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President Mitch Daniels on Leading Purdue Through a Pandemic

This is a podcast episode titled, President Mitch Daniels on Leading Purdue Through a Pandemic. The summary for this episode is: <p>In this episode of Purdue University’s official podcast,&nbsp;<em>This&nbsp;is Purdue</em>, we’re joined by a very special guest.&nbsp;&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p><br></p><p>Listen&nbsp;in as&nbsp;Purdue&nbsp;University President Mitch Daniels&nbsp;discusses&nbsp;his decision to&nbsp;fully open&nbsp;the University&nbsp;amidst&nbsp;a pandemic and communicate this to the world&nbsp;back&nbsp;in 2020.&nbsp;Plus, President Daniels talks about what he missed most during the past school year, what he’s looking forward to this Fall&nbsp;(Hint:&nbsp;It involves&nbsp;Purdue&nbsp;Athletics), and his favorite IndyCar driver.&nbsp;&nbsp;</p><p><br></p><p>You don't want to miss this&nbsp;episode!&nbsp;&nbsp;</p>

Kate Young: Hi, I'm Kate Young, and you're listening to This is Purdue, the official podcast for Purdue University. As a Purdue alum and Indiana native, I know firsthand about the family of students and professors who are in it together, persistently pursuing and relentlessly rethinking. Who are the next game changers, difference makers, ceiling breakers, innovators? Who are these Boilermakers? Join me as we feature students, faculty, and alumni taking small steps toward their giant leaps and inspiring others to do the same.

Mitch Daniels: We've always been proud, and I think that's part of it. I've talked to so many people, and it starts the same. For me, it started at Purdue. I owe it to Purdue, if not for Purdue. It's the thing I love the very most about this place, as you can see from my sniffles. And I hope the last year added a layer on top of that.

Kate Young: This week on This is Purdue, Purdue University president, Mitch Daniels, joins us for the first time. We discussed his decision, which some called brave and others called risky, to fully open Purdue amid a pandemic, and communicate this to the world, something few other university presidents were doing at the time.

Mitch Daniels: I thought it would be a default of responsibility to just throw up our hands and say, " This might not work, so all 35,000 of you, figure it out."

Kate Young: We talked about what he missed most during the past school year.

Mitch Daniels: Oh, contact with the students. We all have our own way of doing things, but mine for all these years has been, be out a lot, and funning around, going to events. The gym, a huge change for me.

Kate Young: We even got his take for who would be the next Indianapolis 500 winner. Do you have any favorites for drivers? Are you betting on anyone?

Mitch Daniels: Those are two different questions. I won't have any bets down, no.

Kate Young: But let's start at the beginning. Let's rewind back to March of 2020. It's a difficult time to look back on, that's for sure. Uncertainty clouded our every thought. There were serious thoughts like: When will it be safe to see my parents or grandparents again? When will I be able to hug my friends? And more trivial thoughts like: When can I go to a concert again? Will I ever get to travel and take that trip I had planned? You probably missed your coworkers and were adjusting to abruptly shifting to working from home, maybe even at a makeshift desk at your kitchen table. Here's President Daniels more than a year ago.

Mitch Daniels: I'm talking to you without any script today, and I guess that's fitting because there's no script for any of us in the changed environment that Purdue and this nation, the whole world, finds itself in after the events of the last few months.

Kate Young: When I watched this video, student leadership made Protect Purdue a success, which you can check out on our Purdue YouTube channel, and I saw the desolate streets of campus, memories came flooding back. It made me emotional. I think it makes anyone emotional when you really think about that time, seeing your favorite local stores and restaurants closing their doors, being holed up inside, just as the weather was getting nice again in Indiana. President Daniels knew he had to act. He had to lean into the information and data from the experts and make a decision quickly. And keep in mind, this was a peak time of uncertainty. Everything around the world was closing. He explains what was going through his mind when he made the decision to keep Purdue University fully open and conduct in person classes for the fall 2020 semester. What was it like, and how did you feel telling the world last April, Purdue is going to be fully opened and have in person classes and activities?

