Mitch Daniels, risk-taker

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WEST LAFAYETTE, Indiana — Mitch Daniels, the president of Purdue University, has a letter he wants to share. “I just received it the other day from a high school student,” he said, leaping from his chair in the corner of his office that overlooks the sprawling Midwestern campus.

Daniels explains it is from a young man named Matthew who is entering his senior year at St. Joseph's Collegiate Institute in Buffalo, New York. “It's not the first of these that I've gotten,” he said.

He skips the last name and begins reading: “I came across your truly inspiring spring '21 commencement speech. And I want to tell you how much your words have meant to me in the week since I listened to it. I want to thank you for your speech and let you know it solidified my desire to attend Purdue in the fall of 2022.”

Daniels lingers over the letter. It is clear he measures the weight of everything he has done since he became the 12th president of Purdue University in 2013. This includes the past year, when he kept the university open during COVID with protections and protocols many called controversial.

“The past 18 months have taught me that while you cannot control the world around you, you can control how you live within those circumstances. That is what defines who you are and what builds resilience and character,” he said of how he approached his responsibilities as a university president, requiring him to keep his students safe while providing a worthy education.

“This is a hell of a letter. I'm glad this kid's coming here.”

The letter was in response to the remarkable message Daniels gave to the graduating class for their commencement speech in May. Daniels stated that 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. I feel confident your Purdue preparation won’t let you fall prey to it.

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 added: “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 was born in Monongahela, Pennsylvania, the town where his Syrian immigrant grandparents settled when coming to America. The unassuming Midwesterner can often be found having lunch in the cafeteria with students, as well as working out in the campus gym. He has worn many hats in his career since graduating from Princeton, including serving 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 the 49th governor of the state of Indiana.

Along the way, he has developed a cult-like following among fiscal conservatives, one that escalated when he briefly toyed with the idea of running for the Republican nomination for president in 2012. It can be argued, though, that the hat he wears today is his most important yet. Daniels is a face of responsibility, leadership, and common sense in a segment of our society that typically lacks all three: higher education.

Upon taking the post in the spring of 2013, Daniels first announced tuition would not increase. “Before that moment, tuition increased every year since the mid-70s.”

“By the time the class of 2023 graduates, they will have paid less to attend here than they did in 2012,” he explained. He added that more than half of Purdue students will graduate debt-free in an era in which nearly 70% of all college students take out loans to finance their education.

Since the moment he became president of the university, Daniels has questioned the sacred cows of academia, something he says should have been done universally years ago. “A lot of our national success relies on how well our universities perform, and I believe that is something we want to continue.”

He sees fiscal responsibility on behalf of a university as an important part of that. When Daniels was first shown his office at Purdue, officials told him it would be updated, along with the presidential home on campus. Daniels took a pass.

He is also a proponent of the necessity of viewpoint diversity for forming tomorrow’s leaders. “The point that I keep making to people,” he told the Washington Examiner, is that “it not only cheats a student who comes to a place and only ever hears one set of viewpoints. The chance to be exposed to different points of view, if only to understand how to contradict, how to defend that prescribed viewpoint against criticism.”

“It strikes at the heart of the academic enterprise, which is supposed to be the advancement of knowledge. And knowledge only advances through the collision of ideas. When everybody thinks the same thing, you don't get anywhere,” he said.

What makes his accomplishment of keeping tuition under $10,000 even more remarkable is that it 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. This month, aerospace engine manufacturing giant Rolls-Royce announced it would be expanding its footprint at the university in the Purdue Aerospace District. This includes new test facilities that will be used to develop high-altitude and hybrid-electric engines to power the next generation of U.S. military aircraft.

Daniels is not one to bask in the glory of an achievement; neither is he able to idle after accomplishing something. Instead, he is constantly thinking about how to solve the next problem, which is how he approached the pandemic when it hit last spring. To him, everything centers on duty — even in a pandemic. As a public institution, he believed Purdue had an obligation to tens of thousands of young people, and to state taxpayers, to try not to interrupt or harm their education.

“To me, that was the simplest answer,” he said.

“I'm respectful of data, science. We've seen a lot of misuse; we've seen a lot of illiteracy masquerading as respect for science.” But, he said of their decision to open the school in the fall of 2020, “you could see it appeared this could be done if you really organized, and aggressively, to protect vulnerable people.”

It was a decision that placed thousands of students on campus; they masked, social-distanced, and used Plexiglas shielding and lots of disinfectant. They also tested, quarantined when needed, and moved back and forth between online and in-person instruction when the situation required. In short, his students learned the meaningfulness of both responsibility and risk — something Daniels believes the media have failed at exploring.

“I think your profession disgraced itself over the last year in many ways,” he said of journalists. “The biggest one was, or one of the big ones, was day after day after day the cases, the cases. OK. What cases are you talking about? I kept saying, ‘A case is not a case is not a case.’ A case involving an 80-year-old in a nursing home is a deadly, serious thing. One with an 18-year-old on a college campus doesn't appear to be,” he said.

Daniels said when Purdue made the decision to open, he and other university officials threw the sink at it. “Every morning, first thing, we were gathered downstairs. First thing was look at the data, how many cases we had. It was a simple thing. I don't know why other people didn't do this.”

Daniels emphasizes that his job is to create tomorrow’s leaders, and he believes that begins by setting an example with the hard decisions. “We cannot be risk-averse. All leaders take risk, and our job is to let them see us taking risks.”

“One thing last year was really key, and that was our students really wanted to be here,” he said. “It wasn’t just our job to open; they wanted to be here even under the circumstances that we put them through. Everything else would have been to no avail if the students hadn't been spectacular in accepting the accountability for inconveniences, masking, and distance, prepackaged meals.”

“We have to give our young people the confidence to experience and cope with crisis," Daniels said of educating students, "because nothing in this world will ever be presented to them perfectly without fault or challenge.”

Salena Zito is a national politics reporter for the Washington Examiner.

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Tags: Mitch Daniels, Indiana, Purdue University, Education, Coronavirus

Original Author: Salena Zito

Original Location: Mitch Daniels, risk-taker

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