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Mr. Right: Can Mitch Daniels Outsmart COVID-19?

When Mitch Daniels became president of Purdue University, the former governor vowed to set politics aside. But his announcement this spring that the institution would return to campus during a pandemic became one of the most politicized and criticized decisions of his career—until many other colleges followed suit. Next month, as 50,000 Purdue students, faculty, and staff come back to West Lafayette, he’s determined to prove he was correct.

Mitch Daniels has been thinking a lot about loneliness lately. The Purdue University president celebrated his 71st birthday this past April standing at the door of his Carmel home, in the gated Laurelwood community. Outside, in the cul-de-sac 20 feet away, his four daughters and seven grandchildren formed a three-car parade and sang “Happy Birthday” to “Papa.” Daniels could only enjoy it from a distance. Weeks later, he delivered one of his trademark commencement speeches, which often read like a piece by David Brooks, the conservative columnist from The New York Times who tends to tackle big sociological trends. This year’s message, presented in a video recording, focused on the importance of relationships.

“I am not a good role model for the advice I am foisting on you,” Daniels told Purdue grads. “I have not devoted the time I should have to deepen acquaintances into true friendships or to stay in closer touch with the old friends I do have. I’ve let the call of work get in the way. I’ve told myself that jobs of broad responsibility mean that one can’t get too close to coworkers and colleagues. I’ve procrastinated and rationalized, and skipped too many chances to spend meaningful time with people I admire and even love. I regret it, and I’m the worse for it.”

Around that time, Daniels found himself in lonely territory again. In April, as lockdown orders descended across the country, halting everything from dining at restaurants to on-campus instruction at universities, Daniels released what at the time seemed a startling letter. “Purdue University, for its part, intends to accept students on campus in typical numbers this fall, sober about the certain problems that the COVID-19 virus represents, but determined not to surrender helplessly to those difficulties but to tackle and manage them aggressively and creatively,” he wrote. Criticism came hot. Suzette Hackney, the Indianapolis Star columnist, called the letter “stunning.” It “screams of opportunism,” she wrote. “It screams of chasing dollars. That sentiment is not only irresponsible, it is dangerous.” John Warner, a columnist at Inside Higher Ed, wondered “how many infected, hospitalized and dead members of the community” Daniels anticipated.

In his own bimonthly column for The Washington Post, Daniels defended himself, arguing that to not bring students back to campus this fall would be tantamount to saying, “Sorry, we are too incompetent or fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education.” He assured readers that the novel coronavirus “poses a near-zero risk to young people,” and rattled off statistics with all the compassion of an actuary: 99.9 percent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred outside the 15-to-24 age group; there’s a 99.9 percent survival rate among the 20–29 age bracket. He imagined that “even if” deaths reach 150,000, they wouldn’t come close to those caused by accidents, cancer, heart disease, and suicide. (A recent model by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects 200,000 deaths by October 1, and, in fairness, the world has learned a lot since Daniels wrote the piece.)

“He’s a decisive guy,” says Chris Ruhl, Purdue University’s CFO, who was previously Daniels’s budget director as governor. “He’s always multiple steps ahead, has a gut feel on how people are feeling about this. I wasn’t at all surprised. I mean, it’s a glimpse into his thought process, as he’s a very data-driven guy.”

Talk to enough Daniels insiders, and you get the sense there is still a part of him that hasn’t reconciled with his decision to sit out of the presidential race in 2012, despite his insistence to the contrary in public remarks.
Twelve days before the column ran, though, Daniels pushed a message that seemed at odds with his claims of safety. In a White House meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and fellow university presidents, Daniels was among those contemplating lawsuits from students, staff, and faculty in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak on campus. Cases of the novel coronavirus—those that significantly disabled or killed a member of the Purdue campus—seemed likely enough that Daniels advocated for liability protection for universities that welcome students back on campus.

In an interview for this story, Daniels said that he didn’t see the disconnect. “In a situation like this, the idea that we would invite or allow predatory lawsuits to me is just deeply offensive,” he says. “With all the other risks and problems here as we try to help young people move ahead in life, it isn’t too much to tell the trial lawyers, ‘For once, you’re not going to get rich off somebody’s misfortune.’”

Seven years into his Purdue tenure, Daniels seems to be the same kind of leader he has always been: brilliant and brusque, driven and demanding of those around him, often certain that he is right. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly. “Don’t be prepared for a lot of compliments,” Mark Lubbers, a longtime friend, would often tell incoming members of the Purdue University president’s former gubernatorial administration. “Your compliment is being here.”

He has transformed himself from a dark-horse presidential contender to a public intellectual. But his passing on the 2012 and 2016 elections still inspires one of the great counterfactual history questions in Indiana politics: What would Mitch Daniels have been like as president, especially amid a pandemic and a second civil rights movement?

