IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Purdue Northwest chancellor apologizes after racist Asian language impression onstage at commencement

Thomas L. Keon got backlash from the Asian American community after he mocked Asian languages in an apparent impression onstage.

Thomas L. Keon, chancellor of Purdue University Northwest in Indiana, has apologized after a racist display on stage at the school’s winter commencement ceremony. 

Keon issued the apology Wednesday after he was criticized for mocking Asian languages in an apparent impression, saying the made-up words were an “Asian version” of a previous speech, at the event for the school’s summer and fall graduates. 

“On Saturday, December 10, during one of our two PNW Commencement ceremonies, I made a comment that was offensive and insensitive,” Keon wrote in a statement Wednesday. “I am truly sorry for my unplanned, off-the-cuff response to another speaker, as my words have caused confusion, pain, and anger.” 

The school, a regional public university, did not respond to a request for comment, but directed NBC News to Keon’s statement. Keon also did not respond to a request for comment.

Moments before the incident on stage, radio host James Dedelow spoke to graduates about free speech, as seen in a livestream of the ceremony. At one point in his speech, Dedelow mentions a “made-up” language he sometimes uses on-air and with family. Keon took the podium afterward and announced, “Well, all I can say is,” before launching into indistinguishable phrases. 

“That’s sort of my Asian version of his,” Keon said, laughing. 

Thomas L. Keon, chancellor of Purdue University Northwest in Indiana.
Thomas L. Keon, chancellor of Purdue University Northwest in Indiana.Purdue University Northwest

Keon received the Giving Back Award in 2016 for his “commitment to diversity and inclusion,” according to the magazine Insight Into Diversity, which gave him the accolade. Purdue University Northwest was ranked in the top 20 Midwest regional universities for campus ethnic diversity by U.S. News & World Report for the 2022-2023 school year.

Keon, who wrote in his statement that he “did not intend to be hurtful,” added that he would be meeting with members of the student government as well as directing new diversity initiative, PNW Respecting Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, to understand and address issues of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

“I will learn from this and assure you that Purdue Northwest and I will take action to prevent such missteps from occurring in the future,” he wrote. 

Keon’s apology comes after a clip of his remarks went viral Wednesday. Richard Lee, a professor at the University of Minnesota, who posted the video to Twitter on Tuesday, said he initially saw the clip of the commencement on a former student’s Facebook page. Lee, who is also the director of his school’s Asian American studies program, told NBC News that the remarks were not only racist, but also an example of an “abuse of power.” 

“When you are the chancellor of a university, during the commencement ceremony, when students and families and faculty and staff are there to celebrate and honor the achievements, it was just really a slap in the face to so many of those students who were there just for a cheap joke,” Lee said.  

Lee added that Keon’s description of the language he was impersonating as “Asian” shows that he essentially perceives Asian Americans as “all the same.” 

“He doesn’t even make the joke in terms of ‘Oh, I’m trying to speak in a bad Chinese accent or in a specific language,’” Lee said. “Not that it would make it better, but it just shows you the way in which he sees a very heterogeneous racial group.”

Keon’s behavior, Lee said, is reflective of larger problems that Asian and Asian American students in academia often face. While the racial group is often reified as a “model minority” in academic circles, they are simultaneously the target of ridicule, Lee said.