Mitch Daniels Takes the Helm at Purdue

Public universities have stability that private colleges do not. Cushioned by state appropriations, they don’t rely on tuition the way private colleges do and their lower tuition makes them competitive.

But they too are buffeted by change. It now costs $22,000 on average to attend public universities, students are afraid that they won’t get jobs, parents are beginning to wonder what their children are learning, legislatures are not as sympathetic as in the past, and online alternatives create an uncertain future.

How should presidents of such universities respond? Let’s look at Purdue University, where former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels recently completed his first year as president. Many people have high hopes for this efficiency-oriented politician who has a background in business and who served as head of the Office of Management and Budget under George W. Bush before becoming governor.

In January he wrote an open letter to the “people of Purdue” assessing his progress and laying out future plans. The letter is worth reading because it gives some clue as to how one of the more promising lights of the higher education world is dealing with a changing environment—and what he is not dealing with.

To begin with, Daniels takes the claims of disruption pretty seriously. “The doomsday predictions may well be misguided or premature,” he writes. “But history is littered with extinct institutions, businesses, or entire industries that dallied in arrogant denial as the bases of their past success were undermined and washed away.”

His solutions—so far—are a mix of traditional and radical proposals.

To start with the traditional, like most university presidents he thinks that bigger is better. Daniels wants Purdue to have more engineering students, more engineering faculty, more research grants, more research teams, and more research buildings—all “propelling our university further forward in both its teaching and discovery missions.”

Such costly expansion of state-owned universities may be a mistake for the nation as a whole, but it’s hard to see any president worth his salt acting otherwise. Those are the areas where big universities compete.

Daniels also wants to increase the number of students who live on campus and to expand overseas study opportunities. Nothing new there, although Daniels observes that residential students are more successful academically than commuters. And pushing up graduation rates is one of his goals.

On the more innovative side is Daniels’ promise to make “the swiftest possible transformation of the typical course to some version of the ‘flipped’ classroom.” Pioneered by Salman Kahn of Kahn Academy, this is one of the easiest ways to bring online education into the traditional classroom: students hear the professor’s lecture while at home and then spend class-time doing problems or interacting with the professor individually.

Responding to other trends, Daniels is offering two $500,000 prizes—one for the first department (or program) at Purdue to create a three-year degree and the other for the first competency-based degree. The three-year degree has been discussed as a cost-saving measure (for both taxpayers and students), and competency-based education is the latest academic meme. The idea is that instead of earning credits, students will pass tests showing that they have mastered a subject or skill and then move on to the next stage, with the goal of mastering a battery of interrelated skills.

On affordability. Daniels has frozen tuition for two years and expects to extend that to three; he reports that he has cut the cost of the student meal plan by five percent, and reduced co-op internship fees by 56 percent.

Like other presidents trained in business (such as Erskine Bowles, former president of UNC) Daniels has taken cost-cutting measures like collective purchasing and selling off under-used vehicles. It’s hard to know how significant those moves are but it’s the kind of thing that presidents ought to do. And he understands accountability. His contract bases thirty percent of his compensation on meeting a series of performance objectives. He is now using that approach with top administrators as well.

As for the other trendy theme of the day—measuring student learning outcomes—Purdue and the Gallup Organization have announced a new “national index of university effectiveness.” Using surveys of alumni, this project will measure “not merely the material success of our graduates, but also their readiness for increasing levels of leadership in their chosen fields, and their overall fulfillment in life.”

To what extent a university can get credit for “fulfillment in life” is a big question. So there may be a bit of hokum in that metric but it’s not without relevance.

Daniels is clearly concerned about ending the wasted time and money when students fail to graduate. Daniels says that Purdue (which has a 70.7 percent six-year rate now) has been improving its rates by increasing the quality of incoming students through higher admissions standards.

But Daniels doesn’t think relying on that alone is socially responsible. He feels that more students should be able to come to Purdue, not fewer. That requires adopting ways of assuring success for those who come in relatively unprepared. Thus he is proposing mentoring programs, “learning communities,” and early warning systems of a student’s academic slippage using technology created at Purdue.

So is Daniels doing the right things?

He is doing good things for Purdue—saving money, controlling tuition, trying out alternative education delivery, and—as long as the money keeps coming in—trying to boost graduation rates by paying more attention to students. And due to growing concern about well-paying jobs for college graduates, a school with 7,700 students studying engineering is in a strong position to face the future.

But even engineers are having trouble finding jobs these days. And it’s one thing to sell underutilized vehicles to save money; it’s another thing to rearrange and close down departments and programs in the light of changing needs. It’s one thing to expand research facilities and get more grants; it’s another thing to make those grants relevant to society and to fulfill the mission of undergraduate education.

And while Daniels’ letter spoke about the faculty’s cooperation—including teaching more classes in the summer—he didn’t say much about the issues that directly affect faculty—course loads, curriculum (including expanding and reducing programs), tenure, and pay. Perhaps the honeymoon is still on for Mitch Daniels.

In any case, Daniels is a forward-thinking university president. It will be interesting to follow his progress.