Mitch Daniels: Apprehensive. I felt very much it was the right thing to do if we could bring it off. I'll say it the other way around. I thought it would be a default of responsibility to just throw up our hands and say, " This might not work, so all 35,000 of you, figure it out. Take a year off." But that's the essence of difficult decisions. You don't know, and you can't know. And if you try to wait until you think you know everything, it's usually way too late for whatever call that was to succeed.

Kate Young: What do you think you were most worried about leading up to the 2020- 21 school year?

Mitch Daniels: The factors that would've caused us to call a halt, or make a U turn were three indicia that I think I worried about or thought about the most. First and foremost was severity. I don't know why others didn't do this. But early on, I asked our medical advisors, construct for us a simple measure of how ill people are because if any significant number of either students or staff were getting really dangerously ill, that would've been a trigger. And so there was a one to six little simple system they created, one, asymptomatic, all the way up to six, you better go to the hospital. Only 2% of all the cases we had all year ever got past level three or something like that, so that was one thing that we watched very carefully. And happily, we had just a tiny number even of hospitalizations, and those resolved. So then the second thing would've been if we'd run out of quarantine space because we knew it was essential when someone had it, so transmissible, to move them to a place until they weren't going to infect someone else. We never got close to that either. Again, we turned out, we had many more beds for that than we thought we might. And the third thing would've been if the local hospitals' intensive care units were overwhelmed, and we had anything to do with it, it was our staff or our students. Happily, that didn't happen either. Those were the three, maybe not the only three, but those were the three indicators that I probably watched the most closely.

Kate Young: The one thing I hear over and over from Purdue's leaders is how the students really stepped up over the past year. College is such a special time. I have so many fond memories from that time in my life. It's part of why I'm so honored to work on this podcast and tell these stories. But add in masks covering everyone's faces, plexiglass in classrooms, and social distancing from your friends, and remove the roar of the crowd at Mackey Arena during a big game, and grilling out at football tailgates. That is hard. That isn't a normal college experience. But these Boilermaker students met all of the safety expectations and more. Through persistence, patience, and perseverance, Purdue weathered the many unique obstacles that the COVID- 19 pandemic placed on institutions. President Daniels reflects on the past school year and the lessons learned.

Mitch Daniels: Well, we've all learned so much. We could fill another podcast with what we've learned about how to mix online instruction with in person, about work that does pretty darn well on a remote basis, or partially remote. There's all sorts of lessons like that, that I hope we learn and adapt. It'll make people's work, family lives better. It'll be environmentally better if fewer people are driving and parking and so forth. To me, it was not a surprise that this university, I'm going to go back to the students first and foremost, did come together and achieve what it did. Not a big surprise, but certainly gratifying to see one's impressions or positive suspicions borne out.

Kate Young: Yeah. And I talked to Dr. Ramirez, and he just had so much praise for the students. And I know I have heard you speak as well on that. Is there anything that looking back, maybe you would've done differently?

Mitch Daniels: Maybe the dollars we spent, the effort we spent could've been directed at something else. I hope we won't have to go through it again, but there's quite a playbook. And we've tried to be very honest with ourselves and others about things that were valuable, others that weren't. I think the one thing I would emphasize is we probably should've been more attentive, maybe aggressive than we were, too many courses were started in person, or listed as in person, and then somehow, changed to online. And too many students were disappointed that, that happened. And I had heard from some students to whom it happened, maybe three or four courses, and that wasn't a good thing. If we ever had to go through it again, I think we would be much more alert to that, try to prevent that happening wherever possible.

Kate Young: Purdue has a strong sense of community. There's just something special you feel when you see someone walking by with a Purdue hat on, or hearing a, " Boiler up," when someone tells you that they too are a Purdue alum. That being said, Purdue isn't the only school in Indiana. And who doesn't love a good rivalry? You may remember this commercial from the Purdue men's basketball game against a certain rival in Indiana.

Mitch Daniels: I must've been asked 100 times how it was that we were able to operate Purdue, keep it open.

Kate Young: The Boilermakers keep going video, I remember watching that during the IU Purdue game. I turned to my husband, who's an IU graduate, and was like, " Did you just see that?" He was like, " That was good." I just remember feeling so proud to be a Boilermaker. Was there a certain moment that you can look back on and think of that you were the most proud of this Purdue community?

