An Open Letter To David Letterman: We Need to Talk About John (Papa, That Is)

An appeal to Ball State’s most famous alumnus about the university’s most notorious graduate.

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Dear Mr. Letterman,

We need to talk about Ball State University’s Papa John problem.

Like you, I graduated from Ball State. Like you, I have an abiding affection for its underdog stature. But my affection has been waning in the wake of the university’s craven and short-sighted defense of “Papa” John Schnatter’s recent actions.

I’m sure you’re aware of the situation, but here’s a quick synopsis: Our fellow Ball State grad (sigh) and famed purveyor of vaguely pizza-like substance was participating in a sensitivity-training phone call when he used the “N” word while lamenting the good old days when Colonel Sanders, his forebear in diabetes-inducing delectables, was free to utter the same word without fear of retribution. On that same call, in an apparent attempt to demonstrate his relative woke-ness, Schnatter described how in Jeffersonville, Indiana, where he grew up, people used to drag black folks behind cars. “Look how far we’ve come!” Schnatter seemed to be trying to say in a cosmically inept way.

When Scnhatter’s remarks were made public, the fallout was fast and furious. He was forced to resign as chairman of the board of his own company. His relationships with various universities (Schnatter had his garlicky fingers in a lot of higher-ed pies) quickly frayed. He was forced to leave the University of Louisville’s board of trustees, and the school announced that it would remove his name from its stadium. Purdue University, which had accepted an $8 million donation from Schnatter, took his name off a building and offered to return his money. The University of Kentucky will be erasing Schnatter’s name from its John H. Schnatter Institute for the Study of Free Enterprise. Some schools are even closing Papa John’s restaurants on their campus.

These are all quite reasonable responses. Because, as places that revere critical thinking and serious intellectual inquiry, these schools do not want to be associated with an individual who has revealed himself to be, if not racist, at least inarguably and aggressively dumb. I imagine this is why just every university with Papa John ties has recently severed them.

Except one. And I think you know which one it is.

Mr. Letterman, you recently referred to Ball State as the “Harvard of Muncie.” And it was funny, because we fellow Cardinals know exactly what you mean. While not exactly a paragon of academic excellence, Ball State is endearingly—even lovably—scrappy. And the fact that it is located in Muncie, a dying rust-belt town with more parking spaces than citizens, makes you want to root for it even more. Because let’s be honest: Ball State has a reputation as a “safe school” for Hoosiers who couldn’t get into IU or Purdue.

Its inability to shake this second-rate status is one of the reasons I am such a supporter of my alma mater. And I suspect it’s at least partly why you are, too. Because despite being primarily known for partying and, well, you, Ball State is actually a pretty good school. Its architecture, education, and communications programs are top-notch, and it’s no slouch in a number of other areas. It actually deserves respect.

But who is going to respect an institution that doesn’t even respect itself? By getting in bed with a sleazy pizza mogul afflicted by a bad case of oral dysentery, Ball State is humiliating its faculty and cheapening its brand. “We fly?” Yeah, straight into the arms of the highest bidder.

In a transparently disingenuous defense of their decision to maintain their relationship with Papa John, the Ball State board of trustees wrote that “higher education plays a unique role in the support of free speech and the exchange of ideas that lead to better understanding. In that pursuit, it does not mandate perfection.”

Please. Nobody expects “perfection” from Ball State. But what I expect—and what I imagine you may also expect—is a willingness to reject not only bigotry, but also deep-seated, intransigent stupidity.

So Mr. Letterman, I am calling on you for another Hail Mary. Because clearly, the only sound that Ball State reliably responds to are the voices of its most famous—and richest—graduates. While faculty and alum are doing their part to speak out, I fear that without someone like you to amplify our voices, our chirping will fall on deaf ears.

So please, Mr. Letterman, help save Ball State from itself. How? Heck if I know. I imagine a good public joke at their expense would go a surprisingly long way in forcing them to reconsider their decision. You could, of course, threaten to withhold any future financial support. Money, obviously, is a language that the Ball State board of trustees understands.

Whatever you do, Mr. Letterman, please know that I, along with thousands of other moderately well educated and reasonably intelligent Cards, stand behind you. I am hoping that with your help, we can rescue the “Harvard of Muncie” from devolving into simply the “Ball State of Muncie.”

Respectfully,

Matt Gonzales
Class of ’97, Ball State University

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