Mitch Daniels, Purdue University, and the COVID-19 Calculus

Mitch Daniels, Purdue University, and the COVID-19 Calculus

            This blog was initially inspired primarily by my sense that students and their learning had relatively little value in the decisions made in higher education. To capture this concern, I borrowed the subtitle of this series from E.F. Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful, transforming his “A Study of Economics as if People Mattered” into my “Higher Education as if Students Really Matter.” But it would never have occurred to me that in slightly more than a year after I began publishing these essays, students would matter so little to some college administrators that there would be open discussion of how many of their lives might be sacrificed in efforts to protect universities from an economic catastrophe.

        Purdue University president, Mitch Daniels, has emerged as the spokesperson for a new academic Realpolitik that is pressing universities to make such hard decisions. In an interview published by the Associated Press and in an op-ed in Washington Post,1  he presented his case for bringing 45,000 students back to his university’s campus in the fall, despite warnings that this might contribute to the further spread of the disease.

            Crises are moments when the real values of institutions are made visible, and the manner in which Daniels has responded to the pandemic reveals much about the new managerial culture that is emerging in academia. The particular strategy that he has proposed is open to serious challenges, but I want to focus at present on the values that are implicit in his defense of these decisions.

            Daniels goes out of his way to avoid making his value system explicit. His Washington Post piece is titled “Why Failing To Reopen Purdue University This Fall Would Be An Unacceptable Breach Of Duty.” But at no place in his article does he explain the nature of this duty or even indicate why it is important to keep the doors of the university open, except to suggest that this is what students and their parents would like to see. But identifying the implicit messages in texts is one of the things that humanists do, and I decided to imagine how one of my former students might use the tools that I had presented in my courses to get a fuller understanding of the significance and implications of his argument.

            In my courses I have used Decoding the Disciplines to identify a series of crucial questions that historians automatically pose when faced with ideologically loaded texts. In my little thought experiment I have envisioned one of my former students applying these questions to Daniels’ comment, particularly his assertion that, since most Purdue students are of traditional college age, “over 80 percent of our campus population is at near zero lethal risk.” Here is my fantasy of what that student might learn from asking these questions:

Question 1: What is being foregrounded and what is being ignored?

            Rather obviously, Daniels is focusing our attention on the 80% of the Purdue student body who are 18-21 years of age. Setting aside the fact that “near zero” is not necessarily zero when one is considering the approximately 36,000 students who are in this category, he is leaving in the background any non-lethal damage that the disease might cause in that population.  More importantly, he is ignoring the remaining 20% of the student body, plus the faculty and staff of the university and those outside the campus with whom the student population might come in contact.  The great majority of this large population is potentially vulnerable to the disease, but these disappear in Daniels’ calculations. He also focuses on the efforts that the university is taking to minimize the spread of the disease during classes, but he devotes only a sentence to considering the role of students is creating a safe environment. Finally, he is concentrating entirely on the presence or absence of students in the classroom, not on whether anything might actually be learned under these extremely strained circumstances.

Question 2: What is being assumed?

            Daniels is obviously assuming “a near zero lethal risk” among the core population, an assumption that is highly questionable given recent reports. Beneath that is the deeper assumption that scientists have already arrived at a full enough understanding of the virus that one can make firm assertions about the nature of the threat. And he takes for granted that university decisions can be made without serious consideration of either student behavior or the larger social environment within which the university exists. Finally buried in this statement is an implicit assumption that college is about credit hours and graduation rates, not learning and experiences.

Question 3: What values are implicit?

            It seems clear from the issues that are emphasized in his comments that the efficient placement of students in courses and the image of the university and of its president are highly valued by Daniels. The absence of any assurances that students would actually be learning anything in this jerry-rigged and stressful environment suggests that this aspect of higher education has a lower position on his hierarchy of values. And there seems to be little importance placed on the well-being of those students who may have to survive a painful and potentially debilitating disease, let along those in the broader university community and beyond who might actually die because of the concentration of young people who can carry the disease without knowing it.

Question 4: Which groups in society stand to gain and which to lose if the author’s position is widely accepted?

            This is, of course, the most difficult question to answer from the text itself. Obviously those who depend on the university for their income are benefiting financially from this decision, although those who gain the most – highly paid administrators and athletic directors – are also those who bear the least risk. The low-paid staff, who are the most likely to die of the virus, are also those who will gain the least in dollar amounts, and the reopening of the university will prevent them staying home and depending on unemployment relief. The students and their parents will likely be able to avoid a costly delay in reaching graduation, although the real value of the education that is received for their expenditure may be significantly reduced. And, of course, the tax-payers of Indiana will feel less pressure to cover the costs of a state institution. This benefit will be experienced most strongly by the wealthiest Hoosiers. Indiana currently depends heavily on regressive sales taxes and gambling fees, but in the midst of a financial collapse an increase in income taxes at the higher levels would be the only real source of additional funds to cover the enormous losses that would accrue if the university remained closed.

