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It’s common for new presidents on campus to announce how impressed they are with the institution and its people, their excitement about learning more from students, faculty and alumni. Substantive ideas? They might be proposed in an inaugural – months after a president has actually taken over. But even then, many presidents don’t exactly break new ground with their addresses.

Purdue University’s new president, Mitch Daniels, released an open letter Friday, a week into his presidency, in which he noted that he very much approves of the Purdue tradition of skipping inaugurals. In the letter, he set out a series of strong criticisms of higher education, as well as various expert opinions on why higher education is in for a period of profound and possibly traumatic change.

Among the criticisms he cited:

  • "College costs too much and delivers too little. 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."
  • "Administrative costs, splurging on 'resort' amenities, and an obsession with expensive capital projects have run up the cost to students without enhancing the value of the education they receive.”
  • "Rigor has weakened. Grade inflation has drained the meaning from grade point averages…."
  • "The mission of undergraduate instruction is increasingly subordinated to research and to work with graduate students."
  • "Too many professors are spending too much time 'writing papers for each other,' researching abstruse topics of no real utility and no real incremental contribution to human knowledge or understanding."
  • "Diversity is prized except in the most important realm of all, diversity of thought. The academies that, through the unique system of tenure, once enshrined freedom of opinion and inquiry now frequently are home to the narrowest sort of closed-mindedness and the worst repression of dissident ideas."
  • “Athletics, particularly in NCAA Division I, is out of control both financially and as a priority of university attention."

While Daniels isn't the first to make any of those criticisms (and his letter cites a number of prominent critics of higher education), the litany is unusual in a first-week communiqué to a campus. It’s more unusual still for the head of a research university to be questioning the research orientation of higher ed, and it’s also atypical for the president of a university like Purdue (which in the classic land-grant tradition has strengths in engineering, agriculture and other science and technology fields) to worry about research agendas lacking relevance.

To be sure, Daniels also said how impressed he was with the university and its students and faculty members, but the bulk of his letter was about the need for higher education to change. He stopped short of endorsing the various criticisms, but said he hoped Purdue would demonstrate that higher education has responded to these issues.

"However fair or unfair these critiques, and whatever their applicability to our university, a growing literature suggests that the operating model employed by Purdue and most American universities is antiquated and soon to be displaced," he wrote. "Purdue has a chance to set itself apart as a counterexample to much of the criticism lodged against higher ed in general."

Daniels took over at Purdue just hours after ending two terms as governor of Indiana. Daniels is a conservative Republican known for a frugal view of government, but he has not been seen as an ideologue. He was urged by many party leaders to seek his party’s presidential nomination last year. He briefly flirted with the idea, but ultimately passed.

He was named Purdue’s president after emerging as a candidate late in the search. Some faculty members objected, noting that a board made up of Daniels appointees was offering him the job, and arguing that the board was ignoring the advice of many groups that the university needed a leader with strong academic roots. Other faculty leaders, including those on the search committee, backed the selection, saying that their doubts had been assuaged by discussions with Daniels and others.

In his letter to the campus, Daniels stressed the importance of the faculty role in campus governance, but also called for professors to be willing to make tough decisions, and be open to considering change.

"I subscribe entirely to the concept that major decisions about the university and its future should be made under conditions of maximum practical inclusiveness and consultation. The faculty must have the strongest single voice in these deliberations, but students and staff should also be heard whenever their interests are implicated," Daniels wrote.

But he added: "Shared governance implies shared accountability. It is neither equitable or workable to demand shared governing power but declare that cost control or substandard performance in any part of Purdue is someone else's problem. We cannot improve low on-time completion rates and maximize student success if no one is willing to modify his schedule, workload, or method of teaching. Participation in governance also requires the willingness to make choices. 'More for everyone' or 'Everyone gets the same' are stances of default, inconsistent with the obligations of leadership."

It wouldn’t be hard to find plenty of college presidents to endorse those sentiments, but they rarely do so in public, in their first weeks.

Another issue on which Daniels is taking an atypical stance concerns international efforts. Purdue – like many colleges and universities these days – has been boasting of its foreign connections and global ambitions. Daniels wrote that he had some questions about these endeavors.

"As I moved from college to college in my visits to Purdue, the zeal for 'global' activities was everywhere, but often unfocused and of widely varying clarity of purpose," he wrote. "A question another great university I visited is asking itself right now may be useful for us as well: 'Are we a global university, or an American university with a global perspective?' I have no firm view on this issue other than that any activities beyond our home state's borders should be carefully chosen, meaningful in impact, and designed for excellence in execution."

The focus in the Daniels letter on cost-cutting and doing things in new ways comes after several months in which faculty members have captured press attention with concerns about "administrative bloat" at the university. Indeed a Bloomberg article in November made Purdue the prime example of that problem. "Purdue has a $313,000-a-year acting provost and six vice and associate vice provosts, including a $198,000 chief diversity officer. It employs 16 deans and 11 vice presidents, among them a $253,000 marketing officer and a $433,000 business school chief," the article said. It noted that Purdue’s marketing efforts have been expensive and have several times angered faculty members and alumni who didn’t appreciate the changes in the university’s symbols and slogans.

Timothy Sands, who was interim president of Purdue when the Bloomberg article ran, published his own open letter in December, and while he did not dispute the numbers in the Bloomberg story, he argued that the 54 percent increase in administrative employees over the last decade (the last half of which saw faculty size essentially flat) was related directly to supporting the faculty and the research enterprise at a time that Purdue saw notable increases in outside support.

Before taking office, Daniels won praise in the state for agreeing to a lower salary than the previous president, and to a package without deferred compensation.

Faculty leaders, who have been frustrated by the administration’s defense of hiring patterns, say that they are impressed with the initial letter Daniels sent to the campus, but also have some points they want to reinforce.

J. Paul Robinson, chair of the University Senate and a professor of biomedical engineering and immunopharmacology, said via e-mail that "I think that the issue of most importance in reading the president’s letter is that he has made it his intention to look at the big picture in a realistic way, and then identify how each of the parts of the whole fit together before he makes decisions on what, if any, need to be changed. I believe that the biggest problem he may have is differentiating what is fact and what is fiction, mainly because every interest group within the institution has tried very hard to get his attention to see things their way."

Robinson said that he appreciated the statements from Daniels about the centrality of the faculty, but warned that "it is one thing saying faculty should have such a strong voice and them actually having it. To achieve that, fundamental attitudes within many administrators at Purdue would have to change. That is not going to be an easy task, even for such an experienced and strong individual as Mitch Daniels. The power of administration is such that it is often hard to find where the actual power resides – it has a unique capacity to slide around and escape attempts to capture it."

And he said that there is a tendency among Purdue administrators to make cuts “as far away from the top levels as possible … a bit like a truck driver going in the wrong direction who starts to dump off parts of his load pretending that this shows he is responding to his problem."

But while Robinson said that Daniels has a large task ahead, he praised the new leader on campus: "President Daniels gets an A+ for his efforts so far. We will see how he goes when he sits for his midterm and his final at the end of his first semester."

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