The South Wall: Purdue’s Daniels Pushes Innovation, Academic Rigor
by Andrea Neal
Since becoming president of Purdue University in 2013, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has made headlines for his efforts to lower costs, increase academic rigor and serve new constituencies at Indiana’s public land grant college.
His summer announcement that Purdue was acquiring for-profit, on-line Kaplan University with an enrollment of 45,355 foretells big changes ahead for all of higher education. One education writer described it as “an earthquake whose tremors may reverberate for years to come.”
President Daniels recently sat down with The Indiana Policy Review to discuss some of his initiatives and how they are being received by faculty, students and parents. Here is a condensed and edited version of that interview:
There has been a lot of talk in higher ed circles about the Kaplan University acquisition. Where was that idea born?
In two places. We at Purdue had a long look at whether we could and should try to build on-line expertise and capabilities here and decided that would be unwise, that we’d blow a lot of money and that we’d never be really good at it. If we wanted to extend our mission to another group of students, we were going to have to partner with somebody. Meanwhile, quite independently, the people at Graham Holding Companies (parent of Kaplan Inc.) had decided that they wanted to exit the for-profit sector. And there was a person who knew what we were thinking and knew what they were thinking and said, “You two should talk.” And away we went.
How do you maintain the Purdue brand and make sure it doesn’t get tainted by the notion Kaplan is second-rate?
That view is what some of our faculty refer to as academic snobbism, and we don’t practice it here. There already are two kinds of Purdue diplomas: the one from the West Lafayette full-time resident experience and diplomas from our regional campuses: Purdue Northwest, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis etc., as well as some of our technology centers. This will simply add another dimension. Kaplan has the best of reputations in their world. They just got a 10-year reaccreditation from the same people who accredit Purdue. We had fly specked their track record for integrity and it’s outstanding.
Will the Kaplan student be able to access the Purdue degree?
We haven’t named it yet, but there will be a degree distinct for this new university. Over time, will we succeed in putting West Lafayette- or let’s say Fort Wayne-originated content on the New U platform? I hope so.
Have other university presidents said, “we wish we’d thought of it first”?
There’s been a lot of that.
How on earth have you been able to maintain a tuition freeze since 2013?
I don’t want to give Nike free publicity (for its “Just Do It” motto), but that’s part of it. It has not been that hard, and there is a whole lot we have yet to do to reduce the cost structure and some of the redundancies in this place. Efficiency contributed to the freeze, but the freeze contributed to efficiency. It’s true in business. If the top line goes flat, people suddenly sharpen their pencils. Another obvious answer is: It’s attracted a lot of student interest. We’ve had record applications. And we have chosen to enroll more students. The main reason I want to do that is that’s what we’re here for. We want to give as many students as we can a first-rate education. It does have a consequence of bringing revenue. This year’s freshman class will be 1,200 more than the class that came here just a few years. Yet, by the way, the academic quality is higher.
How do you know?
I’m talking about SATs ACTs, grade point averages.
So how you accommodate 1,200 more students?
We’re a little bit squeezed at the moment. It’s our biggest immediate problem.
Where do you see the most waste in higher ed in general?
There’s lots of slack capacity. Two thirds of the cost is people, and higher ed ossifies. You have tenure. Leave the tenure argument aside for a minute. If student interest moves from one subject matter to another you still have the same number of people on the payroll. Most of the world is not like that. In most of the world you say, “how much money do we have? Now what are our priorities?” In higher ed, people have associated high sticker price with quality. That’s changing now, changing big time.
Why don’t more schools freeze tuition?
It’s not been the system. I can tell you it has worked out fine for us. The reserves of the university have grown. We have the most faculty we’ve ever had. A lot of schools have downscaled to contingent faculty, lower priced adjuncts. We have one of the highest percentages of tenured faculty in the whole country at 70 odd percent. We’re doing all those things and still paying our bills. By the way, our annual pay increases have always been at median or above. If you can invest appropriately and pay all your bills why would you increase tuition?
You’ve mentioned tenure. Is that an area where you still see room for reform?
Our board did make three major changes to the tenure and promotion policy. One was that you should be rewarded for sponsoring undergraduate research. Two, you should be rewarded if you do something entrepreneurial. There was once a time when you might have hurt your career if you dirtied your hands on something that went to the marketplace – if you patented something or licensed something or started a company. Perhaps most importantly, it’s a requirement that a candidate for tenure show that he or she has mentored, coached, invested personal time in the growth of students. Why? Because when you check on people’s life success later, you find out this is the single most important correlate.
You have referred to a “trend of declining rigor.” Talk about that.
One thing that attracted to me to Purdue was that it has been an outlier to the grade inflation phenomenon. The average grade has come up here, but we believe that’s explainable by the higher quality of the entering classes. When I greet students on their first night, I make this point: I hope you understand you have come to a tough school. Congratulations. When you leave here with a Purdue diploma the world will know you learned something, which is not always so clear in some other places. The average GPA here continues to run about 12 basis points below the national, and I’ve asked that the Faculty Senate look at these questions:
1) Do we believe what the data seem to say, that Purdue has maintained a little more rigor in its teaching? 2) If so, do we like that idea? There’s an argument that says we might disadvantage our graduates that their grades don’t look quite as good. I actually think it’s the opposite. The big question is 3) If the answer to 1 and 2 is yes, what are we going to do to try to maintain or even strengthen this across so many different disciplines and colleges? I agree it’s a big issue and one that I think can be another competitive advantage for our school.
One study showed that 50 percent of students could show no gains in skills over the first two years of college and 36 percent showed no gains in four years. What does it say about the future of this country that college is in general not a place where students learn?
To me it says some people aren’t doing their job. We’re measuring student growth now. And more schools are starting to do that. Those schools that do test, in some highly credible way, will have a great advantage going forward. We already can look and see what percentage of our graduates pass certain exams: licensing exams, professional exams. That’s one way. There are other ways to measure intellectual growth, and I think a responsible university should do that.
There is a culture of drinking and drugs at many campus. What’s happened to in loco parentis (the idea that colleges play the role of parent)? Can parents send students to college and know they’ll be safe?
This campus and this community both have been rated in the top handful for safety. We have problems, but I believe it’s demonstrable they’re at a lower level here. You can’t have 31,000 undergrads plus a lot of other graduate students and not have some people do dumb and reckless things. But every time there’s a certain weekend, like the Little 500, which is also our big spring weekend, or certain fall weekends where the excise police go everywhere, I always watch. Yes, there are always a few people apprehended here, but it’s a fraction of what’s going on elsewhere. So we’re always worried about it, and you’re always chasing zero.
How are your relationships with faculty? It seem like they resist you at every turn.
They are generally great. Don’t be misled. Literally seven people can hold a cardboard sign and be on television, and that’s fine. We encourage disagreement and debate here. But I will say in general I think the relationship is terrific. There’s a great sense of common purpose and a lot of pride that Purdue is doing very well. This is in part because the world has come our direction when it comes to STEM (science, technology, engineering, math fields) and things that we specialize in and in part because of investments that have been made, not all in my time but including our time, and the achievements of faculty. We have held on to values like affordability and rigor and integrity. An overwhelming majority of faculty and staff and our student body feel that this is an unusual place right now.
Andrea Neal is a teacher at St. Richard’s Episcopal School in Indianapolis and adjunct scholar with the Indiana Policy Review Foundation. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org