Purdue President Mitch Daniels asked where all the men were, and Purdue answered.
Daniels’ annual letter sparked controversy, leading students, alumni and organizations alike to take to social media to convey their anger, calling it “insensitive,” “tone-deaf” and “misogynistic.”
Sarah Reaves, a Purdue alumna, graduated with a bachelor’s in biological engineering in 2017. She said she was moved to write a letter to Daniels after she saw his letter on a friend’s Instagram story.
“I don’t have a ton of followers on Instagram,” she said. “I normally only get less than 100 likes on an Instagram post. I was just expecting it for maybe some of my friends I went to Purdue with, or some of the women that I was in the Society of Women Engineers with.
“I wanted them to feel seen by what I posted.”
The letter, titled “My open letter to Mitch Daniels,” had 7,174 likes, 211 comments and had been shared over 5,000 times as of Sunday evening.
In it, she addresses several of the points Daniels made, including comments regarding the lack of discussion surrounding men not applying to fields such as veterinary medicine and nursing.
“You say that no one is writing you about the lack of men in vet med or nursing,” the post reads, “but what your patriarchal framework fails to see is that the same misogyny that is keeping men from wanting to join programs is also keeping women out of engineering, computer science and technology.”
“If he really wants to address this problem, (Daniels) should be tying out systemic fixes to the structure of education and how children are raised to be on separate paths based on their gender,” she said in an interview Saturday. “Not just complain that no one ever writes to him that there’s not enough men in those fields.”
The Society of Women Engineers, the largest engineering organization on campus, also released a statement on its Instagram page in response to the “Where are All the Men” section in Daniels’ open letter.
In its statement, SWE invited Daniels to come to its meeting to hear its 600-plus members to “understand why women in STEM have felt out of place for so many years and why organizations focused upon female empowerment were created.”
The Instagram post received more than 4,500 reactions.
Angela Zhang, a senior in the College of Engineering and the president of SWE, said she found Daniels’ letter “extremely offensive.”
“I think it’s so disheartening that (the letter) went through so many people’s desks, and no one did anything.”
Zhang, who co-wrote SWE’s response, said this letter negatively impacted women in STEM.
“All the members in SWE are proud to have an engineering degree at Purdue, but a lot of them are sad to see their president stand for something like this,” she said.
“He just negated the work we’ve done for years.”
Reaves, who served as the president of SWE her senior year, said the organization played a vital role in increasing female enrollment.
“There’s over 600 people in the organization and it’s just a place that focuses on professional development, outreach, technical development and building community, amongst all of the members,” she said. “That work that we do has helped increase the amount of women that go to Purdue for engineering over the past 50 years.”
“The WIEP event had such a profound impact on my life that I went out of my way to volunteer for it every year while I was a student and I have come back to speak at it as an alumnus almost every year since graduation,” she said in an email sent to Daniels.
Despite the overwhelming online response, Reaves said Daniels, or any member of Purdue administration, has yet to respond to her email.
Alice Pawley, a professor in the College of Engineering, said the letter was an “embarrassment.”
“It seems like some kind of chutzpah to take a perennial challenge of Purdue’s, that people across campus are trying to fix — our comparatively low numbers of women in engineering even compared to our peers — and instead just spin it as an asset.”
Reaves said the letter has a damaging impact on female high school students considering a career in STEM and enrollment numbers as a whole.
“If you were in high school or even younger, and you were considering Purdue and then you saw this letter, you would think, ‘OK, do they not care that they’re also putting out exceptional women in engineering? Does Purdue not want me there? Is engineering something that I should be considering?’” she said.
“If we’re only focused on men, it’s really sending the message that women are not welcome in the STEM fields and it’s just a horrible message to be sending.”
Reaves demanded an apology from Daniels, and said she is willing to drive to campus to have a conversation with him about “ways that his comments could be viewed by young women that want to go to Purdue and want to go into STEM.”
“I hope he does something,” she said. “I hope he apologizes. I hope he sends out a new letter highlighting the achievements of WIEP and the Purdue chapter of Phi Sigma Rho.”
Daniels responded to Reaves' email Monday morning.
In the first line of the email, Daniels encouraged Reaves to "reread the 'Where are All The Men' section of the open letter."
"My point is not that there are too many women in STEM fields at Purdue or anywhere else," he said. "Nationally, men are failing to enroll in and complete college degrees at a sufficient rate to support our country's economy and keep it growing."
Daniels also said Purdue "could not be more proud of all our female Boilermakers who choose rigorous STEM academic paths. But that does not change the fact that we need more men to undertake that challenge as well."
Phi Sigma Rho, a sorority for women in STEM, was another organization that made a statement in the light of Daniels’ letter.
“(The letter) leaves us concerned that the increasing number of women in STEM is viewed as negative, which goes against the values that we, as a sorority, hold, as well as the values we believe Purdue university stands for as a whole.”
Reaves emphasized the necessity for a president who supported progress, and claimed Daniels was not up to the task.
“If he’s going to continue to be the president of Purdue, I think things like this are going to keep happening,” she said.
“I don’t think that we’re really ever going to get true change unless there’s someone else at the helm at Purdue.”