***   ***   ***

            Pulling back from this little exercise in pedagogical fantasy, I want to stress again that my point in all this is not primarily to evaluate the decision that Daniels has made, but rather to consider what such responses to the crisis tells us about what really matters at many universities today. On such campuses a concern for the real interests of the students and for deep learning was not at the core of decision making before the pandemic, and the present threat has not produced a major shift in values. At many of our largest institutions students pay tuition and create demands on resources, but whatever else happens to them or to anyone else in the university community is of secondary concern.

            This is particularly obvious in the lack of attention that Daniels pays to students’ lives outside their courses. For Daniels’ safeguards to be effective, students must continually live up to the terms of the “Protect Purdue Pledge” such as wearing face masks and taking their temperature daily. But actually seeing that this happens seems to fall outside the range of the universities concerns. Daniels calls upon students “to demonstrate their altruism by complying” and challenges them “to refute the cynics who say that today’s young people are too selfish or self-indulgent to help us make this work.” But, given the failure of the laissez-faire policies of so many universities to deal with hazing, rape, and alcohol-related deaths, one does not have to be a cynic to view the assumption that students will universally respect recommended practices as yet another example of universities’ willingness to ignore threats to students’ welfare that occur outside the classroom. The assertion that young people are completely immune to COVID-19 is clearly questionable; the claim that they often ignore or even actively reject the advice of their elders is not.

Moreover, there is an implicit division in Daniels’ statement between those people who matter and those who don’t. The students have some value in his mental construct, presumably because they pay tuition and because, if they don’t move smoothly towards graduation, their parents will create problems for the university. But, even if one accepts his assumption that 80% of the student body is absolutely without risk, the remaining 20% and virtually the entire faculty and staff are being exposed to the possibility of death or a devastating illness. He assures his readers that some employees will be allowed to work from home, but the very conditions that make this policy desirable mean that those who must work on campus are being exposed to a deadly disease.  

In his argument that 80% of the student population Daniels mentions that “diabetes, hypertension, other cardiovascular illnesses or the obesity” make individuals more susceptible to the disease, with the implication that the relative absence of these health problems among the undergraduate population is a reason for allowing them to return to campus. But these conditions are all endemic in the population of Indiana, particularly among the low-income groups that will be providing many of the services to students in the fall. The invisibility of these individuals in Daniels grand scheme is just a continuation of business as usual in American universities. The image of his institution and its cash flow are part of his calculation; the fate of employees at the bottom of the pay scale who are forced to work under dangerous conditions is not.

            Interestingly, Daniels does little to justify this potential sacrifice. His comments are suffused with “the show must go on” boosterism, and he tells us that “Our students (and, one suspects, their trapped-at-home parents) overwhelmingly are eager to continue their educations, in person and on campus.” But, beyond arguing that it is necessary to satisfy the university’s customers, he does not seem to have a language to explain precisely why he and the university have a “duty” to impose these risks on others.

One could certainly imagine an appeal to the crucial importance of learning in the lives of our students and of our society. But Daniels exhibits no interest in whether any learning will actually occur in the jerry-rigged curriculum and stressed-out student body of Purdue in the fall of 2020 or whether keeping the university open under these conditions really serves to make society a better place., As so many university administrator have done for generations, he just assumes that if the flow of students and faculty into the classroom is efficiently managed, something of value must automatically occur there.

            None of this is unique to the COVID-19 era. For years many large universities in the United States have adopted corporate models that have focused on technocratic management, ignored learning, and exploited staff. Daniels’ appointment is a perfect example of the abandonment of those values that were once associated with the idea of an “ivory tower” devoted to the creation and the dissemination of knowledge. Unlike most previous Purdue presidents, he had virtually no involvement with academia between graduating from law school in the early 1970s and becoming president of Purdue in 2013, except for cutting state funding for higher education during his time as governor. But from his years in government and business he did bring a reputation for cutting taxes, starving Indiana’s already meager social safety net, privatizing state functions, limiting voting rights, and smashing unions.

In carrying these experiences, values, and obligations into his new role as a college president, Daniels brought to Purdue the kind of managerial vision that is coming to dominate the culture of many universities, at least in the United States. Institutions of higher education are seen as creating value by producing the skilled workers, who will keep capitalism expanding. Students and their parents matter as customers, but as little else, and staff lack that value. The notion of preparing students to eventually develop as individuals or to play a broader role in society as citizens has disappeared, and the culture of the ivory tower has been replaced by a technocratic system for maximizing credit hours and minimizing costs. College presidents who think of themselves as the equivalent of corporate CEOs are apt to have not more concern for the real welfare of the students or staff than their counterparts in industry have for their workers and no more commitment to the welfare of the society as a whole than those who run cigarette or oil companies. Thus, in the midst of a major challenge to the cash flow of the institution, it is not surprising that such a leader would judge a pawn sacrifice to be cost effective.

  1. Mitch Daniels, “Why failing to reopen Purdue University this fall would be an unacceptable breach of duty,” Washington Post, May 25, 2020.
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