Open Letter to Ball State University re: Papa John Schnatter

I’ve just mailed this to the President of Ball State University. I added the link to the actual newspaper story in the text of the letter.

President Mearns:

I’m a faculty member at West Chester University of PA, with friends among BSU faculty (current and former) and your university’s alumni network. I’m not claiming to represent my university or my state university system.

I read with some dismay a story dated July 12 in your local newspaper indicating that the university feels it’s “premature” to respond to the explicitly racist language of Papa John Schnatter reported widely in national news outlets over the last week.

Given Schnatter’s own admission that he said it and (weak but ostensibly sincere) attempt to take responsibility for his own actions, I can’t imagine for the life of me what else BSU expects to find out about what happened before issuing a strong reaction.

Especially frustrating is that I suspect the reality is mentioned in passing about halfway through the same news story: his major financial contribution, along with the Koch Foundation, to the academic unit that now bears his name. I can appreciate that it would look really bad for BSU to have to acknowledge publicly that the person you honored so proudly has turned out to be so… problematic. I can also appreciate that as a public institution in a state with little interest in supporting public anything, the risk of alienating such a generous donor is significant.

I hope you recognize in return that simply sitting on this and hoping people forget that you’re shielding a confessed racist isn’t a good look for the university either. More substantively, as the leader of a respected academic institution like Ball State, surely you understand that the people you lead (and their colleagues out here around the country, like me) expect you to be the face of what universities do: make and share knowledge avidly, and understand how to act on it ethically and effectively.

Acting like you don’t know who John Schnatter really is and how poorly he reflects on Ball State cuts against both of those responsibilities. Be courageous because of what you know to be true, and tell Schnatter to take his bigotry and his checkbook elsewhere.

At a time when academic institutions are under attack from every direction, this event provides a powerful opportunity to do the right thing and earn back the trust of at least constituency who matters a great deal: those of us who put fighting racism ahead of financial problems that are solvable in other ways than ignoring racism.

In hopes that Ball State will do the right thing, I’ll say thanks in advance.


Seth Kahn, PhD
Professor of English
West Chester University of PA


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