Purdue University president Daniels: We can reopen safely (I’m skeptical of the tone of the message)

Let’s take a closer look at Mitch Daniels’ editorial in today’s Washington Post.

The Purdue University president questions his critics (you can count me among them) who looked askance at his open letter to the university campus, dated April 21. His message then is almost identical now: Purdue University has an obligation to its students to reopen this fall; and it can do so without imperiling the health of the entire campus community.

Today’s message again appears to be one where what he WRITES overpowers what he MEANS. President Daniels’ heart is in the right place (I remind you, this is a man who has drawn widespread accolades for his steadfast refusal to raise tuition), but his tone appears almost cavalier and dismissive of other opinions.

One of Daniels’ arguments about reopening is that Purdue is not alone in considering it. In fact, multiple college and university leaders have said they PLAN to reopen in the fall, if health conditions allow. But notice Daniels ignores that one word as he explains what will happen on his campus:

Two-thirds of the more than 700 colleges surveyed by the Chronicle of Higher Education have now come to the same conclusion and will reopen with in-person instruction in the fall.

They will reopen IF health conditions allow. Do I think Daniels would open his campus if medical advice said otherwise? Of course not. But there’s nothing wrong admitting this: “I want to reopen Purdue, and I believe we can do it safely. But if the medical community tells us it’s not the right thing to do, then we won’t do it.”

Daniels asserts today that much has been learned about coronavirus since “then,” which references the various decisions made in March, including sending students home (March 10) and canceling the university’s commencement (March 17). However, Daniels was advocating for Purdue to open its doors in the fall in that aforementioned April letter. To infer, as today’s editorial does, that he’s now confident Purdue can resume face-to-face instruction is not wholly accurate.

Daniels is correct that all medical evidence to date shows young people are unlikely to become seriously ill if they contract coronavirus. But he says nothing about another part of the evidence: They can transfer the virus to older people and those individuals with underlying health conditions.

Forty-five thousand young people — the biggest student population we’ve ever had — are telling us they want to be here this fall. To tell them, “Sorry, we are too incompetent or too fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education,” would be a gross disservice to them and a default of our responsibility.

Moreover, he justifies meeting his responsibility to students because more “than 80 percent of the total campus population is 35 and under.” Let’s presume that faculty, staff and students at Purdue total 60,000 people; using Daniels’ calculations, roughly 12,000 are over 35 (and therefore more likely to suffer the worst effects of coronavirus). For some perspective, Mackey Arena, the home of many Boilermakers’ teams, seats almost 15,000.

These 12,000 people taught yesterday’s students; are teaching today’s students; and will teach tomorrow’s students. These 12,000 people keep the campus clean and safe. Not publicly acknowledging them (and any fears they have about being on campus in the fall) is a “gross disservice” to their daily efforts to make Purdue the great educational institution that it is.

If that “80 percent” statement didn’t get your attention, then this one might:

We recognize that not every school can or should view the decision to reopen as we do. Unlike Purdue, many colleges were already struggling with low enrollment and precarious finances when the pandemic hit. But given what we have learned, with 45,000 students waiting and the financial wherewithal to do what’s necessary, failure to take on the job of reopening would be not only anti-scientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty.

Behind all the bluster, Daniels admits that Purdue cannot operate normally this fall. He makes clear — as many other college and university presidents have — that any planned face-to-face instruction must occur with some precautions in place. Daniels identifies all of them:

  1. Reduced occupancy classrooms
  2. Adjustments to living arrangements in the dorms
  3. Large-enrollment classes being offered online
  4. Widespread testing and tracing to identify coronavirus symptoms
  5. Protecting faculty, staff or students with underlying health conditions
  6. Eliminating many extracurricular events (notice Daniels says nothing about sports)
  7. A consistent message about the importance of hand washing and personal hygiene

Put it all together, and I want Mitch Daniels to be right. I want to wake up on a late August morning and know that every U.S. college or university leader who had hoped to have his or her campus open that day will be smiling brightly. I want an as-normal-as-possible educational experience for every college student. I certainly hope there’s no second wave of this awful virus.

However, caution, not brashness, has to guide what every college and university president or chancellor does in the coming weeks. President Daniels argument that Purdue University is unique in its composition and therefore will be open this fall is challenging to accept.

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