Why Mitch Daniels Was Wrong

Peter Wood

Mitch Daniels has found himself in a new controversy. The former governor of Indiana and now president of Purdue University gave the keynote address at the October 7 Fall Briefing of the Center of the American Experiment, a Minnesota think tank. His topic was “What Did It Take to Reduce Spending and Improve Governmental Services in Indiana?” It could hardly be said that Daniels had wandered outside his area of expertise, but almost instantly he came under intense criticism.

The critics leveled two main points. First, Daniels was paid to speak at the event—although the amount wasn’t disclosed. Second, his speech was taken as a contravention of his promise to stay out of partisan politics while serving as Purdue’s president. Indystar.com, a Web site owned by Gannett newspapers, rounded up an expert in “government ethics” named Judy Nadler who saw “red flags” in the speaker’s honorarium and a crossing of the line in his making the speech at all.

What snagged my attention, however, was Daniels’s quick response to the criticism. As The Chronicle reported, three days after the speech, Daniels publicly apologized by means of a letter published in the Lafayette, Ind., Journal & Courier, which had editorialized against his Minneapolis speech. The newspaper, which praised Daniels for “shaking up Purdue in the right way,” faulted him for the speech as an act of “walking so close to a political trip wire.” The newspaper recognized that Daniels was speaking on his own time and had squared the matter with Purdue’s trustees, but it criticized him for wasting the “good will” of some Purdue faculty members, such as Professor David Williams, chairman of the Faculty Senate.

Daniels’s response in his letter of apology was that he found the critique “persuasive” and that he would have exercised better judgment if he had declined the invitation. He is using the honorarium to help fund two full-tuition scholarships.

Hooray for the scholarships, but the apology was unnecessary and a mistake, perhaps compounding Daniels’s earlier mistake in “pledging” (his word) to “forsake anything partisan” and “to stay out of public issues that could be construed that way.”

Why would a college president make such a pledge? The question isn’t rhetorical. Daniels apparently made it to diffuse the highly partisan opposition of members of the Purdue faculty who were aghast at the prospect of a conservative Republican governor’s serving as president of the university. It was an instance of bending over too far to placate a faction that was never going to accept him in good graces anyway.

The flap in July over Daniels’s remarks about Howard Zinn, in e-mails written years earlier, gave full body to this animus. Using Freedom of Information Act requests to gain access to Daniels’s old e-mail when he was governor, his critics found what they thought was a gotcha moment. Daniels had written with disdain about the late Howard Zinn, a professor of political science and author of the widely used A People’s History of the United States. Writing in The Chronicle, in “Why Mitch Daniels Was Right,” I defended his remarks, both in their substance—Zinn was indeed, as Daniels wrote, an “execrable” historian—and in follow-up actions, in which Daniels sought to keep A People’s History from being used in Indiana’s teacher-education programs.

Daniels was right then, but he isn’t right now. The main issue at hand is whether a college president should be speaking at a think tank that possesses a political agenda. Let’s start with the obvious: College presidents do this sort of thing routinely and without raising the faintest breeze of criticism. On September 18, the Center for American Progress, working with American Women, the Planned Parenthood Action Fund, and the Service Employees International Union, held an event titled “Fair Shot: A Plan for Women and Families to Get Ahead.” The opening speaker was the senior White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. You can’t get much more political than that, unless perhaps you include the Democratic House leader, Nancy Pelosi. As it happened, she too was on the program. But so was Beverly Tatum, president of Spelman College.

As far as I can tell, no one at Spelman or in Georgia or anywhere else found fault with President Tatum’s exercising her right to participate in that event.

The Center for American Progress held another event last December titled “Investing in the Future: Higher Education, Innovation, and American Competitiveness.” That was the title of a “wide-ranging conversation” between Neera Tanden, president of the center, and Drew Faust, present of Harvard University. The event included several others, some with self-evident partisan positions, such as Gene Sperling, assistant to President Obama for economic policy.

I don’t object to President Faust’s having accepted that invitation, nor have I seen anyone else object. The Center for American Progress is a well-recognized liberal think tank with a strong partisan flavor, but academic leaders are supposed to be engaged with the important issues of our day. And it has invited sundry academic deans and vice presidents.

In my view, the leaders of our colleges and universities play way too small a role in shaping public debate on policy issues. Yes, their voices are heard on the theme that state and federal government should spend more public money on higher education, and you can find a small range of other issues in which college leaders speak up less as individuals and more as members of a chorus. Thus there is no shortage of college presidents—675 as of last week—who had signed the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment. And college presidents speak as with one mind when it comes to defending racial preferences in college admissions.

Such ideological lockstep isn’t good for higher education. It conveys to students that the range of views that can be openly discussed on campuses is limited. It drives faculty members underground. And it tells the public pretty vividly that colleges and universities are not the havens for open-minded inquiry that they pretend to be.

We would be a lot better off if college presidents more often acted as Presidents Tatum and Faust did—and as President Daniels did—by presenting themselves as individuals who can speak ably on behalf of their own opinions on issues that require something more than aparti pris declaration of allegiance. I doubt that I agree with Tatum and Faust on much of what they said at the Center for American Progress, but I don’t doubt that they thought through their arguments and spoke as educated individuals, and not as the wind-up toys that populate most college presidencies these days.

As for President Daniels, he made a foolish promise when he said he would “forsake anything partisan” while serving as Purdue’s president. It is a pledge he should unpledge as soon as possible because it will be used by his opponents to muzzle almost anything he might constructively say. “Partisanship,” we have been taught by the academic left, can be discerned in almost anything—and it will be discerned in Daniels’s actions no matter how wide a distance he tries to keep from that trip wire.

The real trip wire that Daniels and all college presidents should avoid is bringing political partisanship indoors to their campuses. Their role on campuses should be as guarantors of academic and intellectual freedom, and not advocates for their favored conceptions of social justice, ballot initiatives, court-made law, or mass movements.

Daniels is not an especially partisan politician, which may be what makes him so ready to accommodate his critics. But that’s a mistake. His critics will only be heartened by having beaten him down once and will look for the next opening.

This article originally appeared on the Chronicle of Higher Education's blog "The Conversation" on October 22, 2013. 

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