2023

Response to McWhorter Opinion Piece on Asian-mocking at Purdue Graduation

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D.

Faculty Senate Chairperson

Purdue University Northwest

On December 10, at a Purdue University Northwest graduation ceremony, Chancellor Thomas Keon made a joke that mocked Asian accents. On December 16, Purdue Northwest Senate leadership asked Keon to resign and got no response. On December 20, Keon lost a faculty vote of confidence vote 135 to 20; that same day the New York Times published a guest editorial by Columbia University Associate Professor John McWhorter who defended Keon, claiming that the faculty at Purdue Northwest were overreacting. Keon remains in place as chancellor. Following is a response to McWhorter’s essay from Purdue University Northwest Faculty Chairperson Thomas J. Roach.

In his December 20 guest editorial, Columbia University Associate Professor John McWhorter defends Purdue University Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon, saying that his Asian-mocking joke at a recent graduation ceremony was not intended to be racist, and that Keon should not resign. I was at the graduation ceremony, and I don’t know Keon’s intent, I think he was trying to get a laugh, but I don’t believe intent is the issue here. I think the issue is effect.

McWhorter dismisses Keon’s performance at the Purdue graduation as a “tacky joke.” But is that really what we are talking about? Was it a joke? Was it merely tacky? Many Asians who grew up in America experienced other children teasing them with versions of the chancellor’s Asian joke voice. I think we have all witnessed this joke, and as adults we should realize it is a lot more sinister than ‘knock, knock, who’s there.’ Its effect is hurt and alienation. A few days ago, a non-Asian undergraduate who wasn’t at graduation asked me what was going on. When I explained what the chancellor did, he responded, “Oh no! Did he do the thing with the eyes?”

McWhorter is worried about Keon being “consigned to retirement because of one dumb joke.” Maybe Keon deserves some of our sympathy, but so do the Asian American students at the graduation ceremony, surrounded by classmates, moving the tassels on their caps from right to left, being welcomed into the Purdue Alumni association, and watching the stage as the chancellor, for the amusement of the audience, steps to the microphone and performs the taunt.

McWhorter says if Purdue retains Keon as chancellor “it will be a gesture not of racism but of reason—a holiday gift of sorts to our public discourse.” To the contrary, I think it is a gesture of racism and that it restricts public discourse. I don’t know what this has to do with gift-giving, but I do know that when public figures make discriminatory remarks, they must be refuted publicly. Otherwise, their statements and actions contribute to our cultural understanding of acceptable behavior, and if that behavior is mocking Asians, then we have diminished public discourse by inhibiting participation from an entire ethnic group.

Ancient rhetoricians believed there should be an ongoing public dialogue of praise and blame; it was part of epideictic discourse. The premise behind the rhetoric of praise and blame is that we need to establish parameters for behavior. Publicly praising someone highlights a behavior that is approved and appreciated by the group. Similarly, publicly denouncing inappropriate behavior demonstrates group disapproval.

When Andrew Whitworth received the National Football League’s Walter Payton award in 2022, he was praised for his generous donations to buy food and provide housing for people less fortunate and for years spent mentoring young athletes. The award benefited Whitworth, but it benefited the NFL more because it established a model of desirable behavior for all football players. Conversely, the International Cycling Union performed a parallel service for their sport in 2012 when they publicly barred Lance Armstrong from cycling for life. Cycling Union President Pat McQuaid stated, “Lance Armstrong has no place in cycling…something like this must never happen again.” They banned Armstrong’s behavior from their sport by banning Armstrong and publicly refuting Armstrong’s actions.

McWhorter thinks the faculty rejects Keon because we think he is racist, but I am not accusing Keon of being a racist, although I think what he said is racist. I am saying he is not qualified to represent our university. A chancellor should reflect the values of the academic institution and be tactful enough not to make blunders in front of a microphone. McWhorter flippantly says, “he just turned out not to have gotten the memo on what’s funny and permissible now versus when he was young.” Fine, but being chancellor is a privilege, and someone who didn’t get that memo isn’t qualified for the job.

I also take issue with McWhorter’s characterization of the Asian impersonation as a “screw up” and his statement that “a mature society does not wreck people’s careers because of a single gaffe.” Why are we talking about Chancellor Keon’s career? We have over 200 faculty and approximately 9,000 students. This is about our careers, not his. The chancellor serves the institution, not the other way around.

Lastly, I resent McWhorter’s dismissive comparison of Keon’s Asian voice joke to what he calls “Mickey Rooney’s bucktoothed Japanese character” in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” Professor McWhorter, I would like to ask you, sincerely, would you have written this glib editorial if Keon had mimicked an “Amos and Andy” routine? You have contributed some thoughtful scholarly arguments to the discourse about racism, but you seem to be missing the point in a matter that is easily resolved using common sense. I submit that what’s bad for the goose is bad for the gander, and Tom Keon has no place at a university.