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Daniels pushes to change Purdue’s business

IndianGovernor Mitch Daniels speaks.  | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels speaks. | Stephanie Dowell~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: October 9, 2013 7:24PM



WEST LAFAYETTE — As president of Purdue University, Mitch Daniels wants nothing less than to change the rules of higher education.

But first the former governor must convince the school’s skeptical professors that his plans aren’t just politics, but actually good for Purdue.

After considering and rejecting ways to make Purdue a high-end private university, Daniels now wants to establish Purdue as the nation’s premier place for “value” education. To do that, Daniels is emphasizing a low-cost, high-efficiency business model.

Even more important, Daniels is trying to overturn the age-old system of values in higher education in which each school is essentially ranked on how much it mimics Harvard: Whichever school spends the most money on the most things wins.

To do that, Daniels is trying to create new ways to measure student learning, graduate success and the overall academic quality of Purdue. Such a system of measurements would help students, parents and donors choose schools based on the best bang for the buck — a game in which Daniels expects Purdue to rise to the very top.

“Today, you get credit for spending more money. There’s nothing in there about how well it works,” Daniels told the Indianapolis Business Journal. “There’s definitely a need and probably a market for better assessments. It’s both the right thing to do, but I also think it will prove to Purdue’s benefit.”

In an odd twist of politics, Daniels, 64, is getting a strong assist from President Barack Obama, whom Daniels has criticized repeatedly and whom he considered opposing in the 2012 presidential election. Obama on Aug. 22 proposed a new system of academic quality metrics to determine levels of federal student loan funding.

But Daniels faces lots of skepticism at home. A summer of controversy has erased most of the good will he had built with faculty since he was named president in June 2012.

First was the disclosure of emails from Daniels’ time as governor where he appeared to urge his staff to purge the writings of historian Howard Zinn from Indiana’s K-12 and teacher development courses. Then came a scandal over how Indiana officials made last-minute alterations of an A-F grading system for schools, a system Daniels had favored, to the benefit of a well-connected charter school.

Now, Purdue faculty fear Daniels is set to implement something like an A-F grading system for Purdue.

“It’s the hostile corporate takeover of education,” said David Sanders, a Purdue biology professor, who expressed concern that measuring student outcomes like profit and loss would hurt rather than help the quality of Purdue.

And finally, Daniels refused for a time to join most other university presidents in the nation in signing a letter calling on Obama and Congress to increase research funding to universities. Daniels said such a call was irresponsible given the nation’s fiscal condition.

That caused even more consternation than the Zinn saga among Purdue professors, the majority of whom are scientists who depend in some way on federal research funding. Some professors laid into Daniels at an Aug. 20 dinner gathering of the faculty Senate, saying his decision was blatantly political.

Two days later, Daniels reversed course, saying he would sign the letter because the university presidents had previously called for congressional action to improve the nation’s finances.

The summer events reinforced a sense among Purdue faculty that Daniels is still waging the policy battles that dominated his time as governor and, before that, as a White House and congressional staffer.

“The issue is not that he has a political point of view,” Purdue English professor Kristina Bross said in an email, “but that it seems to be getting in the way of his job as Purdue’s chief advocate.”

Some at Purdue worry that a frustrated faculty could derail Daniels’ ability to function as president — because faculty buy-in, while not formally required, is key to making anything work at a university.

“We have to be able to find a middle ground here,” said David Williams, a Purdue professor of medical illustration, who is chairman of the faculty Senate.

Besides politics, Daniels and Purdue’s faculty also do not share the same sense of urgency for changing how Purdue does business.

Nearly everyone across higher education recognizes that the ways it has been financed cannot continue. For two decades, state support has not kept pace with inflation, which forced public universities to hike tuition. But an arms race of building and hiring spurred those tuition hikes to run at nearly four times the rate of inflation.

In 2010, the average undergraduate at Purdue paid twice as much in tuition — about $12,000 even after subtracting all discounts and scholarships — than the average undergrad did in 2000.

The recession and slow recovery made students far more price-sensitive than before. And now the federal government is halting further growth in research funds.

“Leadership on almost every campus is focusing on strategies to create a new business model that is able to respond to new pressures,” said John Walda, a former Indiana University trustee who is now president of the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

“There certainly is tension around the topic and it’s understandable because the constituency on campus most immediately and directly affected would be the faculty,” he added. “New business models often call for new pedagogy, for different schedules, and for different relationships with students. And those can be difficult.”

Purdue could afford to wait longer than nearly all other universities before it changes.

The school has a world-class reputation among the tech entrepreneurs in fast-growing places like Silicon Valley, Korea, Taiwan and China. And in an August report, Moody’s Investors Service rated Purdue as one of only eight public universities with its highest Aaa credit rating.

The university pulled in a record $2 billion in cash last year from its 75,000 students and several other sources.

At the Sept. 9 meeting of the faculty Senate, Daniels will unveil four initiatives he and the trustees worked out during their summer meetings.

Purdue has gone back to its roots: charging affordable tuition, but finding ways to conduct groundbreaking research that can be turned quickly into products and companies.

The only way to do that, however, is to create new ways to prove quality — other than price charged and money spent. And that’s why the Purdue trustees made the creation of new measures of learning and academic quality two of the five things that will determine whether Daniels gets a $126,000 bonus each year.



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