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A Politician Becomes a President at Purdue

Mitch Daniels, the former Republican governor of Indiana and the new president of Purdue University, has issued a thoughtful open letter in which he recounts some of the attack leveled against higher education and details some of his core principles.

It’s disturbing that virtually every attack on higher education noted by Daniels, and every critic he quotes, comes from the right-wing. It appears that Daniels has never heard of any left-wing critics of higher education discussing the corporatization of higher education or the reliance on exploited adjunct instructors. It’s also alarming that Daniels never mentions the criticism against politicians (such as himself) who have failed to adequately fund higher education and seek to micromanage colleges with disastrous results.

And Daniels has an odd view of shared governance: “Shared governance implies shared accountability. It is neither equitable or workable to demand shared governing power but declare that cost control or substandard performance in any part of Purdue is someone else’s problem.” This is a very disturbing approach to shared governance. In essence, Daniels seems to claiming that he will only allow shared governance for those who agree with the administration’s approach to cost-cutting or assessment. Shared governance is a fundamental principle of a university, not a contingency granted upon acquiescence to authority.

Still, there are some positive elements of Daniels’ letter, such as this statement: “A university violates its special mission if it fails to protect free and open debate. It is the wellspring of advancing knowledge and the rationale for academic freedom. No one can expect his views to be free from vigorous challenge, but all must feel completely safe in speaking out. One can hope for a climate of courtesy and civility, and “speech” that attempts to silence or intimidate others must be confronted strongly, but the ensuring of free expression is paramount. This is, if anything, even more important when the point of the expression is to criticize decisions of the university administration itself.”

It’s rare today to hear a college president explicitly defend the importance of protecting academic freedom for those who criticize college presidents.

If Daniels is willing to live up to his words, if he is willing to take left-wing critiques of higher education as seriously as the right-wing ones, and if he is willing to find some fault with his fellow politicians rather than exclusively with academics, then Daniels has the potential to be an excellent college president rather than just another politician hired to curry favor with Republicans.

About John K. Wilson

Author of "Patriotic Correctness: Academic Freedom and Its Enemies."

3 comments on “A Politician Becomes a President at Purdue

  1. John
    January 25, 2013

    Why is it surprising that Daniels focused on the right wing? He focused on the right wing to distance himself from those within his own party who attack higher education regularly. I also found your critique of his comments about on shared governance confusing. I think you read a different letter than I did.

    • John K. Wilson
      January 25, 2013

      It’s true that Daniels did criticize a few of these attacks. But it’s also clear that he agrees with many of them, and certainly regards them as important ideas that need to be grappled with. It’s not clear if he feels the same about left-wing critiques of academia, or is even aware of them. I think it is valuable that Daniels mentions shared governance and at least gives it lip service. But by equating shared governance with shared accountability, it shows that he’s just using buzzwords without really understanding what shared governance is.

  2. Pingback: Why Mitch Daniels Must Be Fired | Academe Blog

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This entry was posted on January 25, 2013 by in academic freedom, shared governance and tagged , .
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