Mitch Daniels: I was proud throughout. I was proud of our folks for making that video. I had said to them before, and real unrelated really to the pandemic, we get these slots on the Big 10 network, and occasionally somewhere else, where you're able to put your institution on display for 60 seconds. I said, " Ours looked just like everybody else's, people standing around with beakers, and huddled over a computer screen or something." I said, " Now there's some things that are unique about Purdue and we should emphasize those." Well, came this last year, and we really did have something that was different. So many of our peers didn't go to school at all, or everybody was stuck in their room all the time, no in person classes. And so I thought they did a really great job of showing others what, if you were here, you saw our students, our faculty, this institution coming together to achieve.

Kate Young: I'll also use this opportunity to plug that Purdue won its ninth straight game against that school from down South the night that commercial aired. Anyways, when you look at the number of things President Daniels has done for Purdue, well, we could do a whole different podcast series on that. Tuition freezes, he's downright famous for that. Food service and room and board cost cuts, a first of its kind partnership with Amazon to save students money on textbooks. Plus, Purdue's student teacher ratio is 13 to one, compared with the Big 10 average of more than 15 to one. I read an article by The Atlantic, where they referred to President Daniels as a rock star. The author described the president snaking through crowds at a Purdue football tailgate, pre COVID of course, where people young and old shouted his name, and students exclaimed how much money he had saved them. It's no surprise the president is often referred to as a man of the students. What did you miss the most about the school year last year?

Mitch Daniels: Oh, contact with the students. We all have our own way of doing things. But mine for all these years has been, be out a lot, and funning around, going to events. The gym, huge change for me, I used to go three and four times a week to the co rec, and couldn't do that. Had to swap for something much more limited.

Kate Young: Did you get a Peloton?

Mitch Daniels: No. I've borrowed a couple of aerobic machines, not a Peloton, and some weights. But I'll say the range and variety of the workout has shrunk some, but still it's sort of a routine maintenance at this point.

Kate Young: As a man of the students, you didn't think President Daniels would just walk into this year's commencement ceremony, did you? After everything the Purdue faculty, staff, and students have been through this year, oh, no. Insert the couch car. Now that's the way to make an entrance. Mr. President, the candidates are assembled.

Mitch Daniels: Well, the couch that Ethan and Nathan put together was such a Boilermaker thing to do, first of all, inventive, innovative, a little fun. And as long as this school's been here, we've had great tinkerers and inventors. And so as I think you know, it's a go kart engine with a garden cart they bought at Menards or somewhere, a couch that was exactly what a, I'll say, male students' college couch probably should look like. I remember those kind, holes in them and springs almost coming out of them. Actually, quite a comfortable ride. I told people that it doesn't corner very well, but it has a good straight line acceleration.

Kate Young: Along with this unforgettable entrance into Ross- Ade Stadium, an unforgettable commencement speech, which President Daniels admits was a bit different to write this year versus previous years. What was it like writing your commencement speech this year?

Mitch Daniels: I always do it, or try to have a first draft done over Christmas vacation. It's my big homework assignment of the year. I personally, although it is always a worry item for me, I think it's a good tradition at Purdue that whoever has this job give that speech. For one thing, it simplifies the problem of who you invite. Will somebody not like the choice? It probably ensures that we keep, at least while I'm doing it, to keep the ceremony a little bit concise and tight. But I worry over it because every student sitting there has worked awfully hard. And I feel like I should also try to say something that is meaningful. I mean, unfortunately, we've all heard commencement speeches where somebody pulled out a Bartlett's Quotations and strung together a bunch of cliches. And I try to do something that fits the times and the moment. Now this year, as I wrote it, and it really didn't change much after New Year's, I was very conscious that this whole thing could be rendered obsolete because COVID is still evolving, and it certainly was back then. So I thought this might be something I have to start over on, but I didn't. And it seemed to be very well received. I've gotten lots and lots of nice comments and people elsewhere. I was interviewed on national television yesterday by somebody who saw it and thought it had some value to it. So as I say, it's always my number one assignment of the year, and I think it came off reasonably well.

Kate Young: I agree. Did you feel differently writing it this year versus past years though because of all of the different challenges and adversity that Purdue as a whole faced this year?

