Annual Open Letter to the People of Purdue from Mitch Daniels
January 4, 2021
The last couple years, I confess that I have looked ahead to my Thanksgiving vacation homework of composing this annual missive with some apprehension. Not that there won’t be meaningful news to report, or that Purdue’s overall status isn’t highly positive, but that there wouldn’t be much brand new to talk about. The pressures of changing demographics, growing skepticism about cost, value, student debt, freedom of speech, and so on, are all still present and dominant factors on the higher ed landscape. Purdue’s responses to these legitimate concerns and inquiry have, we believe, been generally appropriate and effective. But I admit that I have fretted a little that I might not have much new to say about that landscape.
Well, that little worry resolved itself, starting in mid-January. Looking back at notes I keep, that was the period when I first scribbled something about how the “newly identified coronavirus” might wind up affecting our usual operations.
You could say that. Or, as a friend commented on one of those Zoom sessions which now seem to dominate our daily lives (I learned the term “Zoom zombies” sometime in October), “It’s hard to believe 2020 started just nine years ago.” We may be in reality only one year since the last of these letters, but we are literally in a different world.
The first, huge and daunting set of questions Purdue faced was how to react to all the changes and risks presented by a global pandemic. The second set requires us to peer ahead, trying to determine which of those changes will prove permanent, and to what degree, and what a successful university must do to adjust to them.
With that preface, here’s a summary tour through the “nine years” of 2020.
I’ve remarked to friends these last nine months that, in the jargon of our Krannert School friends, I’ve never had a job with one KPI (“Key Performance Indicator”) before. As I told them, “My KPI is KPO. ‘Keep the place open.’”
This would have been a very short letter had we decided, as so many schools did, not to reopen Purdue on schedule in August. We came to that decision only after as careful, deliberate, collaborative, and empirically-based a process as I have ever been a part of, at any level of corporate, state, or national public life.
First, a faculty team led by Deans Reed of Veterinary Medicine and Hummels of Management studied the situation as it could best be understood in its early stages. The group recommended that, provided we could fashion a program that created special protections for those most vulnerable to the virus, and limited its spread among anyone in our population, we could responsibly reopen in the fall. Their findings were examined and endorsed by a group of our most eminent Purdue scientists.
Still, the choice was far from obvious. The single most crucial scientific fact was the non-lethality, about as close to zero as any phenomenon is in this life, among the youthful population that overwhelmingly makes up the Purdue community.
This was an initially surprising finding. Contrast it to the 1957 or the 2009 pandemics, which hit young people at least as hard as older age groups. Or the 1918 influenza, which killed 50-60 million people in a much smaller world, and concentrated its most lethal effects on young people, not their elders. Had the facts resembled any of those previous events, we would never have reopened an environment as densely populated as the Purdue campus.
But, it appeared, COVID-19 was very different. The implication was that, if – a huge if – we could build a whole new way to operate the university, that separated or otherwise protected potentially vulnerable members of the campus community, we could have the fall semester that, by enormous percentages, our students told us they hoped we would offer them.
Over the intervening months, data from all over the world has decisively confirmed what our scientists thought they saw in the spring. Mortality from COVID-19 is massively concentrated in the eldest age brackets.
An American, age 65-74 is...
- 4 times more likely to die of COVID than an accident
- 3 times more likely to die of COVID than diabetes
But an American, age 15-24 is...
- 21 times more likely to die in an accident than COVID
- 11 times more likely to die by suicide than COVID
- 8 times more likely to die by homicide than COVID
- 2.5 times more likely to die by cancer (Malignant neoplasm)
- 1.5 times more likely to die by heart disease
As recently as October, Pennsylvania has had more deaths among people over 100 than under 45. A 15-24-year-old American is nearly twice as likely to die from heart disease, three times as likely from cancer, 11 times as likely from suicide and 21 times as likely to die from an accident, than from COVID-19. Those the age of our students represent 0.2% of U.S. COVID-related deaths, and their chance of dying from the disease even after infection is less than one in 20,000.Source: Science 10 Jul 2020;, Vol. 369, Issue 6500, pp. 208-211 DOI: 10.1126/science.abc3517
As of the end of classes at Thanksgiving, we had identified 2,770 total student cases at Purdue. Less than one percent ever went past the fourth level of a six-level severity index devised by our Medical Advisory Team. More than 80 percent were completely without symptoms or had no more than one mild symptom, such as a headache or temporary loss of taste. Our 200+ positive cases among staff were only slightly more severe.
