Lessons from Purdue’s uncommon Mitch Daniels

Jim Hartman

Jim Hartman
Courtesy Photo


Mitch Daniels, president of Purdue University, has served in a variety of positions, including as a senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan, director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush, an executive at Eli Lilly, and as the popular, innovative governor of Indiana (2005-13).
During his time at OMB, Bush referred to him as “the Blade” for his noted acumen at budget cutting.
In a widely acclaimed speech to the Conservative Political Action Committee convention in February 2011, Daniels identified growing national debt as the new “Red Menace.” He urged bipartisan political action in the battle against budget deficits.
Neither Obama nor Trump had any interest in the national debt, even before the emergency budget blowout of 2020 added trillions more, with debt now at $28 trillion. Daniels “threw in the towel” in January.
Daniels had a strong following among fiscal conservatives and gave serious consideration to running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012.
The position he holds today as president of Purdue may be his most important yet.
Daniels has demonstrated responsibility, leadership and common sense in higher education. He’s questioned the orthodoxy and sacred cows of academia.
Upon taking his post in spring 2013, Daniels first announced that tuition would not increase. Before then, Purdue’s tuition increased every year since 1976.
Purdue announced in December 2020 a tuition freeze through at least the 2022-23 academic year, marking 10 consecutive years of no tuition increase. Since 2012, Purdue has moved from the second-highest priced to most affordable Big Ten school.
Keeping tuition under $10,000 hasn’t affected the university’s ability to retain faculty. Neither has it hindered Purdue’s place as a top educational institution particularly in the STEM fields.
Daniels has also been a proponent of the necessity of viewpoint diversity on campus.
He kept Purdue open during COVID with protections and protocols many called controversial.
Daniels delivered a remarkable commencement speech to graduates in May, saying many of their elders failed the fundamental test of leadership by letting fear of uncertainty overcome their duty to balance all the interests for which they were responsible:
“Sometimes, they let what might be termed the mad pursuit of zero, in this case zero risk of anyone contracting the virus, block out other competing concerns, like the protection of mental health, the educational needs of small children, or the survival of small businesses. Pursuing one goal to the utter exclusion of all others is not to make a choice but to run from it. It’s not leadership: it’s abdication.
“But there’s a companion quality you’ll need to be the leaders you can be. That’s the willingness to take risks. Not reckless ones, but the risks that still remain after all the evidence has been considered.”
He concluded: “Certainty is an illusion. Perfect safety is a mirage. Zero is always unattainable, except in the case of absolute zero, where, as you remember, all motion and life itself stop.”
Daniels kept Purdue open for in-person instruction by active, daily, data-driven decision making. Thousands of students masked, social-distanced, used Plexiglas shielding and disinfectant.
He believes it was important to set an example with the hard decisions. “We cannot be risk-averse. All leaders take risk, our job is to let them see us taking risks,” he said.

Daniels delivered another notable commencement speech in 2020 observing student isolation from in-person contact based on social media overuse.
He noted the ‘60s famous suggestion from Dr. Timothy Leary to “Turn on, tune in, drop out,” encouraging both drug use and a non-productive lifestyle.
“My advice to you is the exact opposite: it’s ‘Turn off, tune out, drop in.’ As in turn off the phone more often, tune out the video screen, drop in personally on friends old and new,” Daniels urged.
Jim Hartman is an attorney in Genoa. Email lawdocman1@aol.com.


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