Change is Not Always Good in Higher Ed

Update: As of this morning, Mitch Daniels has been appointed as the 12th president of Purdue University. (Press release here.)

Not too long ago, the University of Florida was in the news over budget-driven plans to cut CS. That plan was partially beaten back, but animosity lingers, and many faculty have their C.V.s in circulation, looking for more stable positions.

The University of California system has had an on-going budget crunch that is making many people unhappy.

Students in Quebec have had long-running demonstrations (the government labels them as riots) to protest tuition hikes. (That is not to imply that Quebec is a U.S. state, but to show the problems aren’t limited to the U.S.)

Other states also report woes with budgets being slashed for years (often decades), while the same legislatures trimming the budgets prohibited tuition raises that fully covered the difference. This almost always resulted in salary freezes and failure to fund long-term renovation and growth. That is how a powerful institution begins to decay.

In the last few days we have seen growing uproar over the ouster of the University of Virginia’s president, allegedly because she was unwilling to consider taking the University private and was not simpatico with the business moguls on the board. One of the most prominent CS faculty members and scientists in the nation, Bill Wulf, has resigned his post at UVa in disgust and protest over this.

What are common as threads in these incidents (and more) are that public universities are stressed by reductions in state budgets, and that many decision-makers believe those with great financial success in business are somehow imbued with expertise to be applied — nay, admired — in other venues. (It isn’t only academia; think Herman Cain and Mitt Romney as examples. Their success in business has somehow suggested to many they have acumen appropriate for national, political office.) Cutting benefit costs, hostile takeovers, leveraged buy-outs, and the like don’t fit well in academia (or government). This is a great essay in Slate about this theme that is well worth reading.

Next up may well be some dissent at Purdue University about its next president. It hasn’t been formally announced yet, but all the various news outlets portray it as a done deal that Mitch Daniels will be the next President of Purdue University.

We tend to be a little more restrained in this part of the country, so the protests and uproar cited above are unlikely. But the choice of Mr. Daniels (and I emphasize Mr. as his highest degree is a J.D., roughly equivalent to an MS degree) is far from a “dream come true” for all the faculty and students. His career in business and government has been characterized by cost-cutting and privatization moves that are not suited for an institution of higher education. He has not shown particular understanding or accommodation for the value of academia beyond what it can do to pump up the state economy during his term as governor, either. His strong partisan political ties also can have a negative impact on the university, as he has been more associated with those who wish to force their superstitions and biases on others rather than be open to choice and reason.

Mr. Daniels would be a puzzling choice. No experience working in academia. No advanced degree. No history of great vision on education or advanced research. He’s 63, and Purdue regulations require administrators to step down in the year they turn 65, so it would be a limited term unless the Trustees make a special exception 2 years from now. And he’s still the sitting governor, so he’d have to either step down or delay his taking the position for several months.

It also raises some significant conflict of interest issues that should be extremely troubling — Mr. Daniels has appointed 7 of the current 10 trustees, and reappointed three others to their current positions. Thus, all of those trustees owe their current positions to Mr. Daniels’ actions. Considering that over the last few years the Purdue faculty have gotten increasing hassle and red tape about our consulting and professional service outside the university, the Board of Trustees are certainly not setting a good example if they do this.

Note that I am not in any way suggesting that Mr. Daniels has exerted undue influence or is incompetent. He has served well in many business and elected roles, and been reasonably successful. He has seemed to be very honest and forthright. He has also seemed open to bucking political pressure from even his own party. In general, he also seems like a reasonably nice guy. My point is that these qualities are not sufficient to make one qualified for the role of president at a Tier I research university.

Many of us have been following the search for a new president, although it has all been done in secret. Rumor has it that there were at least two highly qualified candidates, but the Board was unwilling to pay the expenses to hire them and close out their current obligations. Without the specifics that is difficult to confirm, but also troubling to consider. Universities always seem to have money to buy out coaches’ salaries or erect new buildings named after alumni, but not to hire a highly qualified president? Clearly, if true, there is a problem of priorities present.

