Jump to Navigation
My Turn
Other Views from Those in the Know
Chris Timmons
Chris Timmons
Freelance Writer
Hooray for Mitch Daniels (But Not All at Purdue Are Happy)

On his first day on campus as university president, Mitch Daniels, the former Indiana governor and much-talked-about 2012 Republican presidential aspirant, did something unusual: He wrote an open presidential letter to faculty and students, not of platitudes, but of substance.

His presidential letter was an outlier for several reasons:

First, most universities hold presidential inaugurals, which turn out to be needlessly grand. (Actually, the presidential letter is a kind of Purdue tradition.)

Second, it crisply and precisely captures the current mood in higher education; it neatly summarized the state of educational institutions, while not taking a hectoring tone, as frequently done by the usual critics of higher education.

Third, it touched on the political correctness of professors, who honor the diversity of race and gender, but rarely ideas and thought.

Fourth, it raised the challenge of coming up with a new way of keeping higher education institutions accountable for measurable gains in student performance and learning, rounding out with Daniels calling for his institution to weigh university spending decisions with the cost of attending for students, i.e., the "Student Tuition Equivalent," a play on the Full-Time Equivalent, which schools use to account for funding.

What's more, while striking an earnest tone, Daniels was able to make the most far-reaching statement of any university president on the place of higher education in the country, and in a very public way, supported the nascent higher education reform movement.

It is not a normal event to have a university president be so blunt and clear in his criticisms because most university presidents are part of the problem: fat-cat compensation packages of dubious merit; CEO-style leaders of bloated administrative apparatuses; and lily-liveried protectors of a faculty system that uses tenure as means to engage in little genuine research and even less interaction with students.

The letter is particularly striking because as a newcomer to university governance, Daniels could have sat back awhile and twiddled his fingers in his executive chair. But it seems Daniels is pushing to be a catalyst.

In the realm of genuinely effective university leaders, Daniels could be a Charles Eliot of Harvard or a Robert Hutchins of the University of Chicago.

Charles Eliot did vastly more than anyone to change post-secondary education, encouraging the switch from the antique curriculum of classical education in the 19th Century to the specialized mode of subject-teaching that serves as the basis for university course arrangement today.

In the case of Hutchins, he brought the merely local University of Chicago to a renown that it maintains today, while connecting university education to the Great Books tradition, and single-handedly (well, with an able assist from the popular philosopher Mortimer Adler, book publishers, the G.I. Bill and other cultural forces) creating middlebrow culture and the mass appeal of higher education to a generation of returning World War II soldiers and book culture to middle-class matrons.

The higher education system requires a leader of the same depth as Eliot and Hutchins because the stakes are extremely high.

As a product, the college degree is becoming suspect: It leaves the average student $27,000 in debt; it rings up more than the household credit card debt ($1 trillion); the tab for the average student is $15,918, and the return for all this is unemployment (4 percent) and underemployment.

Let's not forget the competition.

In a recent issue of the American Interest, a writer notes that the advent of the online university concept may totally displace the residential campus, thus wiping away in one blow what today's university lives on: the status the B.A. credential confers (depending on the school) and amenities they offer students.

Already, at places like MIT, open online courses have become wildly popular. The greatest advantage: The democratizing and leveling that it would usher in by making higher education more widely available to all. Imagine a future like this: More than 10 million students attending a lecture online, at what was the snobbiest of American universities, Harvard.

So having a leader with Daniels’ acumen as a policy mind, administrator, and visionary is exactly what Purdue needs, and what more universities could use. Perhaps after a while his ideas will spread, and save universities from themselves.

Chris Timmons is a freelance writer based in Tallahassee. He can be contacted at christimmons@yahoo.com.

© Florida Voices

Published Tuesday, February 12, 2013