Despite the snowstorm, about 100 students, faculty and community members gathered on Monday for a tense discussion intended to address issues of discrimination against minority groups on campus.
The proposed itinerary for the discussion consisted of four topics: Counseling and Psychological Services and suicide, immigration and racial discrimination on campus, treatment by employees and freedom of speech on campus. But the presence of John Gates, vice provost for diversity and inclusion, shifted the primary focus of the conversation to issues of freedom of expression and the University’s alleged neglect to publicly address discrimination on campus.
Attendees watched a video during the town hall in which Gates engaged in a heated interaction with a student at the Latino Cultural Center during an event meant to address what was perceived as an incident of discrimination at CVS against Puerto Rican Purdue student Jose Guzman Payano. The student was shown disputing the idea that Purdue is as committed to diversity as it says because of the University's decision not to issue a statement.
“If you want me to be the person who’s going to ramrod the administration, I am not that guy,” Gates said to the student in the video. “You simply may not be happy here. This may not be the institution for you.”
Several representatives of student organizations promoting diversity and inclusion on campus read statements criticizing Gates for his complicity and failure to condemn discriminatory behavior in an official statement. The groups — Queer Students of Color and Purdue Immigrant Allies — were united in their belief that neglecting to acknowledge instances of discrimination like the CVS incident contribute to an unsafe campus environment.
“He works so hard with trying to prove that he’s not working for the administration, but that he’s working for the students,” said Myracle Newsome, president of Queer Students of Color. “I think he’s so stuck in the ways of politics of respectability that he’s not understanding that students have needs now that polite talking and battling students is not going to achieve.”
Gates, speaking as the enforcer of the diversity guidelines that govern Purdue, emphasized the University’s status as a “freedom of expression institution.” Many of the attendees scrutinized this label, saying that freedom of expression should not be prioritized over the mental and physical welfare of minority students. Students cited incidents on campus where racial epithets or homophobic slurs were directed at them and questioned why Purdue permits that sort of behavior.
“The only thing that stands in the way of freedom of expression is physical violence, the threat of physical violence or a disruption to the academic learning environment,” Gates said. “It makes it difficult for us, under that rule, to respond to some activities."
Gates, at the request of an audience member, said he regretted becoming aggravated during the discussion at the LCC. He said he had emailed a statement Sunday night to several students saying the University condemned the treatment Guzman Payano received from the CVS employee. Many audience members expressed confusion at not having seen the message and Gates appeared exasperated while he attempted to access the email on his phone.
President of Purdue Student Government Jo Boileau later confirmed that 24 students involved in the response to the CVS incident were sent Gates's statement, including himself and Guzman Payano.
Boileau said that Gates is only a conduit for the University and placed blame on Purdue President Mitch Daniels. He criticized the president for allegedly issuing a “gag order” to all administration officials which is intended to prevent them from publicly commenting on social issues. He referenced an instance where neo-Nazi and white supremacist propaganda was spread on campus and Daniels refused to lessen his support for freedom of expression in the absence of violence or speech that threatens violence.
“Our call for action is greater than just the single CVS incident,” Boileau said. “It’s all the collective experiences that there’s silence from Mitch Daniels on. It is the responsibility of the president of this University to affirm the experiences of his students.”