During the entire semester, we saw only 7 hospitalizations, most very short-term and non-life-threatening. The nearly 1,000 beds we assembled to house those isolating (because positive for the virus) or quarantining (because of a contact and potential positive status) were never more than 26% occupied.
But we knew none of this at the time we had to decide. It’s a rule of life that sound decisions, to be made before it’s too late, must be reached with much less than 100% of the information one would like to have. Back in April, we were painfully short of 100%.
Viewed in April, both the longer-term epidemiological evidence, and our ability to put together a system to manage the virus, were far from certain. After briefing the Board of Trustees on three successive occasions, making sure they supported our recommendation, we came to our decision carefully…”prayerfully” might be a more accurate description.
This is not the place for a lengthy dissertation on public decision making, but it must be noted that Purdue was one of thousands of public entities responding to the pandemic. A fair definition of one’s duty in any position of broad responsibility is the requirement to balance multiple, competing interests. Whether responsible for a business, a city, or an entire nation, the physical safety of those one serves is almost always the first duty, and priority. But, at any significant scale of endeavor, a first priority is never the only priority.
History will judge, and may judge harshly, many of the choices various leaders made during 2020. It’s undeniable that fearsome prices have been paid for actions taken to address everyone’s first priority, the health of the public. Other harms to human health – increased opioid deaths, deaths from postponed medical care and screening, mental health damage including suicide, and many others – are already being clearly documented. The economic wreckage to countless lives will in many cases be irrecoverable. And the harm to young people from interrupted education also looks to be tragic.
Scholars are already assessing the “learning loss” to younger schoolchildren. Work published by researchers at Stanford in October found that Indiana grade school students had already lost 2/3 of a year of progress in reading and more than a year in math. Like the economic stoppages imposed by the most extreme lockdowns, the effects will be far more pronounced on low-income families and children. Inequality, which had been reduced significantly in the years prior to this one, will be exacerbated once again.
Quite possibly, students the quality of today’s Boilermakers would have made up lost ground and suffered no long-term harm from a lost semester. But other damage would have been incurred. At colleges nationwide, firings, furloughs, and layoffs were the rule, not the exception. Public universities reported a 14% drop in total employment between February and October. Pay cuts were almost universal. And surrounding communities were often devastated by the shutdown of on-campus life. All these risks, we believed, had to be part of our reopening calculation.Source: Pew, BLS, 2020
Examples of Universities Cutting Back
- Marquette University: Cutting 225 faculty and staff positions
- George Washington University: 339 layoffs
- Ithaca College: Cutting 130 faculty; 167 staff
- Duke: 75 layoffs
- University of Vermont: Eliminating 23 liberal arts programs
- University of Evansville: May cut 17 majors and 3 departments
It’s fairly easy now in hindsight to feel that we made a sound decision back in April. I’d be way less than honest if I said that I felt great confidence at the outset. But waiting, as most of our competitors did, on more information, would have reduced every day our ability to take all the steps necessary to set up the safest possible campus. So, figuratively holding our breath, we embarked on what became the comprehensive, multi-million dollar project now known as Protect Purdue.
Coping with COVID
A major component of operating the university in this difficult period has been to communicate as openly and actively as possible with all our stakeholders. This included not just students, faculty, and staff but also our parents, alumni, our neighbors in the Greater Lafayette area, and the local and state officials responsible for dealing with the broader public health challenges.
I hope that our regular reports on Protect Purdue reached you. I won’t recap it all here; at this link you can find a summary of the myriad efforts it entailed. Instead, I’ll just offer a little commentary on this enormous – I don’t think “historic” is a hyperbole – undertaking.
