Daniels pushing buttons at Purdue University

Well, Mitch Daniels asks for it, right?

Recently at Mackey Arena, during a Purdue women’s basketball game, a couple of fans in lower arena seats started picking apart pieces of the letter the Purdue president had just sent as his annual treatise on what’s right and what’s not on the West Lafayette campus and in higher education, in general.

“People I just happened to be sitting next to — I hadn’t met them before — they wanted to talk about the letter,” Daniels said. “I said, ‘Thanks for reading it.’ No, they started reciting parts of it back to me.

“What stuns me is that I don’t think I’ve been saying anything particularly insightful or original,” Daniels said. “What apparently gets people’s attention is they’re not used to hearing these things faced too directly from inside the academy.”

Daniels has been pushing buttons with these frank letters from the start. Each has laid out where he thought the university was and where he thought it was heading — and where it should be prepared to head. Each year, it’s been part blueprint, part grist for the mill, as he sized up questions about costs, student debt and the need to constantly challenge a traditional university model he contends might not survive if it doesn’t change.

Universally popular, they’re not — something he acknowledged this week on the third anniversary of arriving on campus full-time after eight years as Indiana’s governor.

This edition was no exception. The six-page, single-spaced letter sent Jan. 15 revolves around four themes: setting priorities in research — “avoiding the human temptation to dabble or to ‘spread the peanut butter evenly’” — and pushing for more research funding from non-government sources; finding ways to help students make it through Purdue on time without compromising tough academics; the role of athletics at Purdue and whether more TV money sure to come should be set aside for academics; and his take on antidiscrimination efforts on campus after last fall’s rallies in solidarity with those at the University of Missouri.

So, what are a few more questions?

Dave Bangert is a writer for the (Lafayette) Journal and Courier. Send comments to