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Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Mitch Daniels's "Open Letter to the People of Purdue"

Former Indiana governor Mitch Daniels, after disregarding my telepathic requests that he run for President, decided to take on the challenge of serving as President of Purdue University, a first-rate land-grant research university in lovely Indiana.  Here is his recent "Open Letter to the People of Purdue."  For those of us (which is, I imagine, here at Prawfsblawg, "all of us") who have been thinking (and worrying) about the state and future of higher education and the burdens on and opportunities for our students, the letter is a worthwhile read.  This is not to say that he says anything we have not heard before, but the "state of things" is presented in a candid and sober way.

The part that jumped out at me, for what it's worth, was this bit, near the end, as he was listing some "observations and . . . suggestions for our collective attention at the outset of [his] service":

Common purpose – A priceless asset of any great university is the independence of its faculty and the frequent individual breakthroughs, in both teaching and research, that it produces. Again and again, as I have moved through the colleges and gatherings of faculty, I heard the phrase "independent contractors" used to describe the working relationship between the school and its professors.

Similarly, I was struck forcefully by the separation among our eleven colleges. A newcomer quickly notices that we are less a "university" than a federation. Obviously, specialization and intellectual autonomy enable the excellence we seek. But, for instance, the widespread duplication of identical functions can work against the common goal we must have of affordability and liberating resources for new investments in faculty and facilities. As so often in life, the phrase "Fine, up to a point" applies.

I hope to find, and perhaps here and there to foster, a somewhat stronger sense of common purpose as we work through the decisions presented to us by a changed environment. Without knowing what they will be or when we will make them, many choices will necessitate a communitarian outlook that consciously places the interests of the overall university first.

This "communitarian outlook" has, as Daniels suggests, at least two dimensions:  First, a determination by faculty-scholars to overcome independent-contractor thinking and to connect their own vocations with their institutions' missions; and second, for academic units (like law schools?) to connect the challenges they and their students are facing with those being faced by the universities more generally.

Thoughts?  My own sense is that law faculty might be less likely than faculty in some other units to have this "independent-contractor" mindset, but -- again -- that's just a sense.

Posted by Rick Garnett on February 5, 2013 at 08:56 AM in Rick Garnett | Permalink

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