Fall 2020 Residence Hall Occupancy by School
|University||% of normal capacity|
|Big Ten Average*||51.3%|
- 17,220 student programs and events: 63% in person, 37% virtual
- 227,086 co-rec visits
- 1,667,497 dining hall mean swipes
The obvious starting point is that our work was far from perfect. Teaching which, for the protection of faculty, was delivered substantially online was by definition sub-optimal. Online instruction was already a big and growing part of a Purdue education – 80% of our recent students had at least one online course before graduating. And there is no question that being compelled to transform hundreds of courses in order to finish the spring term and operate in the fall had improved the quality of our remote instruction. But, as our students make plain, nothing yet fully replaces the personal interaction that Purdue, with one of the lowest teacher-student ratios among universities our size, normally delivers.Purdue leads the Big Ten with the most students in classrooms, roughly tied with Nebraska for the largest share of in-person classes.
Moreover, it’s small consolation that Purdue offered a much higher share of its classes either in-person (26%) or partially so (45%). Many of our Big Ten counterparts, like Minnesota and Michigan State, threw in the towel on virtually any in-person instruction. But our regret is that we didn’t find ways to raise our percentage, and that is a major goal for this upcoming term.
A serious shortcoming of the fall was that, in far too many cases, courses that were listed, or at least perceived by students, as in-person were ultimately delivered remotely, or mostly so. There often were good reasons for the misunderstanding, but students and their parents were rightfully aggrieved when the nature of the curriculum they expected was not what they actually encountered.
On the other hand, student attendance at many in-person classes fell far short of Purdue standards. We are out to do better in 2021 at accurately describing how each course will be delivered, and sticking to it, while holding students accountable for attending the classes they sign up for.
As we intended from the outset, Protect Purdue was a do everything possible, throw the sink exercise. Looking back, many of the dollars we spent probably added little or no medical value. Early in the summer, I proudly illustrated our commitment by touting all the plexiglass barriers we were installing in classrooms and customer-contact staff locations. From lessons learned subsequently, it seems that those investments likely didn’t lower the chance of viral spread much if at all.
Similarly, we have learned that the risk of spread by surface contact is far less than was suspected at first. Our daily disinfection of thousands of counters, door handles, and surfaces of all kinds may also have been of limited utility. The time and expense we put into increasing the space between residence hall beds showed no evidence of reducing roommate-to-roommate spread. On the other hand, our investments in enhanced ventilation systems and air purification perhaps should have been even greater.
Regardless of their incremental utility, we will persevere in all these areas, for two reasons. First, we will continue to spare no effort or expense that might be of even the smallest protective value. Second, doing the maximum we can come up with, if it adds slightly to the peace of mind of our students and staff, is well worth it in a time of increased stress and anxiousness.
Our testing and tracing systems represented the largest share of the dollars and person-hours we spent this fall. In the main, I believe we designed and operated these systems well, starting with the pre-testing we required of every student as the semester began. Our random surveillance testing, which caught hundreds of positive cases among unknowing people with no symptoms, was an important part of our arsenal. If anything, we did too little surveillance testing, and may dial up higher levels for the spring.
When the scope of the COVID problem was first becoming apparent, it occurred to me that our intention to demolish our World War II-vintage Purdue Village Apartments might be a mistake. I got hold of our Physical Facilities VP Mike Cline just in time to stop the ‘dozers, and we left hundreds of units standing for use as isolation space.
Unfortunately, we made some early mistakes in setting up and operating “P-Ville”. Early occupants had legitimate complaints about a lack of regular attention, sufficient help shifting to remote instruction while they were isolating, not to mention the quality of the food. We were taking several days to disinfect and turn over rooms to ready them for a next tenant.
After we asked Greg Weddle, a seasoned businessman with a strong background in process management, to take on the job of “Mayor of P-ville”, things began to improve. Rooms were cleaned and turned around in 2 days, down from as many as 10. We even began receiving compliments on the cuisine. Our folks were especially proud of the Thanksgiving meal they prepared for those still quarantining on Turkey Day.
Other judgment calls involved the need, at least as I saw it, to send clear signals of seriousness, even apart from clear health risks. We took a firm line, including several suspensions, about early violations of the Purdue Pledge behaviors. Understandably, some saw these as overreactions, but hopefully they set a tone and precedent that limited later misconduct. In a few instances we concluded we had been too harsh, and we moderated or reversed the penalties.