Mitch Daniels: I think so because while I always try to think about those messages from a Purdue standpoint, and the student standpoint, this year was to me, you couldn't give a talk at the end of this year and not center it somehow on the experience that we just went through. But I just thought that especially what our students did, the way they conducted themselves, the character that they showed, which as I've said over and over, was the indispensable element. Yes, we did 100 other things, so that everyone's education could keep moving unimpeded, but we'd have all gone for not, had we not had the kind of students that we did. And so to that extent, I thought it wrote itself. And then I tried to put it in the larger context that in my opinion, too many other places, too many other people and institutions did not live up to their responsibilities, and we expect our graduates, wherever they go, to do so.

Kate Young: Sure. And you talked a lot about taking risks and the important of making these big decisions. And looking back, do you ever second guess your decision to fully open Purdue?

Mitch Daniels: Well, it ended well, so we don't have to now. I wouldn't use the word second guess, but I would say, I mean, on a daily basis, we questioned what we were doing. First thing every morning of last semester, in the second semester, we were able to feather it back to three and then two times a week because I don't believe in meetings for meetings' sake. But last semester, every morning first thing, we were looking at the data, looking at where the cases were. Were any of them severe? So of course, we were fretting about that on a constant basis, knowing that however under control things seemed to be today, we could get up tomorrow and have a different situation. And we learned a lot, I mean, you say second guess, I mean, now we can look back. And I pointed out, we did a number of things that we thought might help. Now we know much more, and probably didn't need two miles of plexiglass, didn't need to spend all the time we did rearranging dorm rooms and the beds. We probably cleaned and sanitized surfaces more obsessively than made any real difference. But we weren't going to leave anything to chance, and so to that extent, I'm glad we did what we did, even though some of it was probably not too important.

Kate Young: Purdue University recently lifted the mandate to wear masks outdoors on campus, and the Protect Purdue Initiative, which we highlighted in episode 29 of This is Purdue, with Dr. Esteban Ramirez had now vaccinated more than 17,000 students. While leading the Big 10 in the number of students in the classroom, there were zero COVID- 19 cases traced back to a Purdue classroom this past year. But we're not out of the woods yet, as President Daniels explains. You recently released a video encouraging students to get their vaccines. What do you think needs to change in order for things to open up even more in the fall?

Mitch Daniels: It'll depend more than anything else on the rate of vaccination of particularly our students, but also our staff. And as you know, we've opted for a, I'll call it a free choice approach. People have the option to stay with testing, regular testing, which we all went through this last year. But we are strongly encouraging, we think all the evidence supports, hopefully as close to universal vaccination as we can get to on this campus. And the higher that rate is, the closer to the world we knew we can approach, and still know that we're not endangering anybody.

Kate Young: What about higher ed as a whole? What could it look like after we emerge from this pandemic?

Mitch Daniels: Higher ed will be different whenever we're past this because first of all, it has caused even more people to question its value. Now we've talked here at Purdue now for about a decade about higher education at the highest proven value. Such an obvious thing to emphasize I think because we search for value everywhere else, buy a house, buy a car, buy your groceries, pick a choice of restaurants. And now people are already asking, I think, the right questions. How much education will I or my child garner at institution A versus B per dollar spent? And now I think that's all become much more important. Clearly, we will be asked to and need to respond to the interest of students in a more flexible education. And so we're already headed this direction, but we better head there fast if we want to succeed in the new environment. So that means even more opportunities for work experience, internships, and study abroad. We're already offering a lot of three year degrees, which I think may become more popular with students who want to get on with it more affordably and get out and start earning their way in the world. So we're going to have to be open to these kind of ideas, and I hope a step ahead of other schools in providing.

Kate Young: President Daniels highlights what he's looking forward to in the next year. And no pressure, Coach Painter. You've already touched on this a little bit about how you enjoy being out on the campus, interacting with students. What else are you looking forward to come fall 2021?

Mitch Daniels: How about a national basketball championship?

Kate Young: I'd love to hear that.

