After a long silence, Purdue President Mitch Daniels commented on the recent controversy about the Purdue Online Writing Lab in a general email to the Purdue community on March 22, as well as an interview with local NPR affiliate WBAA last week.
The controversy was covered by many conservative news outlets, but it largely stemmed from a segment on conservative Fox News commentator Tucker Carlson’s show in which he claims a set of guidelines from the OWL is an example of a war on the word “man.” While Daniels’ statement does address Carlson’s inaccurate accusation, it leaves something to be desired. First, we must consider the controversy itself.
One observation that struck me as I watched both liberal and conservative coverage on the controversy was that older commentators seemed to not understand the importance of the OWL to students, not only in Indiana, but across the nation. I’ve met Purdue students from across the nation who used the OWL before they became students here. At a Purdue Board of Trustees meeting last month, David Reingold, the dean of the College of Liberal Arts, suggested some might argue the OWL is the face of Purdue.
Carlson’s video comes in the form of a discussion with Cathy Areu, founder of Catalina magazine. She plays the role of a straw man by making extreme statements such as suggesting it would be better to refer to “Manhattan” as “the Big Apple” due to the appearance of “man” in Manhattan. Areu says this although the name Manhattan is derived from a Lanape word meaning “island of many hills” and has nothing to do with the word "man."
In listening to Carlson’s discussion with Areu, it becomes immediately clear that he either doesn’t understand the true intent of the guidelines or chooses to ignore it for the sake of advancing his biased views. The purpose of the guidelines, as stated on the OWL website, is not to remove use of the word “man,” but to address language that is gender-biased.
Many decades ago, gender inequality was more pronounced than it is today. There were occupations that were traditionally female-dominated, such as a stewardess; and ones that were traditionally male-dominated, such as a businessman. Now, where there is greater gender equality in various occupations, it is awkward to use gendered terms like “businessman.” Therefore, the OWL guidelines suggest using gender-inclusive terminology, such as “business executive” or “businessperson.” The issue isn’t about eliminating the word “man”; it’s about using terminology in professional writing that is more simple and consistent than archaic gendered terms.
Daniels’ written statement does state that the accounts claiming that Purdue advocates for a ban on the word “man” are incorrect. However, his lukewarm response feels inadequate. Perhaps Daniels tempered his response to avoid fanning the flames. In his interview with WBAA, Daniels said that he declined an offer to appear on Carlson’s show. Making such an appearance would have been beneath him, and I think he made the right choice. Nevertheless, Daniels’ restraint in his written response is inconsistent with his willingness to write and speak forcefully on relatively controversial topics like GMOs and broad free-speech policies.
The most troubling thing was that Daniels did not address any of the insults Carlson leveled at Purdue, such as suggesting that Purdue students get “fake degrees.” Although Carlson’s opinions about Purdue are largely irrelevant, his comments went viral and Purdue’s reputation has been harmed. It would have been nice to hear something to defend Purdue students and the quality of Purdue degrees.
Besides Daniels’ reticence in defending Purdue’s honor, he also makes troubling remarks regarding the oversight of the OWL. He said that the media reports have demonstrated that the OWL needs more oversight from the College of Liberal Arts. However, Daniels doesn’t elaborate upon the extent and nature of this oversight. In his WBAA interview, he said the details are up to the College of Liberal Arts.
The lack of clarity regarding his suggestion is concerning. Could this oversight be driven by the suggestions of people like Carlson? Frankly, I don’t believe Purdue should cede its superior educational standards to partisan pressures — liberal, conservative or otherwise.
I choose to remain optimistic and believe this proposed oversight will only be beneficial for Purdue. However, the College of Liberal Arts and the Purdue administration should ensure that any editorial decisions for the OWL are based on improving quality of education and not appeasing angered partisans.