02 February 2013

Purdue President Letter Gaffe

I know I am taking this a bit late, but that is partially by my own design. On 18 January 2013 the new president of Purdue, former Indiana Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, wrote a letter to the people of Purdue. I avoided reacting to the letter right away because it is out there, and I wanted to avoid being purely reactionary. After having given myself time and space to reflect, I think there is one line in the letter that is so egregious that it must be called out. There are others, and I could point to what I think to be conservative rhetoric that I am uncomfortable with, but I think one line may be overlooked that should not (emphasis mine):
The mission of undergraduate instruction is increasingly subordinated to research and to work with graduate students. (An Open Letter to the People of Purdue)
 What?! This line, in my mind, shows EXACTLY why choosing a politician/business person instead of an academic was a mistake. Maybe I am misunderstanding this line. I really hope I am misunderstanding this line.

The first problem I have with it is that it shows the former governor clearly doesn't understand what a university does. A major research institution like Purdue has three main goals: education, research, and outreach. A major university like Purdue is not a diploma mill. The whole point of the university isn't to get as many people through with bachelor's degrees as possible.

What is worse is that as a business person and politician, I would expect Mitch Daniels to understand this. Businesses have been farming out their research to universities more and more frequently. That almost flows right into the second half, as some of the farming out of research is because grad students can be cheaper than employees. The state may also request the university to look into something. The state may want expertise from professors who research a topic. Also, the research-education link is part of how the university system works, and how it is different from just four more years of high school. A decent part of education for undergrads at the university level is engaging them in research.

The research and student organization involvement I had at Purdue taught me more than my classes. Due to my research as an undergrad I also got to learn from professors I would not otherwise have interacted with. I got to refine my interests, and better prepare myself for life after undergrad. With the complaints on "administrative creep," university is as much about the experience as it is about the education. I would argue student organization involvement is more important than GPA. Research experience more important than a list of taken courses. While I benefit greatly from when people place a high value on a GPA, I don't think that reflects one's potential. Essentially my GPA reveals I am good at taking tests. Furthermore, even if one places importance on GPA, research is part of the reason my GPA was what it is. Research is not just a fundamental part of the university, it is a fundamental part of undergrad education. I agree that there are issues of professors who don't want to teach at all but have to. The research part of the sentence isn't what I want to really call him out on though.

The graduate student part of the letter is the part I find unsettling. Does Mitch Daniels really think professors spend too much time with grad students? Maybe this is an artifact of him being a law school. Maybe what I perceive to be a joke is actually taken to heart by Mr. Daniels. Grad students, law students, and med students will each gang up on the other for various joking reasons. For example, law students don't go to school for nearly as much time as grad students and med students. Upon graduating, law students and grad students are slated to make a less money than med students. Maybe when law students and med students gang up on grad students is the relationship between grad students and professors. Yet the reason for this relationship is obvious. Grad students are frequently training to be professors. Grad students also do a lot of the tasks at a university that necessitate them working closely with professors. We teach some of the classes, we do much of the research. Professors can be incredibly busy people (yes, Mr. Daniels, even after tenure), and the fact that they make time for grad students should alone be evidence of why the time is spent working with grad students is important. Are universities just undergrad diploma mills and working towards people getting grad degrees are just secondary to undergrad degrees?

If Mr. Daniels thinks professors favor grad students over undergrads, maybe he needs to think about what grad students do at the university - the research, the teaching, the staff roles (administrative assistants for example, or the grad students working in the residence hall system). Mr. Daniels wrote a letter that I feel he was trying to use to claim that he understood the university system. Unfortunately, I think it revealed many misunderstandings and just confirmed some of our concerns about a non-academic president.

I also want to warn the people of Purdue from feeling divided. While administration versus faculty happens, both need to recognize the importance of the other for the mission of the university. Don't destroy the greatness of the university by being pitted against each other. To the grad students, remember you have more power than you think. If you work together you can put pressure on every other element of the university. Grad students have gone on strike and I think you can imagine the scramble of the faculty and staff to try to do things like make sure classes are still taught, administrative tasks are still done, and the research moves forward. I'm not saying this comment should lead to a strike, but just reminding you not to let the new president bully you. Don't be a scapegoat.

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