Opinion and Forefront

STYRING: Daniels could turn the tide at Purdue

August 18, 2012

Bill StyringNearly everyone claims to have a strategic window into Mitch Daniels’ head. In truth, no one, including me, knows his plans for Purdue University when he assumes the presidency. Perhaps he, himself, isn’t entirely certain at this point.

He could have a grand time living out his productive life in a multi-six-figure salary sinecure. Prime seats to basketball and football games. Make the obligatory plea to the Legislature for more spending on higher education—especially Purdue, of course. Tout the virtues of higher learning. Be an elder statesman of academe.

Life could be good.

But somehow I have trouble imagining Daniels being satisfied watching the grass grow.

His life experience as director of the federal Office of Management and Budget, governor of Indiana, and president of the Hudson Institute (the think tank then located on Indianapolis’ east side), must have taught him that there are tsunami changes brewing in higher ed. The Purdue presidency gives him a huge platform to shape the changes that must come.

Take just the most obvious. Tuition at public four-year institutions rose 42 percent nationally during the last decade. That’s after inflation and after student aid. Real disposable income per family was essentially flat over the same period.

That trend can’t persist much longer.

The brutal fact is that most Hoosiers view our state universities as a place to give their sons and daughters an undergraduate education. What a tenured prof with a light teaching load—typically four hours a week—does with his grad students is nice but not too relevant to them. If they can no longer afford a bachelor’s sheepskin for their kids even with extreme financial sacrifice, and that’s where we are headed, Purdue and the other campuses risk creeping into irrelevancy in the public mind.

In the intentionally Yori Berra-esque quip of the late economist Herb Stein, “When a trend can’t be sustained, it won’t.”

Daniels must know that President Obama has a solution for spiraling tuition. One he must surely loathe.

Obama has already nationalized the origination of student loans. Now he proposes to allow current and all future loans to be discharged through bankruptcy. Presently, student loans can’t be wiped out in bankruptcy court.

Obama has a clear plan. The feds “loan” (wink, wink) you pretty much whatever you want. As the graduate walks off the podium clutching the sheepskin, the first people he meets are not his tearful, proud parents.

They’re the friendly lawyers from Barney Blameless Bankruptcy Firm LLP. Sign here, kid. You have no assets to lose. No shame. Everybody does it. Bye, bye, loan obligation.

This transforms student “loans” into de facto federal scholarships for everyone, something Congress would never approve if proposed openly. Nobody ever said the Obamaites are dumb.

What’s the alternative? Well, controlling costs. If you think of Purdue, or any other megaversity, as a city, complete with a mayor (president), city council (trustees), housing (dorms), golf courses, airport, etc., roughly one dollar in eight reaches the taxpayer (student) in the form of actual classroom instruction. In between are layers of diversity coordinators, political correctness enforcers and suchlike.

I wouldn’t expect Daniels to bust in chucking spears and breaking china, but perhaps over time he can change the culture.

And culture doesn’t mean just perpetual rising budgetary expectations. Political correctness is alive at Purdue.

A few years back, the chancellor of Purdue-Calumet wrote letters to the editors of every newspaper in Lake County demanding by name that I be fired from my position at the state chamber. I had used an “egregious racial slur” in an article describing why the Legislature was deadlocked.

He didn’t say what the slur was, but his tone implied something really awful.

My transgression? “Mexican standoff.” A slur on Hispanics. I am not making this up.

Good luck, Mitch. You’re gonna need it.•

• Styring is an economist, a former Indiana Chamber of Commerce lobbyist, and a former senior fellow at the Hudson Institute. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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