There are clues in his time as president of Purdue, where he has championed accessibility and affordability. As a result, Purdue student borrowing has dropped 31 percent. Many students sing his praises, launching social media memes in his honor. But he struggles with winning over students of color, and has angered some faculty and staff over his plan to return to campus.

As part of his terms of employment with Purdue, Daniels agreed to take a political vow of silence. “I don’t think [talking about politics] is appropriate,” Daniels told Yahoo! in a 2018 interview. “We don’t take stances as a university.” But his actions speak louder. At core, Daniels is a political animal. And leading the charge to open universities back up this month may be his most politically risky act yet. Between the pandemic and ongoing racial tensions on Purdue’s campus, Daniels faces two of the biggest political challenges of his career.

Mitch Daniels is seated at a table surrounded by students at Purdue University.

Daniels mingles with students the same way he talked with Hoosiers at diners while traversing the state as governor.Purdue University/ Mark Simons

When Daniels left the governor’s residence in January of 2013, he could’ve just ridden his Harley-Davidson Fat Boy—which he once described as “the baddest, blackest bike I’ve ever seen”—off into the sunset. He had a net worth of about $15.7 million, much of it accumulated from his time at Eli Lilly and Company from 1990 to 2000, first as its North American president and then as a senior vice president. Instead, he drove it up I-65 to West Lafayette and got right back to work.

Daniels has run Purdue University much like he ran the state of Indiana, focusing on the university’s finances and keeping students’ tuition low. He is so parsimonious that early on in his golf career, he played with a garden glove rather than purchase a legitimate golf glove. As revenue at Purdue has grown, Daniels’s salary has increased from $420,000—$135,000 less than his predecessor, at his demand—to $900,000, nearly 10 times what he earned as Indiana’s governor. His main calling card is that he has frozen tuition for seven straight years at $9,992. And he bought Kaplan University, the online adult degree program, from The Washington Post publisher Donald Graham for $1—a purchase that now provides financial support for the university.

Daniels teaches a class on the origins of World War I. He mingles with students the way he talked with Hoosiers at diners as he traversed the state as governor, attending football tailgates, sharing meals with students in frat houses, and working out at the gym. There are photos and videos on student Instagram accounts of Daniels sightings in the RecWell. In some, he is curling dumbbells. In others, he poses with students in a T-shirt with sleeves cut off, his biceps bulging. “Our one and only CEO of grit,” the caption read. (Daniels likes to use the word grit. In his 2019 commencement address, he deployed the term no fewer than 10 times, as he told students that the “antonym of ‘snowflake’ is ‘Boilermaker.’”)

Many undergraduates revere him. His official bio on Purdue’s website boasts that he is often called a “man of the students.” It’s no secret why: His efforts to make college more affordable has netted them and their families some $57 million to invest in other dreams, according to the university. And Daniels’s former status as a political rock star has helped him court high-level speakers at the university, ranging from former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who launched his presidential campaign there last year, to former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

At times, though, Daniels has courted controversy. When he first became president, news reports surfaced that as governor, he tried to ban Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States—a book enjoying new life amid the nation’s awakening to historical oppression. “Can someone assure me that it [A People’s History] is not in use anywhere in Indiana?” he wrote in an email. “If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

It didn’t earn him an embrace from faculty. Daniels responded by saying that were Zinn at Purdue, he would “defend his right not to be dismissed for the nature of his work. That’s academic freedom.”

Meanwhile, Daniels has swatted away efforts by some to enter back into the political arena. When some speculated he would get in the 2016 race to save the Republican party from Donald Trump, Daniels demurred. “Why would I take the demotion?” he told the Lafayette Journal & Courier. “Sooner or later, you’ll figure out that when I say these things, I mean them.”



In 2011, a lot of Indiana Republicans—and national ones, too—dreamt of a President Daniels. But citing family concerns of his wife and adult daughters, Daniels bypassed the West Wing for Westwood, the 1932 English Tudor home where the last four Purdue University presidents have lived. Daniels comes off as a Republican from an Aaron Sorkin script. Back then, on the precipice of challenging Barack Obama, Daniels refused to pander to the more strident elements of the Tea Party. Tapped to give his party’s response to the State of the Union that year, Daniels balked on the birtherism ascendant at the time, and instead complimented Obama on his paternal bona fides. Obama, Daniels noted, had “a strong family commitment that he and the First Lady have displayed to a nation sorely needing such examples.” Speaking from the auditorium stage of the Indiana War Memorial, Daniels advocated for a Republican party that championed “growth and solvency,” eschewing social issues. “We will speak the language of unity,” Daniels said, adding “any other disagreements we may have can wait.”