Other debatable steps included our negative stance toward the “Breakfast Club” tradition, and our acquiescence in the Big Ten’s policy against allowing students in the stands for football games. The latter was a particularly clear example of the importance of appearances, as the rationale for permitting attendance was not athletic but medical: we now know that the virus is almost impossible to spread in the open air, and a few thousand students would be safer spread out – I first wrote “spaced out”, but you might have misconstrued that - in a 56,000-seat Ross-Ade Stadium than in residence hall rooms and taverns watching on television.
But, as the hypocritical, “do as I say, not as I do” actions of a few public figures have recently shown, appearances matter, especially when success depends so heavily on voluntary cooperation by the entire public. Still, we understood the criticism of some parents and others who disputed various of our policy choices.
So Protect Purdue was an admittedly imperfect exercise. At the meeting I convened every weekday of the semester (a subgroup met on Saturdays and Sundays; as someone put it, “The virus doesn’t take weekends off, we can’t either”), we tried to be as self-critical as possible, and to continually learn and refine our processes. Since the struggle begins again later this month, we hope we learned well and will keep on doing so.
At this writing, it’s unknowable what the epidemiology of late January or the rest of this semester will look like. There is no assurance we can replicate the acceptable outcome of the fall semester, and attempting to do so will remain Job One for us all until some combination of vaccines, viral mutation, or herd immunity restores some kind of normalcy to life.
But even when this, too, shall have passed, we know that “normal” will be new in ways we can only guess at for the moment. It’s well established that cataclysms like COVID don’t as often trigger new trends as they accelerate preexisting ones. This is as certain in higher ed as in any other sector one can think of.
As of mid-December, job losses across higher education had surpassed 150,000 of those employed just a year before. A leading periodical reported “(S)truggling colleges around the country are reacting to the pandemic by unilaterally cutting programs, firing professors, and gutting tenure, all once-unthinkable changes.” Some of these changes may prove reversible, but many will not because, as these letters have tried to chronicle over the years, these trends were underway well before anyone heard of COVID-19.
I have divided my “Higher Ed 2020” file between pre- and post-COVID articles. Even those from before the pandemic erupted are scary enough: “The College Wealth Premium Has Collapsed”; “On Collegiate Death and Dying”; “I Killed My Teenager’s Fancy College Dreams. You Should, Too”; “Americans Rank a Google Internship Over a Harvard Degree”. You get the picture.
After COVID arrived, the predictions turned even more apocalyptic. “How COVID-19 may be the needle that completely pops the higher education bubble” read one typical headline. As a number of colleges closed or merged, forecasts of sectoral shrinkage intensified.
With a record freshman class, and record total enrollment, Purdue might seem immune to these threats. What a foolish mistake it would be to imagine that. Stable as our condition has been over recent years, we have been trying hard to think about the now-accelerated changes coming to higher ed, and build a future Purdue that can not only survive but thrive as they arrive.
We launched Purdue Global three years ago to expand our land grant mission to working adults and especially those who started but did not complete college, and that is going very well (see next section).
But we made plain at the time a second objective: to acquire competency and a platform in online education, an area in which we were undistinguished and making little headway. I stated then that I did not know exactly where online learning was going, but I knew the direction (up!) and that we wanted Purdue to be positioned to compete successfully whenever and however that unmistakable trend manifested itself.
It's manifesting. A study by Strada Education found that 3 in 10 Americans would prefer an online-only option even if COVID-19 was not a threat. Surveys by one of the world’s dominant internet companies found 28% of potential students claiming they would defer college plans, with another 17% saying they planned to look “exclusively online”. In another scan, 27% of 18-24-year-olds said their preferred mode was “at home, online” with many of them expressing interest in certificates or credentials other than a traditional bachelor’s degree. Even discounting these figures for the difficulty of the immediate moment, something has changed.
We hope we have anticipated these shifts to some extent. Our faculty have now created more than 600 courses in an online format. Partnering with a national foundation, our Colleges of Engineering and Science have combined to produce an entire online freshman STEM curriculum, including our first virtual lab classes.