Mitch Daniels: We're going to be good. I'm looking forward to seeing and I hope discovering that Purdue at record size is still mainlining its quality, its rigor, a good personal individual experience for students, even though we're going to have more by far than we've ever had. Most of your viewers I hope will know that for the fourth year out of the last five, it's record attendance. First 10,000 person class, it appears, in Purdue history. And that's probably anything I've seen, the biggest in the Big 10. Now that's wonderful that this university is attracting students from everywhere, great students. But it imposes a great responsibility on us to maintain and keep enhancing it, the quality, each person's experience gets harder as the scale gets bigger. A lot of our faculty and others here talk about excellence at scale. Got the biggest engineering school in the world's top five or 10. And I don't want to say it's easy, it's a lot easier to have excellence in a very small, if you're doing it with a small number. So I'm looking forward to that, seeing us meet that very positive challenge as a community.

Kate Young: And you mentioned obviously, the planning for next year is in full swing. And you recently relaunched your presidential lecture series. Is there anyone that you'd love to see come to Purdue and speak in that?

Mitch Daniels: I don't think we're quite ready to announce the series yet, but I've already recruited two or three, and that's probably what we'll have in a given semester. I'll just say that at any job, a person should ask herself, himself, " Where can I add some value? Is there something I can do that is any way different or additive to what's already going on?" Well, one of those things seemed to me was that because of past lives I'd led, I might be able to, I sometimes say increase the intellectual traffic flow through campus, and recruit people to come here who might not otherwise. So I hope we can do that again. I think it could be a real part of our students and faculty, and our neighboring community, positive experience. And so yeah, I look forward to getting that rolling again, and I hope in person, as we were accustomed to before.

Kate Young: Before becoming Purdue's president, Mitch Daniels of course had other roles. The most famous probably was serving as the governor of Indiana. He was our man, Mitch. But before that, he worked at Eli Lilly and Company, headquartered in Indianapolis, serving as president of North American pharmaceutical operations and later, senior vice president of corporate strategy and policy. Lilly has partnered with several Purdue related programs, and once you're finished listening to this episode, I highly recommend going back and listening to our data mine and Purdue Polytechnic High School episodes, which highlight these relationships further. President Daniels goes on to explain what it means to him to see his past and current worlds intertwine.

Mitch Daniels: Anything involving Lilly has special... I have special affection for. I frankly, I've told a lot of students here who ask about career planning, I laugh and talk about what a lousy career planner I was, and just life planned me. I thought I would finish my working days with Eli Lilly and Company. I believed in our mission with saving lives, improving lives, advancing science. The people there were invariably of great character and mutually supportive of each other. It was just a wonderful place to work. And that corporation was a great community. So of course, I'm very interested in any time we interact with them. Year in, year out, let's face it, we're good for Lilly because for decades now, and still the case, they're one of our top... They hire more graduates here than almost any company. But no, it's no surprise. They've been great, as we say, corporate citizens for as long as that company's been there. And so the only surprise would be if they weren't directly involved in helping us with our high schools, or programs here on campus. And meanwhile, now the whole world has learned how fortunate we are to have great pharmaceutical companies, great science that goes on there. They've just saved who knows how many lives.

Kate Young: Yeah, absolutely. And you said on the Business and Beyond Podcast recently that there's a piece of you that's glad that you didn't run for president because you would've never ended up here at Purdue. What have the past eight years meant to you?

Mitch Daniels: Well, not a piece of me, all of me.

Kate Young: True. You're all here.

Mitch Daniels: I've told some of our folks with, people, when they bring that up, I say things like, " At this point in life, I'm not taking the demotion." I wouldn't have missed this for the world. I didn't see it coming. As I said, I thought I'd finish my working days at that great company we just discussed. Life changed not once, but three times since. And this change was my favorite in many respects. No, I mean, it's been a huge learning experience for me. And I hope we've contributed some things to advancing the university's interests. But I can't imagine anything else I might have done being more fulfilling than the time we've been able to spend at Purdue.

Kate Young: It's not hard to hear how much admiration President Daniels holds for Purdue. And that being said, I thought it was important to get to know the personal side of President Daniels. So let's get into some fun things.

Mitch Daniels: This has been fun. You mean we're going to have more fun than that?

Kate Young: So it wouldn't be Indiana if we didn't talk about the Indianapolis 500.

Mitch Daniels: Yeah.

Kate Young: Do you plan on going to the race?

Mitch Daniels: Oh, yeah.

Kate Young: Do you have seats?