Lubbers, who is perhaps Daniels’s closest confidant, having worked with him on staff with the late Sen. Richard Lugar, wonders where that political talent might have led. In the span of an hour-long interview, he compared Daniels to both Winston Churchill and Teddy Roosevelt. “To have somebody who’s as brilliant as he is, and having in the same body and the same brain, somebody who’s such a gifted politician, that’s just amazing,” Lubbers says. “You will not talk to someone who’s wiser, smarter, and more experienced than Mitch Daniels.”

He wonders if Daniels’s Syrian heritage—his grandfather, Elias Esau, came to the U.S. from Syria in 1905—could’ve helped him broker a peace deal in that region that would have saved many lives.

“Mitch has always been a master of balancing progress toward real objectives against keeping two-thirds of the people with him.”
Mark Lubbers
Neil Pickett, Daniels’s Oxford University–educated former policy adviser, believes Daniels would have prevented tens of thousands of deaths amid the pandemic by respecting the counsel of public health officials and unifying the American people. “You wouldn’t have had the acceleration of the polarization of our country,” Pickett says. “We wouldn’t have avoided it completely, but Mitch would’ve tried to be president of all people, just as he tried to be governor of all Hoosiers. And I think the federal government would not have been so hollowed out.”

Talk to enough Daniels insiders, and you get the sense there is still a part of him that hasn’t reconciled with his decision to sit out of the presidential race in 2012, despite his insistence to the contrary in public remarks. Aides say that Daniels watched former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s rise with great interest. “The weight of saying ‘no’ after the stars had been aligned was evident,” says Lubbers, who sat in Daniels’s book-lined Carmel study in 2012 alongside Daniels’ then-political deputy Eric Holcomb. “I would call it genuine sadness. Having to walk away from what seemed to be destiny was pretty obvious.”

Asked about those things in person, Daniels chooses his words carefully. Does he have concerns about the direction of the Republican Party? “Let’s just say I have concerns about the future of our whole political system,” he says. Was he offered a position as Education Secretary in the Trump administration, as rumor has it? “No.” What did he think of Buttigieg’s presidential run? He would only talk about it off the record.

The Purdue president, who describes himself as a student of history, sees the current civil rights tension as being fueled, in part, by the pandemic. “People right now are more inflamed and less charitable with each other because of the pressures of this virus,” he says. “So I’m inclined to be a little more forgiving of people venting hostility at each other.”

That measured approach is what made him so successful as governor. And he’s applying it in a new realm these days, with a constituency that’s no easier to unite.

“Mitch has always been a master of balancing progress toward real objectives against keeping two-thirds of the people with him,” Lubbers says. “He’s willing to have one-third of people object, to take another view, to oppose.”

 

Count David Sanders among those in the latter category. Sanders, a Yale and University of California, Berkeley–trained virologist, will teach a class on the novel coronavirus at Purdue this fall. When the university offered it, the course filled up to its maximum capacity of 50 students in less than a day. (Somewhat ironically, Sanders will be teaching the class remotely.)

Sanders also happens to be one of Daniels’s most vociferous critics. They enjoy a cordial relationship, often passing one another at the RecWell. But as the former chair of the University Senate, Sanders has criticized Daniels on everything from acquiring Kaplan and converting it to Purdue Global to his showmanship and courting of right-wing praise in publications like The Wall Street Journal. Sanders says that Daniels’s tuition freeze is “smoke and mirrors.” In his view, Daniels is just expanding class sizes and reducing reliance on teaching assistants while affiliating the school with a diploma mill. “It’s a predatory online college,” Sanders says. “It’s exploiting the Purdue name. It’s confusing people about the Purdue image. He talks about reducing student debt. That whole thing sucks up money from the federal government program that is student loans.”

But Sanders has become a newly resonant voice of dissent on Daniels’s decision to bring students back to campus amid the pandemic. He likes some aspects of Daniels’s “Protect Purdue” program, including the requirement of an influenza vaccination for every student and the mask mandate. But there are also weak points in Daniels’s case. “He has focused almost exclusively on death statistics” in making the argument to return students to campus, Sanders says. “As a virologist, I can tell you death is not the only possible consequence. There can be long-term health consequences that aren’t death.” Daniels, he says, also frequently digs up statistics that support a preconceived notion. Some of the studies Daniels has cited aren’t peer-reviewed.

Sanders worries that when as many as 45,000 students return to campus (Purdue is also offering a virtual learning option), there will be an outbreak. He’s concerned there is no enforcement mechanism for that mask mandate. He imagines students will visit bars— “probably the most dangerous place for one-to-many transmission”—and then return to campus.

Daniels, Sanders says, is a “brilliant, genius marketer.” And the Purdue executive comes by it honestly: Daniels wrote political ads for former President Ronald Reagan, and all of his own during his two gubernatorial campaigns. To Sanders, Daniels’s Protect Purdue program comes off as exactly that—an ad.