There is an underlying, common theme nationally to all of this — the population, influenced by vast lobbying wealth from monied interests, has shifted to admire those who manage money from those who make discoveries and educate the public. Service, except in the name of $$, is no longer held in esteem. Doubt it? Consider all the people and rhetoric naming public school teachers and fire fighters as “thugs and leeches” because they seek pay raises to match inflation, and to keep their pensions. Consider the disparity of massive bailouts to huge investment banks driven into near ruin by greed, while families of deployed military personnel many times have to resort to food stamps. Consider the salaries and adulation heaped on sports figures and pop culture icons; news outlets will publish opinions of these “stars” on world affairs and scientific issues such as climate change, which they treat equal to (or give greater weight to) than those of scholars who have spent decades studying the issues. It is little wonder that politicians are passing laws banning use of the term “climate change” because it is not “business friendly,” and the average U.S. citizen believes the world was created by some mystical being rather than well-documented scientific processes. If Fox News started airing segments about the “Theory” of Gravity, those same people would develop a fear of spontaneously floating off into space! It sometimes appears we are entering a new dark age where reason is trumped by the self-interests of the robber barons and hierophants.

The changes in Higher Education outlined above do not do anything to help stem the rising tide of ignorance, nor do they help put the U.S. on track to reinvigorate our economy with scientific advancement and an educated workforce. They are uninformed, tactical responses to more fundamental problems, and exacerbate those same problems. We need more education, and more respect for fact, with less pursuit of goals driven by religious superstition and greed. (Interestingly, the dominant religions involved, which many of the players profess to hold dear, preach about helping the poor, treating others as equal, living peacefully, and eschewing great wealth. Apparently, these people are immune to irony.)

The appointment of Mr. Daniels as President of Purdue is not official until tomorrow, and the Board of Trustees may surprise everyone by voting to appoint someone else. However, no matter what happens at Purdue, including if Mr. Daniels turns out to be a passable president, the fact that this is even being talked about as possible, coupled with the news from Florida and Virginia, should really cause people to be more generally concerned about what is happening to higher education in the U.S. These are not moves that strengthen higher education or the basic research enterprise in the long term. Other countries elect scientists and engineers to run their countries, while we continue to marginalize ours. The longer-term consequences cannot be to our liking.

(Speaking for myself, only, of course.)


16 Responses to “Change is Not Always Good in Higher Ed”

  1. L. Indy Says:

    Hopefully everyone will approach with open mind, and perhaps learn something from one another.


  2. Albie Y. Pabon (@PabonMatriarch) Says:

    Mitch Daniels as chancellor or president of a university is should not even be a fleeting idea considering his lack of academic qualifications for such a post. If this appointment comes to pass, it bodes badly for academia as a precedent.


  3. B. Indy Says:

    Not sure what to think about this, there are a few inaccuracies. For example, 3 of the 10 trustees are elected through the Purdue Alumni Association, so it’s not possible that Gov. Daniels appointed “8 of the 10.” Leads me to question accuracy of the rest of the blog. [Indiana Code 21-23-3-3 Three (3) members of the board of trustees shall be selected by the members of the Purdue alumni association. One (1) of the members must be a graduate of the school of agriculture. All members of the board of trustees selected under this section must be members of the alumni association and graduates of Purdue University.


    • spaf Says:

      My understanding is that the governor does not choose those people, but must appoint them after they are elected. For instance, see the article in the Indiana Business Journal that states the same thing.

      Furthermore, if you refer back to the same Indiana State Code you cite, but the previous paragraph, you will find:

      IC 21-23-3-2
      Board; appointments
      Sec. 2. The governor shall appoint ten (10) trustees for Purdue University for the term beginning on July 1 in conformity with this chapter.
      As added by P.L.2-2007, SEC.264.


  4. B. Indy Says:

    Also, they do not just “erect new buildings named after alumni.” Without these alumni construction of new facilities to benefit students and faculty would not be possible. For example, Trustee Michael Birck donated $30 million alone to construct the Birck Nanotechnology Center ( It’s quite possible that this cutting-edge facility (Ranked the #1 clean-room labaratory IN THE WORLD in 2007 would never have been built without the alumni it is named after.


    • spaf Says:

      My statement was correct. They do erect buildings named after alumni. They do get funds from alumni to do this. If there was a need for funds to hire a world-class president, they could approach those same alumni. I do not object to alumni providing funds for new buildings.

      There was nothing inaccurate about my statement.


  5. eteach Says:

    You are not speaking only for yourself…you are speaking for all the teacher who have fought him for the last couple of years as we watch him destroy the things that we have built up. You are speaking for other state employees who were asked to spy on their co-workers creating an atmosphere of fear at work. I see nothing good that can come of this and shiver thinking of all the possibilities of destruction that he has at my alma mater.


