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.)

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