“This is just another example of Daniels grandstanding,” Sanders says. “He’s often championed in The Wall Street Journal. It’s another opportunity for a round of interviews and right-wing spin.”

Mitch Daniels meets with Black students from Purdue.

In addition to preparing for COVID-19, critics say Daniels must better connect with Black students, some of whom have been critical of him.Purdue University/ Alex Kumar

Last November, when Daniels was speaking to members of Purdue’s student government, he was addressing their concerns about diversity and discrimination on campus. Daniels had good news for them: “At the end of this week, I’ll be recruiting one of the rarest creatures in America—a leading, I mean a really leading, African-American scholar.” D’Yan Berry, president of the Black Student Union, took exception to Daniels’s phrasing.

“Creatures? Come on,” Berry replied.

“It’s a figure of speech,” Daniels shot back. “You must have taken some, you know, literature.” #IAmNOTACreature trended on Twitter. It took Daniels two weeks to apologize. “The word in question was ill-chosen and imprecise and, in retrospect, too capable of being misunderstood,” he wrote in an editorial in the campus newspaper.

In an interview, Berry, a student who received a full academic scholarship to the university and who is currently applying to law schools, says she never personally received that apology, and wonders if Daniels himself wrote the public one.

Academic politics is the most vicious form of politics, it has been said, because the stakes are so low. In a pandemic, those stakes rise.
This spring, the university put out a statement in the wake of racial justice protests after a wave of police brutality left a number of Black Americans dead: “Events around our nation have reminded us yet again of the work that remains for all of us in creating a country where racism and bigotry are eliminated and where African-American men and women, boys and girls, can live without fear. We are angered and saddened by the death of George Floyd, the victims who came before him, and those killed or otherwise harmed in the wake of Mr. Floyd’s death. We hurt with those who are hurting and we pledge to continue to work toward a solution in which everyone is treated with civility and respect. Boilermakers must persist, now more than ever, to build a better world together. #PurdueTogether.”

Students such as Berry point out two problems with that note. The hashtag wasn’t #BlackLivesMatter, and the statement didn’t come from Daniels personally. In recent weeks, another student-run Instagram account has been gaining traction: Black at Purdue, which has gained nearly 6,500 followers, more than twice that of the popular Daniels meme account Daddy Mitch Daniels. In nearly 200 posts, Black alumni and current students share their racially charged experiences at Purdue.

In our interview, Daniels declined to talk about racial tensions on campus.

“I don’t have a comment on that right now,” he says. “For one thing, I don’t know what the fall will bring. As you know, we’re very committed to open inquiry and open debate here. My job right now is to try to make it possible for students to come to campus. If they want to express themselves or protest something, my job is to give them that opportunity.”

Academic politics is the most vicious form of politics, it has been said, because the stakes are so low. In a pandemic, those stakes rise. As students return to campus, Daniels’s plan moves from theory to experiment. “It’s a huge challenge,” he says. “We’ve never minimized it. Things keep changing, and we’ll make enhancements to the plans we have now.”

After Daniels made the decision to become one of the first university presidents to announce his institution would return, other presidents followed. Father John Jenkins at Notre Dame went public with similar plans. Michael McRobbie at IU decided on a blended approach for reopening. Daniels knows that his decision likely led to a wave of colleges making the same choice. “I’ve heard from tons of them, and if it had that unintended effect, that’s just fine,” he says. “We ought not shrink from the task of delivering on our mission to millions of young people.”

Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, all but blessed Daniels’s decision in a May interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education. Asked whether people on campus would die, Fauci gave a cautious response. “That is extremely unlikely,” he said, “but there are always outliers that are not the rule but the exception.”

Meanwhile, a survey of 7,234 Purdue faculty, staff, and graduate students in June found that 52.6 percent felt unsafe about returning. What’s more, 92.3 percent said they were not confident students would socially distance. That same month, cracks appeared in return plans at other institutions. At Clemson University, 37 football players tested positive for COVID-19. All told, there have been hundreds of positive tests at more than 50 schools—with class not even back in session. Among 13,000 college football players nationwide, a University of Illinois study found that 30 to 50 percent of them are likely to be infected, with as many as seven deaths.

“A ticking time bomb,” Sanders says.

But Daniels, who has made lonely, controversial decisions before, is confident the benefits outweigh the risks.

“There will be infections everywhere,” Daniels says. “But we’re going to do everything we can. We’ve spared no expense. I believe there’s a very good chance that infections that happen won’t happen here on our campus.”

 

Illustration by Quickhoney

Adam Wren writes about business, politics, and crime for Indianapolis Monthly—often in the same story. Follow him on Twitter @adamwren or visit his website at adamwren.me.
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