| January 29, 2013

Mitch Daniels, straight shooter

Mitch Daniels isn’t afraid to say what needs to be said.

In 2010 The Weekly Standard profiled the Indiana governor in a cover story called “Ride Along with Mitch.” Andrew Ferguson describes a scene in which the Harley-riding chief executive pulled into a McDonald’s to get some coffee.

He got his coffee and moved to the back of the restaurant where all the booths but one were empty. He homed in on the booth with citizens in it, a pair of unkempt young men in wifebeaters hanging loose at their shoulders. Both had pony tails.

"Can I sit with you guys?" he said.

They looked up, annoyed at first until they recognized him.

"We are having breakfast with the governor!" one of them cried, yanking on the bill of his cap.

"You have got to be sh..." said the other, stopping himself, "foolin' me! You on the bike this morning?" …

They were roofers stoking themselves with five or six Sausage McMuffins before getting to the job. The governor asked whether the building trades were picking up. They were extremely genial and had no more than a dozen teeth between them.

"I'm having breakfast with the governor!" the first one repeated.

"You all got families?" Daniels asked.

The roofers looked at each other.

"I got kids, yeah," the first one said. "They're with their mama. I just got single again."

"Why's that?" Daniels asked.

"Well, governor, me and my kids' mama, we were together for like five years ..."

"S---, governor," his friend said. "You're going to make him cry. Again."

"I do take care of them, I go without so I make sure they got everything they need."

"Well, that's good," Daniels said. "I guess. But what they really need is you."

The man dropped his head and swung it back and forth.

"I know this, governor, I know this."

What they really need is you—and I care enough to tell you that to your face, even if it may be uncomfortable. “Faithful are the wounds of a friend,” the proverb says.

It appears that Daniels has brought that same forthrightness to his new job as president of Purdue University. During his first week on the job he penned a rather remarkable letter to the Purdue community. I encourage you to read the whole thing here.

Daniels (pictured above at an OCPA podium in Tulsa in 2011) says he’s had hundreds of conversations with students and faculty, and one theme that ran through those conversations was that “the higher ed world we have known is likely headed for big change.”

In his letter he mentions many of the current criticisms of higher ed, including: absence of academic rigor; escalating costs and dubious ROI; exploding student-loan debt; administrative bloat; absence of intellectual diversity; and professors who spend too much time doing research of no real value while refusing to teach enough classes.

“We cannot improve low on-time completion rates and maximize student success,” Daniels writes, “if no one is willing to modify his schedule, workload or method of teaching.”

In short, he says, “a growing literature suggests that the operating model employed by Purdue and most American universities is antiquated and soon to be displaced.”

If that’s not enough straight talk for a man’s first week on the job, Daniels, for good measure, goes on to say that “other voices, many from inside the academy, had even more striking assessments.” He spends nearly a page discussing some of them—from Glenn Harlan Reynolds’ warnings of the higher-ed bubble, to PayPal founder Peter Thiel’s observation that “too many kids go to college,” to Stanford president John Hennessy’s prediction that “there’s a tsunami coming,” to Victor Davis Hanson’s observation that “a new generation of indebted and jobless students has about as much opportunity as the ancient indentured Helots.”

After outlining these many criticisms and concerns, Daniels says it’s important to take a deep breath and not to overreact, but rather to exercise prudence in attempting to navigate these challenging waters. “We would fail our duty of stewardship either to ignore the danger signs all around us, or to indulge in denial and the hubris that says we are somehow uniquely superb and immune.”

Faithful are the wounds of a friend. Friendly reproofs, even severe ones, “may grieve and wound, and cause pain and uneasiness for the present,” one wise commentator observed. But they are “designed for the good of the person reproved, and ought to be kindly received.”

Cross-posted at

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