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A Few Thoughts on Mitch Daniels at Purdue

Posted on January 18th, 2013, by 1 Comment

I’m a bit of a late comer to the party, but new Purdue University President Mitch Daniels made national news even before he officially left the Governorship of Indiana to oversee the University, particularly with his compensation package. On the main, I think there is considerable merit in the way Daniels has insisted that he be paid (utilizing a performance-based contract), even though only time will tell how well this will work out in practice. For now, though, Daniels deserves commendation for his willingness to put into actual practice some of the ideas floating around for increasing accountability in the Ivory Tower. The fact that this has been brought about by a voluntary arrangement on his part is also a good thing because now it’s very much in his interest for this to work out (part of the risk associated with externally

forcing these changes is that rather than try to bring about the success of the new approach, the existing leadership may try to fight it instead) and no one outside the University forced him to do this. If the Daniels’ project at Purdue succeeds, he will gain as a legacy far more than he ever would in foregone income. In this respect, Daniels is just taking one step further the recent “leadership-begins-at-the-top” realization of a number of incoming college leaders.

Even were Daniels to meet all of the incentives targets in his contract, his annual salary ($546,000) would still only be the 9th highest in the Big Ten conference as it is currently structured (being 9th used to mean something in this conference but since it appears that the conference has difficulty in ensuring that its name corresponds to its actual size, who knows what this may mean in five years). It is, however, unlikely that Daniels will hit all the targets, however, so his actual level of compensation may be a significantly lower $420,000.

Besides just the big picture, the details of the contract (that is, the performance metrics) are worth additional attention. According to the Purdue press release, there are five general categories for measuring Daniels performance: “student affordability, graduation and student achievement,

strategic program development with demonstrated student outcomes in knowledge and understanding, philanthropic support, and faculty excellence and recognition.” The first category (affordability) is, at least on its face, a good one, though one does have to be careful in defining the term correctly. For example, since Purdue is a public institution, keeping future tuition increases low by leveraging Daniels’ connections in Indianapolis to massively increase state subsidies to the university may meet some definition of affordability to the student, but it may not actually be the appropriate way to maintain college affordability in a broader sense for society (i.e., taxpayers). Should affordability be a metric for assessing college president performance? Yes, but to borrow an expression from constitutional court cases, such a goal must be “sincere” and not a “sham.” It won’t work just to shift costs around just to make it seem like the students are getting a break when in reality, once they join the august group known as “taxpayers,” they’ll be stuck with the tab.

What also complicates the picture on affordability is the fact that, in one sense, the traditional model of education, with its emphasis on face-to-face instruction, is inherently very expensive, especially if it is of high quality. As I see it, many of the cost savings that can be gained from leveraging new technology may actually only be possible with a model that exists, at least in large part, outside of the current system. In other words, it won’t be possible to maintain quality while increasing affordability simply by slapping new technologies on the existing model (that’s a bit of the new wine in the old wineskin problem). Part of the problem with some online classes is that all we’ve managed to do is to the combine high costs of the traditional with low quality, the exact opposite of the goal. Unfortunately, I think too many within the existing higher ed system who get excited about using new technologies miss this crucial point; they get excited about using something that’s brand new without first considering the more fundamental change that would be needed in order to effectively achieve efficiency gains.

The second metric–graduation and student achievement–presents its own set of problems (at least with respect to graduation rates), despite the fact that, at first glance, this metric may be the most appealing of all five. For starters, graduation rates, by themselves do not convey nearly as much information as people say they do. To illustrate this point, take two very different institutions, one a diploma mill and the other an elite school with a very, very low admission rate–both very well may have identical graduation rates (~100%) and yet obviously there are enormous differences in educational quality. To be sure, that is an extreme example, but it is helpful in demonstrating the soundness of  Arthur Hauptman’s thoughtful point that it is “a mistake to use institutional completion rates as a measure of educational quality, because institutional selectivity is by far the principal predictor of completion rates.” Thus, the best way for Purdue to achieve a higher graduation rate would be to start turning more applicants away. To be sure, given existing constraints (its own enrollment targets, its status as a public institution, etc.), there are limitations to how extensively Purdue might use increased selectivity to effect higher graduation rates. Another way Purdue could increase its graduation rate would be to dilute its standards just to push more students up and across the stage. I’m sure that Daniels is well aware of the fact that graduation rates need a proper context, which would possibly explain why he is linking “student achievement” directly to “graduation.” (As an aside, if anything, shouldn’t “student achievement” be listed first, before graduation?) Nonetheless, the point is that the focus should be, as Hauptman argues, on “faculty who are good teachers and a commitment to provide a quality education to whichever students are admitted.” Graduation rates can be helpful in reflecting positive qualitative changes, but the whole picture includes a lot more.

I view the last three metrics as mostly restating traditional college administrative goals, albeit it in new terms (to allow for increased accountability). That’s not to say the affordability and student achievement metrics aren’t already mentioned frequently; they just aren’t often thought of directly relating to the performance of a college president. Securing philanthropic support is just part of the normal duties of a college president nowadays; given that Daniels the politician gained skills in soliciting donations, he may find doing so for a university to be a piece of cake. Next, I think it is laudable to tie strategic development to student outcomes (provided, of course, that those outcomes are clearly and correctly defined and properly measured); without this constraint, it is perhaps too easy to set a course that is advancing an institutional objective while marginalizing the attention directed towards students’ education.

Of all five metrics, I’m actually the most curious about the incentive related to “faculty excellence and recognition.” It’s possible that this in practice will mean nothing more than what countless universities refer to when they give grand promises about investing in the faculty, promises which result sometimes in, well, nothing (they’re just statements made in the hopes that it will keep the faculty quiet and happy), or sometimes in advancing faculty interests (no matter how noble they are in and of themselves) at the expense of undergraduate education (see, for example, the awarding of tenure, with its emphasis on research but precious little, by comparison, on student learning). Yes, we need to promote “faculty excellence and recognition” but it’s even more important to make sure that that is truly supplementing–and not discarding–the educational mission towards the students.

It does remain to be seen how the Daniels era at Purdue will work out, if it will be the first big step in the emergence of a broader reform agenda in higher ed. Here’s to hoping for its success.

  • pointforward

    Long winded, repetitive, unfocused, lacking in any discernible point, and the usual horribly written drivel from Mr. Robe. Clearly, anyone who received a journalism degree after 1980 is functionally illiterate.