Just before COVID hit, we announced another partnership, with the Klinsky Foundation, to enable Indiana students to earn a “freshman year for free”, by taking free online courses and then the associated CLEP tests, passage of which earns credit at Purdue. In mid-November, I called the first two qualifiers, Steven from Macy and Jenelle from Kokomo, to welcome them to Purdue, well on their way to degrees before paying a nickel in tuition. This could be a precursor to a future in which, at their option, students could mix a year or two of remote study at home, or abroad, or at a job, with the remaining years spent on campus.
We are also collaborating, through Purdue Global, with our friends at Gallup organization on a “Straight to Work” project that is placing talented minority, low-income high school graduates directly into well-paying corporate jobs. These young all-stars will get great, immediate job experience while pursuing a tailored academic degree online.
Just as in enterprises of all kinds, work at Purdue is sure to be affected in lasting ways. At the beginning of the COVID ordeal, I asked Bill Bell, our VP of Human Resources, for an estimate of how many of our associates could work effectively from home, where they would be safer and the campus would be less dense. “We’ve been looking at that,” Bill said, “and we think it’s as many as one third.”
I was impressed. Then it turned out that nearly two thirds of our staff could work at least much of the week from home. Things won’t stay at that level, but they won’t revert all the way back, either, with implications for the amount and kind of space the university will need.
We believe several of the initiatives we had already undertaken will match the new environment. One is our emphasis on affordability, which we recently announced will extend to a tenth year (the 2022-23 school year) at the 2012 tuition levels. Our Income Share Agreements, as an alternative to expensive private and parental loans, are looking even more attractive.
During 2020, more evidence surfaced to increase the concern among many students and parents that colleges are places of intolerance, indoctrination, and enforced conformity of thought. More studies confirmed a growing fear among college students of being ostracized or penalized for expressing viewpoints not deemed sufficiently “correct”. A substantial majority reported feeling intimidated in this way. Purdue’s commitment to freedom of speech and inquiry, admirably supported by our faculty and a core part of the Purdue experience starting with our Boiler Gold Rush freshman orientation, must remain firm as another way in which our university differentiates itself. The occasional complaints I receive about ideological indoctrination must remain rare and aberrational.
Given all the dangers surrounding higher ed as we have known it, it would be recklessly irresponsible not to constantly reflect on changes that will keep Purdue a leader not merely in attracting able and ambitious young people, but in preparing them for their own lives of leadership.
The Kids Are “Alright”
One needn’t remember The Who to grasp why I am borrowing their movie title, to describe the single most important fact of Purdue’s 2020 fall semester. In direct refutation of a host of cynics, our students not only complied with the dreary restrictions of the Purdue Pledge, they led the campus in doing so.
I am asked daily how Purdue managed to struggle our way through an on-campus fall, and my answer is three-fold: 1) an early decision and more time to prepare; 2) a commitment to do everything that might contribute to safety; and 3) magnificent student compliance. Whether it was masking, maintaining distance, reporting for requested testing, getting flu shots, or just maintaining reasonable humor and calmness while enduring all that, our students’ conduct was absolutely the key element, really the sine qua non, of surviving the fall.
One day in October a curious senior parked himself outside WALC, the busiest thoroughfare of today’s campus, and kept a tally of students wearing masks. Please note that wearing a mask in a non-congested setting outdoors is not required by the Purdue Pledge. He counted 94% of his fellow Boilermakers in essence going beyond the Pledge, no surprise to anyone who had been on campus since August.
I have a thick file of disparaging comments from pundits and others dismissing the idea of reopening schools because today’s young people would never adapt their behavior to the necessity of the moment. One professor from another university sneered that reopening was “delusional”, and predicted that students would be “cavalier about wearing masks…ignore social distancing guidelines…begin partying in their hallways…get drunk and hang out and hook up with people they don’t know well.”
I felt I had an advantage over these cynics. I had spent years getting to know Purdue students, and they hadn’t. Boilermakers come in every type, and of course we always have a small quotient of knuckleheads among them. But overwhelmingly, I know our students to be deeply interested in doing something good for others. Just examine the volume and variety of volunteer work and community service that they do, individually and through hundreds of campus organizations. Protecting Purdue from COVID-19 meant mainly protecting others, and as I expected they rallied to the opportunity. Every member of the Boilermaker family can feel proud of these wonderful young people and the families that shared them with us.
