Dear Mr. Hall and President Mearns:
I know you are receiving a lot of email about the John Schnatter issue, so I’m going to limit my comment here to two connected issues: Mr. Schnatter’s apology for using the N-word, which both of you have referred to in your recent comments on the issue, and the likelihood that Ball State’s affiliation with Schnatter will continue to reflect badly on the university.
The August 3 message from the trustees reads, in part, “John has acknowledged, notwithstanding his intentions, that his use of the word was inappropriate. His response was to promptly issue an apology and unequivocally denounce racism.”
The statement from the president’s office this morning repeats this emphasis on Schnatter’s apology: “Mr Schnatter’s use of the offensive language was inappropriate. He has acknowledged that he should not have used that language, and he has apologized for the harm that his words caused to so many people.”
It is thus crucial to point out that Mr. Schnatter, in the days since this story broke and he issued his initial apology, has backtracked, shifting responsibility for the episode and its aftermath to the marketing company he was meeting with at the time and criticizing the Board of Papa John’s International.
In a July 13 radio interview, Schnatter claimed that it was the marketing company officials who insisted on getting the N-word into the conversation; he was merely making clear, he said, that he would never use it. “Believe it or not the agency was promoting that vocabulary,” he said. “…I don’t think they were near as sensitive to this as I was.” The interview is available here. (In fairness, he says this in the midst of repeatedly saying that it was a mistake for him to use the word and acknowledging that it was hurtful to people.)
Also subsequent to the apology, according to the Wall Street Journal, Schnatter wrote to the board of Papa Johns’ International, blamed them for not exercising due diligence in investigating his use of the N-word, and said that he regretted his decision to step down as chairman.
The point I want to make here is not about John Schnatter as a person or what is in his heart, which none of us knows. The point is that this is someone with a long record of making unwise and objectionable comments in public. This record stretches back at least to his 2012 comments about Obamacare adding fourteen cents to the price of Papa John’s Pizza; it includes his 2017 comments about the NFL players’ Black Lives Matter protests affecting his company’s bottom line and his repeated shrugging off of alleged illegal labor practices by his company’s franchisees.
Now, most stunningly of all, he has been unable to avoid making ill-advised comments even since his recent apology for the N-word episode.
I don’t know what’s in John Schnatter’s heart, but I know what—consistently—comes out of his mouth.
In short, the negative attention that this episode—and the board’s unfortunate decision—has brought to Ball State is going to continue, and not only when Mr. Schnatter inevitably puts his foot in his mouth again. The students are coming back in two weeks and, to their credit, student government representatives have pledged to keep the Schnatter issue in the forefront. The faculty are livid, and the good will that you, President Mearns, have carefully built up with them took an unfortunate hit with your email this morning.
The only way to make this stop is to reverse this ill-advised decision, which places Ball State as an outlier among other universities who have wisely cut their ties to Schnatter.
This issue is not ultimately about what kind of person John Schnatter is. Nor is it about his rights to free speech. It is about Ball State’s speech, and what message it is effectively going to send about its values.
I urge the board to meet in emergency session as soon as possible and reverse this damaging decision.
Patrick Collier, Professor, English