Mitch Daniels: Well, I've been to a lot of... Well, full disclosure, I have been involved with previously the Hulman Corporation, and now Penske Entertainment, which is this marvelous development of this great, great person, Roger Penske. Now I've gotten to know him a little bit, he's everything that he was reported to be, dynamo in his 80s, and just done great things there and everywhere else he's been in business. So yes, I'll be there, as I have been over and over. On that shelf over there, you can see a picture of me. I was a big booster of auto racing, in my last job in particular, and even before that. As far as I know, I'm the only person from elected office who's ever been the official starter of the race. It was 2012, your graduation year. Scary, by the way.

Kate Young: You were in the car.

Mitch Daniels: Well, I've done that. No, I mean, I waved the green flag.

Kate Young: And those cars are roaring past you.

Mitch Daniels: And a lot of wind up there, and when I say scary, I say, " I don't know if anybody's going to see this flag. But I'll tell you what's not going to happen. It's not going to wind up in the first turn because I'd never live it down." That was a fabulous opportunity. And I don't know when anyone will see this conversation we're having, but this year's race, it's always one of the biggest sporting events in the year. It's always the biggest spectator event of any kind in the world. But this year, it's not just a sporting event. If it goes off well, let's hope and pray it does, I mean, it's a worldwide event on the way back to normalcy. This will be the most people in one place for any reason I think since the pandemic started. And so in a way, it's a medical event as well as the greatest spectacle in racing.

Kate Young: Right. Do you have any favorites for drivers? Are you betting on anyone?

Mitch Daniels: Well, those are two different questions. I won't have any bets down, no. Ed Carpenter, if you just make me pick somebody, he's a great person and he's homegrown. Got to root for the home team. We've got a number of teams and drivers from Indiana, but Ed is one. So yeah, I'll be watching the 20 car with special interest.

Kate Young: But if there's anything I want you to take away from this episode between serving as the governor of Indiana, working as a senior leader at Eli Lilly, and being part of US presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush's administrations, President Daniels holds a very special place in his heart for Purdue University. I don't need to tell you this though. You can hear it for yourself.

Mitch Daniels: Boilermakers have always had a special affinity and pride for this place, and that's not... That would be a natural thing. I'm sure people at every school feel that way. But this has been measured, and there is a statistically significant difference, has been, people's sense of loyalty and so forth. I've always assigned a lot of that to the fact that this is a place of upward mobility, why land grant schools were created. But I think in Purdue's case, it's especially pronounced. I say all the time, " I've now had a chance for a decade to meet so many tremendous Purdue alums." Almost none of them came from privilege. This is the place where the young woman or man from the farm, or the small town, or the inner city, came from. And then over, and over, by the now hundreds of thousands, were launched on great lives. And so we've always been proud, and I think that's part of it. I've talked to so many people and it starts the same. For me, it started at Purdue. I owe it to Purdue, if not for Purdue. It's the thing I love the very most about this place, as you can see from my sniffles. And I hope the last year added a layer on top of that, for all the reasons we just discussed.

Kate Young: Absolutely.

Mitch Daniels: It's like the couch. Somebody said, " Well, that's a Purdue thing."

Kate Young: Yeah.

Mitch Daniels: You know? Tinkering around and inventing something that works. And I'd like to think that our navigating through this difficult circumstance expressed something that's always been there about this place.

Kate Young: You can check out our full video interview with President Daniels on YouTube. Just head over to YouTube. com/ Purdue. Thanks for listening to This is Purdue. For more information on this episode, visit our website at purdue. edu. podcast. There, you can head over to your favorite podcast app to subscribe and leave us a review. And as always, Boiler up.

Today's Host

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Kate Young

|Digital Content Strategist + Host, This is Purdue Podcast

Today's Guest

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Mitch Daniels

|President, Purdue University

In this episode of Purdue University’s official podcast, This is Purdue, we’re joined by a very special guest.   


Listen in as Purdue University President Mitch Daniels discusses his decision to fully open the University amidst a pandemic and communicate this to the world back in 2020. Plus, President Daniels talks about what he missed most during the past school year, what he’s looking forward to this Fall (Hint: It involves Purdue Athletics), and his favorite IndyCar driver.  


You don't want to miss this episode!