Oh, by the way…
A few other things happened this year. As mentioned, Purdue Global, which outgrew its market in 2019, began to expand even faster this year. It is now up to more than 35,000 students, which incidentally brought the total served by Purdue in all its offerings above 100,000 for the first time.
Our regional campuses are battling particularly severe headwinds in their category. Regional public universities, along with community colleges like Ivy Tech, have been hit especially hard by the worsening downturn in total enrollments, down overall nationally now for nine straight years. But with innovative new offerings, like music technology, financial planning, and actuarial science (PFW), and the state’s first degree in banking (PNW), our regionals have held up relatively well, especially in attracting new first-time students.
2020 also saw a major breakthrough in our ambition to extend a Boilermaker education far beyond the traditional four years, as the new Purdue for Life Foundation came into being. Great thanks go to the leadership of the Purdue Alumni Association for cooperating to combine their engagement role with the development operations at the Purdue Research Foundation. This new entity promises an exciting new era of much greater, continuous, valuable contact with Boilermakers literally throughout their life. In a world where learning truly never stops, we hope to position Purdue to deliver value that does not stop but only starts at an undergraduate commencement.
And, a project I consider perhaps the most important single initiative we have underway is nearing a critical milestone. The first of our three Purdue Polytechnic High Schools is now in its fourth year, and will turn out its first graduates this May.
Readers will recall that we launched these schools out of frustration that Indiana’s public schools, the nation’s for that matter, were producing far too few low-income, first-generation, and minority youth prepared and qualified to succeed at Purdue. Now our gamble that we could build our own pipeline to augment those dismal numbers is about to begin flowing.
Our downtown Indianapolis campus will graduate about 115 seniors. So far, 50 have applied to Purdue. As test scores at PPHS have been far surpassing those in the rest of the Indianapolis Public Schools and most of the state, many of these young people will have lots of options. But we have done all we can to show them that Purdue is the place for them; almost all have made multiple trips to campus, and many already have earned Purdue credits.
We have built a substantial scholarship fund to ensure that economic factors don’t keep an otherwise ready and willing student from enrolling. If even 1/3 of this first class become Boilermakers, we will have doubled the number of students we have been enrolling from the entirety of the IPS district, and doubled likewise the number of minorities. Next year, we will begin to see the first graduates from our second high school in Indy, and soon after that graduates from the new South Bend PPHS. No action anyone has suggested to date can have a more direct effect on the socioeconomic and racial diversity of our university.
Students Enrolling at Purdue WL from Indianapolis Public Schools
|Black or African American||Other Underrepresented Minorities||All Others||Total|
In recognition of the PPHS project, the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities awarded Purdue the Connections Award for 2020, its highest honor.
Someone has speculated that soon “2020” will enter our vernacular as a slang term for “miserable”. In describing a business failure, a major sports beatdown, or just a really lousy day, maybe we’ll say “It was a real 2020.”
That’s one way to look at it. Another, as I have remarked to many of our students these last four months, is that 2020, at least at our university, can be remembered as a time of achievement, of adversity overcome through a genuine communal effort. In a time of depressing polarization and societal division, a community of 50,000 diverse citizens pulled together to do what so many said was not possible.
Now we face the reality that we have to do it all over again. Given the increased spread across the country, including our surrounding communities, the virus could make Spring Term even tougher to navigate, and we will enter it acknowledging that success is no certainty. We say only, as we did eight months ago, that it is right, in fact it is our duty, to try, so try we will.
I have another file, of messages from doubters and defeatists, many of them having zero connection to Purdue. Sincerely, I know, they used harsh and often personal terms like “crazy”, “stupid”, and ‘ignorant” in attacking us for reopening, and predicting doom of the worst kind.
Many times over the last weeks, I have mentally composed the letter I was tempted to send them now. My better instincts have prevailed, and I won’t be doing that. But I hope that the events and results of this year at Purdue have led these folks to be a little more careful in coming to their opinions, a little more temperate in expressing those opinions, a little more charitable in accepting the good intentions of others.
Yes, I know. But this is being written in the season of Peace and Hope. Which is what I wish for every Boilermaker in what is sure to be the better and more hopeful year of 2021.
Boiler up. Hail Purdue.