Mitch Daniels, “Re-Inventor” of American Higher Education

On August 10, the Chicago Tribune has published an editorial titled “How Purdue Is Re-Inventing the American University.” No author is identified.

The article title is both misleading and hyperbolic. It is misleading because it focuses entirely on Mitch Daniels and not on any broader initiatives within the university. It is hyperbolic because it does not include any detail supporting the claim that anything is occurring at Purdue that will substantively reshape that university, never mind the whole of American higher education.

Here is the gist of the Tribune’s case that Daniels is re-inventing American higher education:

“In 19 months as president of Purdue University, the former Indiana governor has frozen base tuition after 36 straight years of increases. The freeze lasts at least through the 2015-16 academic year.

“Along the way, Daniels cut the cost of student dining services food by 10 percent. He’s saved big money by streamlining purchasing and finding other economies of scale. No savings is too small: He sold 10 school cars (about $10,000 each), cut rental storage in half ($160,000 saved) and repurposed used office furniture instead of buying new ($28,000 saved). ‘This place was not built to be efficient,’ he told the Wall Street Journal. But ‘you’re not going to find many places where you just take a cleaver and hack off a big piece of fat. Just like a cow, it’s marbled through the whole enterprise.’”

I have news for the Chicago Tribune, many public colleges and universities have frozen tuition costs (often because of mandates from state governments), and many private colleges and universities have done so to maintain enrollments. Moreover, administrations have been squeezing savings from areas with low-paid employees such as dining services for at least the past two decades—usually at the cost of many of those jobs or through a reduction in the already low pay received by those workers, typically achieved through the outsourcing the services.

Indeed, despite the assertion that “no savings is too small,” the specific savings that are cited are not just small but absolutely minuscule in the context of Purdue’s annual operating budget of $2.32 billion. In calculating those savings as percentages of that total budget, one would need to be prepared to insert a series of zeros after the decimal point.

The slant of this article is very reminiscent of the rhetoric from Far-Right politicians who argue that cutting the funding to the NEA or to PBS will represent significant progress toward cutting federal budget deficits. Such an argument relies on the audience’s inability to appreciate in any meaningful way the vast differences between millions, billions, and trillions of dollars.

Worse, the article in the Chicago Tribune actually identifies where the potential for real savings is—putting the lie to Daniels’ assertion that big savings are not available–but it gives him a pass for not yet having addressed that issue is any meaningful or even in any superficial way:

“Daniels faces huge challenges but has a target-rich environment: Purdue has far higher administrative costs than its peer institutions. It has 75 percent more administrators and staff on the payroll than it did 13 years ago, the Journal reports—a phenomenon of higher-ed bloat hardly limited to bucolic West Lafayette.”

Imagine what the headlines will be if Daniels ever starts cutting a significant percentage of those high-salaried positions, bringing to that task the intensity of focus that he has brought to selling off some old cars and repurposing some used office furniture.

One thought on “Mitch Daniels, “Re-Inventor” of American Higher Education

  1. Pingback: Step Aside, Deanlettes. The Provost Fellows Have Arrived. | The Academe Blog

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