Purdue’s chief instills new plans for higher education

Since becoming president of Purdue University in 2013, former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels has made headlines for his efforts to lower costs, increase academic rigor and serve new constituencies at Indiana’s public land grant college.

His announcement that Purdue was acquiring for-profit, online Kaplan University with an enrollment of 45,355 foretells big changes ahead for all of higher education.

Daniels recently sat down with The Indiana Policy Review to discuss some of his initiatives and how they are being received by faculty, students and parents.

There has been a lot of talk in higher ed circles about the Kaplan University acquisition. Where was that idea born?

In two places. We at Purdue had a long look at whether we could and should try to build online expertise and capabilities here and decided that would be unwise, that we’d blow a lot of money and that we’d never be really good at it.

If we wanted to extend our mission to another group of students, we were going to have to partner with somebody. Meanwhile, quite independently, the people at Graham Holding Companies (parent of Kaplan Inc.) had decided that they wanted to exit the for-profit sector. And there was a person who knew what we were thinking and knew what they were thinking and said, “You two should talk.” And away we went.

How do you maintain the Purdue brand and make sure it doesn’t get tainted by the notion Kaplan is second-rate?

That view is what some of our faculty refer to as academic snobbism, and we don’t practice it here. There already are two kinds of Purdue diplomas: the one from the West Lafayette full-time resident experience and diplomas from our regional campuses: Purdue Northwest, Fort Wayne, Indianapolis etc., as well as some of our technology centers.

This will simply add another dimension. Kaplan has the best of reputations in their world. They just got a 10-year reaccreditation from the same people who accredit Purdue. We had fly specked their track record for integrity and it’s outstanding.

How on earth have you been able to maintain a tuition freeze since 2013?

I don’t want to give Nike free publicity (for its “Just Do It” motto), but that’s part of it. It has not been that hard, and there is a whole lot we have yet to do to reduce the cost structure and some of the redundancies in this place. Efficiency contributed to the freeze, but the freeze contributed to efficiency.

It’s true in business. If the top line goes flat, people suddenly sharpen their pencils. Another obvious answer is: It’s attracted a lot of student interest. We’ve had record applications. And we have chosen to enroll more students. The main reason I want to do that is that’s what we’re here for. We want to give as many students as we can a first-rate education.

It does have a consequence of bringing revenue. This year’s freshman class will be 1,200 more than the class that came here just a few years. Yet, by the way, the academic quality is higher.

So how you accommodate 1,200 more students?

We’re a little bit squeezed at the moment. It’s our biggest immediate problem.

Where do you see the most waste in higher ed in general?

There’s lots of slack capacity. Two thirds of the cost is people, and higher ed ossifies. You have tenure. Leave the tenure argument aside for a minute. If student interest moves from one subject matter to another you still have the same number of people on the payroll.

Most of the world is not like that. In most of the world you say, “How much money do we have? Now what are our priorities?” In higher ed, people have associated high sticker price with quality. That’s changing now, changing big time.

Why don’t more schools freeze tuition?

It’s not been the system. I can tell you it has worked out fine for us. The reserves of the university have grown. We have the most faculty we’ve ever had. A lot of schools have down-scaled to contingent faculty, lower priced adjuncts.

We have one of the highest percentages of tenured faculty in the whole country at 70 odd percent. We’re doing all those things and still paying our bills. By the way, our annual pay increases have always been at median or above. If you can invest appropriately and pay all your bills why would you increase tuition?

You’ve mentioned tenure. Is that an area where you still see room for reform?

Our board did make three major changes to the tenure and promotion policy. One was that you should be rewarded for sponsoring undergraduate research. Two, you should be rewarded if you do something entrepreneurial.

There was once a time when you might have hurt your career if you dirtied your hands on something that went to the marketplace -– if you patented something or licensed something or started a company.

Perhaps most importantly, it’s a requirement that a candidate for tenure show that he or she has mentored, coached, invested personal time in the growth of students. Why? Because when you check on people’s life success later, you find out this is the single most important correlate.

One study showed that 50 percent of students could show no gains in skills over the first two years of college and 36 percent showed no gains in four years. What does it say about the future of this country that college is in general not a place where students learn?

To me it says some people aren’t doing their job. We’re measuring student growth now. And more schools are starting to do that. Those schools that do test, in some highly credible way, will have a great advantage going forward.

We already can look and see what percentage of our graduates pass certain exams: licensing exams, professional exams. That’s one way. There are other ways to measure intellectual growth, and I think a responsible university should do that.