Those who expected Mitch Daniels to go into quiet retirement as Purdue University president after eight tumultuous years as governor will be sorely disappointed. He started his tenure by releasing a public “open letter to the people of Purdue” containing the kinds of statements about higher education usually coming from critics of universities, not leaders of universities, especially ones just starting out.
The thrust of the critique is to complain about what some are starting to call the higher education bubble. “College costs too much and delivers too little,” he said in the letter. “Students are leaving, when they graduate at all, with loads of debt but without evidence that they grew much in either knowledge or critical thinking.” When enough people realize how much they're paying for so little, the bubble will burst.
To avoid that day, Daniels outlined in his letter several problems universities must address, including the following:
•“Administrative costs, splurging on 'resort' amenities, and an obsession with expensive capital projects have run up” the price a student pays for an education.
•“Grade inflation has drained the meaning from grade-point averages.”
•Research work and working with graduate students has detracted from the mission of undergraduate instruction.
•“Too many professors are spending too much time writing papers for each other, researching abstruse topics of no real utility and no incremental contribution to human knowledge or understanding.”
•“Diversity is prized except in the most important realm of all, diversity of thought.
•“Athletics, particularly in NCAA Division I, is out of control both financially and as a priority of university of attention.”
Daniels certainly hasn't turned timid. It takes enormous boldness to tell a university renowned for its research that there has been too much emphasis on research. And just imagine the breathtaking nerve of telling a university that “diversity of thought” has not been exactly cherished. That's the kind of thing conservatives have been telling each other for years, but to actually say it out loud in a letter to “Purdue people,” now that took some brass.
He obviously does not intend to be a caretaker, indeed seems to want to be as transformative as a college president as he was as governor. Whether he can get anything done remains to be seen – he might find entrenched college bureaucrats even more stubborn than members of the General Assembly.
But bless him for trying. Even if he fails at Purdue, he might get a national dialogue going about the need for change in a moribund system that no longer serves us. In today's world, the United States can't afford to have anything but the best university system in the world.