    • Meredith Says:

      Exactly. He’s been fairly successful at dismantling k-12 public education in Indiana and now he’s tasked with leading one of the state’s public universities. What he seems to stand for has very little in common with the Purdue I know and love


  6. Joanne Troutner Says:

    Well done! Thank you for a well written look at the current state of education at all levels.


  7. Jackie Says:

    very good


  8. Enaught Wiseham Says:

    This article speaks of the arrogance that is present of most people who achieve the coveted title of “Ph.D.” Having gone through the process myself at Purdue, and seeing what it is that people who emerge with such a degree actually know, I can say that having one should not be the thing that magically qualifies or disqualifies someone to be a president. “Heaven forbid that someone with the equivalent of a puny Masters degree should tell us what to do. He must not be educated enough! He lacks the useless credentials that a Ph.D. brings!” The truth is, academia has encapsulated itself in a bubble of ignorance about what happens outside it’s ivory (or in Purdue’s case, red brick) walls. Cheers to the board for bringing in someone with a sense of reality.

    If Purdue is having budget woes, it is due to it’s own bloated and massively expanding budget. Tuition IS out of control because just like government, academia’s secret mission is to grow grow grow. Budgets aren’t being cut so much as they aren’t growing as fast as the gluttonous university wants them to.


    • spaf Says:

      inflation is a real thing. So yes, budgets will grow. The university has also been pushed to accept more students over the last decade. But despite both items, state support has continued to decrease over nearly two decades. Tuition has been raised more than inflation to accommodate that.

      I’ve been on the faculty for 25 years. About 20%-30% of that time we all had ZERO pay increases despite significant inflation, and another 30%-40% of the time raises we in the 1%-2% range — below inflation.

      It is not “greed” or bloat. It is a decreasing valuation of good education by elected officials, and an understanding that our costs don’t go down with time.


      • E. WL Says:

        Spaf, it must be really tough to only receive 1%-2% on $178,204. Indeed, you received much more than that last year:

        Spafford Eugene H Computer Science Faculty

        2011: $178,204.00
        2010: $167,931.99
        Change: 0.061167679

        Academia has created a self perpetuating machine that produces Ph.D.’s who, for the most part, will simply remain in academia. We are stuck in a rut,one that all of these wonderfully brilliant acamdemic minds have yet to pull us out of. I, for one, applaud the decision to think outside the box and try something new. Consider this hire an experiment. More experiments fail than succeed, yet we still learn a great deal from having gone through the exercise. One thing is certain, change will come. Whether that change is positive or negative will not be know for awhile. Until we experience this transition, everything else is pure conjecture, something academia is good at producing.


      • spaf Says:

        E. — several points in your reply to which I will respond.

        First of all, your response completely fails to note that there are many, many people at Purdue paid far less than I am. Clerks, receptionists, carpenters, electricians, grounds keepers, police officers, fire fighters, nurses, and many more do not make anywhere near as much as I do, and they see year after year that their salaries continue to lag inflation and their peers outside the university. 1% or 2% is quite hurtful to them and their families over time.

        Some junior faculty are also badly served by such raises. New faculty members, many with families to support and some with many tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, often start at low salaries and struggle to make ends meet. Post docs and instructors are also at the low end. Only an occasional tiny raise — when inflation over the last 10 years has been as high as 4% — is quite hurtful to those people.

        Yes, my salary is quite a bit higher than many at Purdue. Still, there are reasons for that which you do not seem to know (or acknowledge if you do), and raises below inflation are not fair to me, either. I made a choice 25 years ago to take an academic position at Purdue instead of with a company (or start my own). Based on what peers have done, and some of my own developments, I have given up millions of $$ in compensation to work for Purdue. Even now, companies are willing to offer me several times multiples of my salary to join them, and other universities are also willing to talk about as much as doubling my salary to move. My choice to spend years taking out loans to get my Ph.D. and then go into academia was not a vow of poverty, but it was a conscious choice that I would likely never earn as much as I might on a different career path.

