Purdue President Mitch Daniels was on campus Wednesday afternoon to greet more than 30 students from the Purdue Polytechnic High School who will stay on campus through early August.
The Exponent interviewed Daniels about his primary concerns surrounding Purdue's reopening this fall, whether online courses are sufficient replacements for in-person coursework and the likelihood that students will contract the coronavirus.
Questions and answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
If I could ask a question about the fall more generally, there are a ton of concerns and there are some people saying Purdue's doing a good job. How do you manage the burden of Purdue being one of the main universities that's focused on at a national level for how colleges reopen?
We seem to get a lot of attention because we expressed our intention a little earlier. And I've said by now so many times, we're not trying to tell anybody else what they should do. We just made our decision because I thought, "If we're gonna do this, we gotta do it as well as we can, we're gonna make the place as safe as we can."
And we need every single day. If we'd have waited until now and tried to get ready to protect everybody and so forth: Impossible. So, it was just out of concern that if we're going to do this, we gotta get on it. And by now, it's not quite that way because now hundreds of schools are trying to do it. And the vast majority are planning to come back, and most of us are using similar approaches.
But my goal is, we do everything we can think of to do, we spare no effort and no expense to protect everybody here, so that education can continue. Nobody can guarantee success anywhere but I want to be able come Thanksgiving, whatever happens, to say, nobody did more, nobody tried harder, nobody took more actions than Purdue did.
If it's not enough, well, it was the right thing to do. But right now I'm not aware of another place that is doing more. Now if you're a much smaller school, you got a much smaller problem.
Everybody has their own concerns. I think a lot of people would want to know, in President Mitch Daniels' mind, what are the key things that are worrying? What is worst case scenario, something you absolutely are trying to avoid?
Well, of course that would involve people really suffering serious medical harm or long-term harm. And so much of what we're doing, based on the medical data, is protecting vulnerable people. We know that there's some people who are much more vulnerable to this. So we've designed the system that way.
Most people everywhere will come to that same understanding, but that's what I worry about, is that despite our every effort, people for whom this will be a very serious illness somehow have that happen.
I know some people have seen the thought, "It's not that harmful among young people," and said, "But still, it could be, we're not sure." How do you respond to that sort of critique?
Well, the data's all anybody knows. We do believe, the world has learned, just masks alone you basically can stop the spread. Now we're doing about 20 things stacked on top of each other.
But the other thing that should go through people's minds is there's tremendous harm done, including medical harm, if you just try to stop the world. Young people out there were definitely harmed, in the high schools and grade schools, by interrupting their education. There's a real cost to completely trying to hide from this thing.
It's not like that's the course of total safety. I mean, we saw suicides, we're seeing domestic abuse, there's really costs, and sometimes people don't notice those but they're very real. If we say we're not sure we can avoid any problems, so you 35,000 young people, take a year, you're on your own next year, that to me would be very irresponsible right now.
You all, I think, need to pay attention to this, too: In a place this big, bad things happen anyway, in the best of years. We lose several students a year, and every one's a heartbreak. I know about them all. I mean, I'm the first person they notify and I go to the memorial service.
When you got this many people, we lose students. One year, two or three years ago, we lost 17 students. And we lose a large, a much larger number of faculty and staff. You know, we're a city of 55,000 people. And it doesn't mean we're not going to do everything we can think of in this situation, but I do think it means we gotta try to press ahead.
Do you worry that people hear that and maybe think, "Yeah, but a lot of that stuff, those are accidents. We can control what's going on with the virus"?
We try hard to control accidents. We couldn't control the loss of Tyler Trent to cancer, we lose to some to cancer every year. We lose some to other illnesses other years. Car wrecks on the way to campus, you know. We do all we can to limit the possibility of these things happening, but there is no zero, unfortunately.
You've accepted at least that people will get the virus. Are you prepared for students to potentially die of a fatal case of this virus?
We don't want a single one of those, of course. We don't. And the data say that is as close to zero a risk as you can get. We look at statistical risk based on people in the 18 to 30 age bracket, it doesn't even make the top 10 risks.
So this has special features. It's contagious, in a way that cancer isn't, so you can tell we're doing more about this risk than probably anything else in history. And as we think of more of the things to do, we'll do them.
But I can't believe you're not hearing the same thing we are over and over, whatever the channel is, young people I run into, emails I get: The students want to come back, and their biggest concern is, "Oh, don't send us home again." That's our job. My job for this year is to have this place open so people can pursue their own dreams.
Apparently, a huge percentage do not believe that online only is in their interest. And so we'll do the best job we can with online, and that's gonna be maybe 8% or 9% of our undergrads will be doing that this fall. We'll do that as well as we can, everybody should have that choice. But it's very, very plain, that the vast majority want to get here and want to stay here.
I've noticed them saying online only is not up to par with in-person, but then they follow that up with, "I wish we had some sort of tuition reduction." Can higher ed just not handle that?
Our online offering is at the summer price, which recognizes that it doesn't have the on-campus compliment. We want the educational content to be as good.
Now, we can't duplicate the clubs, the greater personal interaction with faculty or other students, and that's different. But our faculty have done a terrific job, I think, of converting courses so that the online student gets absolutely the academic content and quality.
A personal question: What have you been doing to stay safe the past couple of weeks? Have you been staying in West Lafayette?
I've been going home (to Carmel) every weekend, occasionally working from there on a Friday. The big difference for me is so much fell off the schedule. I don't travel to give speeches and represent Purdue in other places, those things are all canceled. We don't have the on-campus events that I enjoy and, you know, some of them I do because they're absolutely part of my duties, but most of them I just like.
I'm really gonna miss the interaction with the students. For seven or eight years, that's been part of the job, but it's so much of the fun of the job, too. And you know, I can't go the Co-Rec, I can't go have dinner at Wiley or something. Hopefully that comes back at some point, but that's all different.
Frankly, I would probably do things a little differently than I do, like this mask. But I also think I need to live up to the standards we're asking everybody to live up to. Although my doctor thinks I'm as healthy as you can get, I am at an age that you're supposed to be extra careful. I'm staying plenty busy but it's just such a different kind of busy.
You mentioned every time you step in public, you're expected to take the utmost precautions. So, it feels like normally you might not wear a mask as often?
Now that I know what I know about going indoors, I'm going to. I'm taking my temperature more often. I'm not positive. This is not about protecting me or you, this is me protecting you and you protecting me. And we have great evidence now that says, if you didn't do anything else and you could get high compliance with (wearing masks) where it matters — indoors, in close proximity — you really slam the door on transmission.
Now, we're going to do this and everything else. But of course I need to be as observant as we're asking everybody to be.