Nearly two weeks after Purdue Northwest Chancellor Thomas Keon was roundly criticized after joking by making Asian-language remarks at commencement, Purdue's trustees have issued a formal reprimand and a stern warning.

In a news release Thursday afternoon, Board of Trustees Chairman Mike Berghoff made the following statement:

"Each member of the Purdue Board of Trustees has had the opportunity to review the entirety of the Dec. 10 commencement at Purdue University Northwest to examine the context of Chancellor Keon’s remark. Each has concluded that, in addition to its being extremely offensive and insensitive (as Dr. Keon himself has acknowledged in his apology), this offhand attempt at humor was in poor taste, unbecoming of his role as chancellor, and unacceptable for an occasion that should be remembered solely for its celebratory and unifying atmosphere. The board has therefore issued a formal reprimand to Dr. Keon.

"Although in the trustees' estimation this offensive remark does not reflect a pattern of behavior or a system of beliefs held by Dr. Keon, the board has made clear to him that a repeat incident of a similar nature would provide grounds for further board action, including possible dismissal.

"The university does not intend to comment further on this personnel matter."

Although trustees initially announced they accepted Keon's apology and that no other action would be taken, his comments have continued to draw criticism, including a no-confidence vote earlier this week from PNW faculty.

On Thursday evening, Thomas Roach, chair of the Faculty Senate at the Northwest campus, shared a letter he sent to the Purdue Board of Trustees. It is printed in its entirety below:

December 23, 2022

An Open Letter to the Purdue University Board of Trustees

This is in response to your recent public statement that said: “Each member of the Purdue Board of Trustees has had the opportunity to review the entirety of the Dec. 10 commencement at Purdue University Northwest to examine the context of Chancellor Keon’s remark. Each has concluded that, in addition to its being extremely offensive and insensitive (as Dr. Keon himself has acknowledged in his apology), this offhand attempt at humor was in poor taste, unbecoming of his role as chancellor, and unacceptable for an occasion that should be remembered solely for its celebratory and unifying atmosphere. The board has therefore issued a formal reprimand to Dr. Keon.

"Although in the trustees' estimation this offensive remark does not reflect a pattern of behavior or a system of beliefs held by Dr. Keon, the board has made clear to him that a repeat incident of a similar nature would provide grounds for further board action, including possible dismissal.”

First, let me say that I find it problematic that everyone on the board agrees with the above statement. We have a diverse student body and a diverse faculty, and we are discussing an issue involving diversity. The fact that no Purdue Northwest administrator and no member the Board of Trustees has a dissenting opinion seems indicative of a hierarchy that itself lacks diversity and tolerates discrimination. How can the board claim to represent the university if all of you reviewed the incident and all agree that a reprimand is appropriate, yet almost 70 percent of the faculty believe Chancellor Keon should be removed?

Your reprimand is a curious response to our call for his dismissal. We are not demanding his removal to punish him, we require his removal because he is not qualified to represent us. You state that Keon’s behavior was “extremely offensive and insensitive” and that it was “unacceptable for an occasion that should be remembered solely for its celebratory and unifying atmosphere.” We believe there are no occasions where it is acceptable for a chancellor in the Purdue University system to be extremely offensive and insensitive, and we do not want his continued presence to remind the public of his past behavior.

Asian Americans raise two issues that are relevant here. The first is that they are victims of discrimination. The second is that discrimination against Asians is tolerated. Keon’s Asian voice joke is the first offence, and the board’s ambiguous reprimand is the second.  From this point forward, his mere presence is an affront to the Asian community. Any condemnation of Keon’s actions by the board is meaningless if he remains as chancellor.

What criteria does the board use when it hires chancellors and presidents? If you knew Keon made an extremely offensive and unacceptable remark in a previous university appointment, would you have hired him? And if you wouldn’t hire him if he did that somewhere else, why would you want to retain him after he did it here?

If extremely offensive and unacceptable behavior isn’t enough to disqualify someone from being a Purdue chancellor, then what is? Embezzlement? Insubordination? Making jokes about a different ethnic group?

I also question your stern threat of further action if Chancellor Keon repeats his extremely offensive and unacceptable behavior. Are you really worried that he will try out his Asian voice impersonation at a Chamber of Commerce meeting? I don’t think that would happen. Keon isn’t that stupid, and neither are we.

This decision by the Board of Trustees is negligent and unacceptable, and your explanation for your inaction insults our intelligence. Beneath the veneer of your high-handed statement you are really saying: We don’t have to fire Keon, and you can’t make us.

And why do you have this authority? Are we your property? Do you own the university? Did you write its constitution? Do you spend time interfacing with faculty and students to learn our values? No, you were appointed without being vetted by members of the institution that you govern, and you have no accountability to us, which you demonstrated by ignoring the vote of no-confidence by the Purdue University Northwest faculty.

Surely not all of you agree with the recent Purdue University Board of Trustees announcement. I call on you, as individuals, to consider your own values and integrity and join us in seeking a substantive response to this injustice to Asian Americans.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D.

Chair, Purdue University Northwest Faculty Senate

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