        Why do some faculty command salaries such as mine? Well, consider my case. I’m considered one of the top people in cybersecurity in the world (not simply academia). I started a program at Purdue that has been rated #1 in the world for several years, and has graduated somewhere between 25% an 50% of the advanced degrees in that field over the last decade — people who have gone to work for the government and companies protecting us all, in addition to some who have gone into academia. Many students come to Purdue specifically to work with me and be in my center. I’ve helped bring over $50 million in funding to Indiana as part of my research, spun off two companies (one of which is still in Indiana), and recently attracted two more to open branch offices locally. That has all had an impact on the economy here. I’m frequently consulted by major corporations, the DOD, FBI, Congress and even the office of the US President. All that is worth something to Purdue, and to the state of Indiana. As I noted, it is apparently worth a lot more to some corporations and other universities. If I take one of them up on their offers, Purdue — and Indiana — will suffer a loss far larger than my salary savings. And I am not the only faculty member for whom this is true. We don’t simply collect a salary and sit around between class lectures.

        That goes perhaps to a more general issue with your reply: you don’t seem to appreciate the role of those “…Ph.D.’s who, for the most part, will simply remain in academia.” You state that as if it is a bad thing. Yet, it is those same Ph.Ds. who have created an academic system that is the envy of the world, that has repeatedly broken new intellectual ground over the last 50 years in ways that have changed society, and regularly helped spawn new companies that add to the economy. Many of those same people could go off into industry or government at higher salaries, but believe in the mission that they embrace. There is a real satisfaction with helping students learn about the world and begin to achieve their potential.

        The continuing attacks on education at every level is a sign of a real problem in society, because it is showing that people would prefer to mortgage the future for near-term returns. It isn’t the first time. During the “Dark Ages” many universities in Europe had high walls, spiked gates, and shuttered windows because the townspeople nearby would mutter angrily that the scholars had wealthy patrons and food during famine, and furthermore they studied obscure things like books and ancient languages rather that work in the fields. The universities were bastions of learning, with a real need for those fortifications! As a society, we now view the hostile public of that time as unenlightened and ignorant, yet seem to be slipping into those same ways (and reflected in your comments, whether you intended them that way or not). Hostility to K-12 and university personnel by some of the same people who bemoan a sports team losing out on a star because a $40 million paycheck was too small, or who avidly follow TV personalities who make $500,000 per week is a terrible irony.

        I suppose even a worse example was Cambodia during the reign of Pol Pot, when they executed everyone who had taught, or had any college degree, and often simply if they wore a pair of glasses. The uneducated and superstitious were easily manipulated into destroying their country. The Killing Fields were a tragedy and a crime against humanity, as well as setting back Cambodia by at least 50 years. Yet, we see a rise of superstition, anger, and lack of understanding in our society that is being manipulated against some of our core social functions — including schools and research.

        Yes, education is expensive. Ignorance is much more expensive in the longer run.

        (And with that, I’m probably closing out comments on this post.)


  9. Leading Edge Boomer Says:

    This is never a good idea. The worst outcome that I know occurred in NM: Manny Aragon, crooked leader of the legislature, resigned to become president of NM Highlands “University.” He was hired for his alleged clout with the legislature. He meddled in tenure decisions to reduce Anglos on the faculty, showed no understanding of how such places work. His past caught up with him, and he’s now in federal prison in CO.

    The only counter-example that I know is Hank Brown (R-CO), after he retired as Congressman. He was of an era when politicians of different parties were civil, respectful, and willing to work together for the good of the country. He was president of the U. of Northern CO with no apparent problems. His greatest contribution was a stint as president of CU while they went through an athletic scandal and other serious problems. It was a great thing to watch.

    One might compare Mr. Daniels with Martin Jaeschke, a great Purdue president, IMHO. Sure, he was a “my way or the highway” kind of guy, but his way was beneficial for the institution. He raised more $ than Mr. Daniels will ever hope to, and his emphasis on interdisciplinary work served Purdue well into the future.

    Now, Mr. Daniels’ track record is far different that Mr. Brown’s. He has shown hostility to education, and that makes his appointment by the people he appointed an issue. I am waiting to see how his financial and political talent translate into the environment of a great university. Meanwhile, that paragraph that was going into my will revision this summer is suspended.


  10. FTWBrass Says:

    Hi there Spaf,
    You were right on the money in thinking this would cause protest. Within hours of the announcement of his nomination, a facebook event has been created to protest Mr. Daniels’ nomination.
    And the only correction I have to add to your post is that he appointed 8 of the 10 trustees; 7 of them have given donations to his political campaign or to the republican party of Indiana.
    If you’d like to make a statement to be read at the rally, just contact me or another member of the protest. is the event page; an email that I’ve sent out to a number of prominent people/organizations is here:


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