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Purdue’s 1st Asian American president takes office weeks after school official mocks Asian languages onstage

Given Mung Chiang’s historic new role, some have called on him to address Thomas L. Keon’s actions.
Mung Chiang
Mung Chiang is the new president of Purdue University.Riccardo Savi / Getty Images for Concordia Summit

Purdue University’s first Asian American president has taken office, weeks after a chancellor in its greater school system was criticized for what many considered to be a racist display onstage during a ceremony.

Mung Chiang, a professor of engineering, began his historic role last week, overseeing the university in addition to other campuses, including Purdue University Northwest (PNW). Chiang’s tenure comes shortly after Thomas L. Keon, chancellor of PNW mocked Asian languages during a winter commencement. Despite growing pressures to step down, Keon, who issued an apology, remains in the role. 

Given Chiang’s new role, some have called on him to address Keon’s actions. A post published by the nonprofit Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, written by Emil Guillermo, said such action from Chiang could send a strong message. 

“Will he or won’t he rock the boat now? Chiang’s response as president could turn Purdue’s failure to act in 2022 into a new sign of hope in 2023,” the post read. “That would signal a real change in America. The first Asian American president fires the racist chancellor who told a bad Asian joke.”

Keon did not respond to a request for comment. And Chiang directed NBC News to a December statement from the chair of Purdue’s board of trustees, Mike Berghoff, in which he said that, after board members reviewed Keon’s remarks, they determined they were “extremely offensive and insensitive” but did not reflect a pattern of behavior.  

“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 statement read. “The Board has therefore issued a formal reprimand to Dr. Keon.”

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

Chiang, who has amassed more than 30,000 citations over his career and holds the title of Roscoe H. George Distinguished Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, succeeds Mitch Daniels, former Indiana governor, as president. The 46-year-old is also the youngest president in the school’s history. While Chiang’s start date comes at the heels of the controversy, the university had announced his role in June. 

The incident, during which Keon did an apparent impression of Asian languages in front of a crowd of the PNW summer and fall graduates, went viral after Richard Lee, a professor at the University of Minnesota, posted the clip on Twitter. It subsequently raised concerns from many across social media over Keon’s ability to work with students and colleagues of Asian descent without bias. Keon wrote in his apology that he “did not intend to be hurtful” and would be meeting with members of the student government, as well as directing a new diversity initiative to understand and address issues of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

“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. “I am truly sorry for my unplanned, off-the-cuff response to another speaker, as my words have caused confusion, pain, and anger.” 

However, calls for his resignation have only grown.

A petition, launched roughly a month ago, calling for Keon to step down, has since received more than 9,200 signatures. And the Indiana-based Asian American Alliance wrote a letter to university leadership, including Chiang, expressing their disappointment at leadership’s “hasty decision” to accept Keon’s apology. 

Additionally, academics in the school system and beyond called out both Keon's and Purdue's leadership. The Purdue University Northwest chapter of the American Association of University Professors released a statement demanding the Board of Trustees remove the chancellor if he does not resign. And 87% of the PNW faculty senate cast a vote of no confidence in December, initiated by Chair Thomas Roach, in Keon’s leadership. 

“Last year we wanted him to resign because of poor leadership,” Roach told radio station WBAA. “This year it’s because he’s embarrassed the institution and offended members of our faculty and student body.”

Lee, the director of his university’s Asian American studies program, previously told NBC News that Keon’s behavior is not isolated. Instead, he said, it’s reflective of larger problems that Asian and Asian American students often faced. They are simultaneously reified as a “model minority” in academic circles while remaining the target of ridicule, Lee said.