I don’t believe university presidents lose their freedom to speak on issues of political importance when they assume their positions. Consequently, I have not been as concerned as some members of the university community about Purdue University’s new president, Mitch Daniels, making repeated, visible, public statements about the issues of great debate in the United States today. However, Daniels’ right to speak out on public issues is complicated by several factors.
First, President Daniels is the first of six Purdue presidents I have experienced who has visibly and purposefully addressed political positions beyond those that have related directly to higher education. I remember one president, Arthur Hansen, who spoke out clearly against racism on and off campus. Other presidents addressed issues of divestment of holdings in South Africa, sweatshops, and other issues raised by students but these presidents commented because the demands made by students and faculty related to university policy. Although I was on the side of those who wanted the university to stand against U.S., university and corporate complicity with the racist regime in South Africa and I wanted the university to join the progressive national anti-sweatshop organization (which Purdue ultimately did), the positions being advocated by critics related directly to policies and programs involving Purdue University. President Daniels’ recent remarks have addressed broad policies involving economics, the environment, and health.
Second, the promise to avoid making political statements, a high standard for a former politician, was made by Daniels himself as he stepped out of the Indiana gubernatorial office and into the university one. He said he would not be “political.” The standard was articulated by him.
So what has happened since his pronouncement? He has engaged in numerous public presentations on a broad array of political subjects before a variety of conservative and corporate audiences. In addition, he has appeared on numerous television programs crusading for a political agenda that mirrors the approach to public policies advocated for years by leading and well-heeled, conservative groups such as the Bradley and Heritage Foundations, and the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). He has generally advocated approaches to public policy articulated by conservatives in the Republican Party (Adam O’Neal, Mitch Daniels Offers Rx for Runaway Spending,” (Real Clear Politics, October 30, 2013, http://www,realclearpolitics.com/articles/2013/10/30/mitch-daniels_offers_rx_for_runaway_spending).
Among the issues that Purdue President Mitch Daniels has addressed in national public spaces are the following:
-“reining” in “fixed costs” of entitlement programs (Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid) suggesting that “fixed costs” crowd out university research and law enforcement.
-conceptualizing entitlement programs as a threat to “research dollars, the NSF and NIH as well as so many discretionary activities.” This, by implication, suggests that the only way to preserve funds for vital research is to cut Social Security and medical programs rather than shifting resources from the military or revising tax policies that privilege the rich.
-addressing energy policy by saying that “the country that can’t build (the Keystone XL Pipeline) is not serious about helping poor people.”
-proclaiming that the Affordable Care Act was a bad deal for the young.
-and closer to his current position, arguing that higher education “must show a high return on investment to stay in front.”
Summing up what mainstream economists would regard as a problematic view of the federal deficit, which has been declining over the last four years, and the issue of the debt, Daniels called the latter “the largest non-military danger we have ever faced….the debts we are piling up are right now an obstacle to growth. If interest rates rise, and some day they will, just watch what happens both to growth and to the debt itself” (David Cook, “Health-care law: ‘Raw deal’ for the young says Purdue President Mitch Daniels,” The Christian Science Monitor, October 30, 2013, csmonitor.com).
As governor, contrary to his public image, Mitch Daniels presided over the economic stagnation of the Hoosier economy including real wages, declining support for public education, and the rise in poverty. For example, as the Indiana Institute for Working Families has pointed out (August 23, 2013), one third of its residents are low income and for a decade have experienced a decline in median household income. Even with a recent slight decline in the rate of poverty, the number of low income Hoosiers has risen since 2011.
While he was the first Budget Director for President George W. Bush, the country experienced a shift from federal budget surpluses to deficits, taxes for the rich were cut, and the United States launched two wars. Although Daniels was not the primary decision-maker during Bush’s first term, he clearly associated himself with policies that shifted the nation’s wealth from the many to the few and embraced an ideology that warned of “debt” only when it applied to programs that were designed to help the many.
In my view, Purdue President Daniels has the right to express his political views even though he promised he wouldn’t, but others have the right to evaluate those views, particularly as they advocate a public policy that Paul Krugman correctly refers to as “a war on the poor.”