Billionaire Howard Schultz delivered his first national policy speech to the country Thursday from a podium in the usually intimate, but on that day relatively roomy, confines of Fowler Hall in Purdue’s Stewart Center.
With a handful of American flags as a backdrop and Purdue President Mitch Daniels in the first row, the former Starbucks chairman and CEO pontificated about this country’s “broken” two-party system.
The event made national news, with multiple reporters from national outlets in attendance, perhaps anticipating Schultz’s announcement that he would be a candidate for president of the United States.
The announcement never came.
Even so, only a few hundred select members of the Purdue community attended the event — perhaps due not to a lack of interest but to a lack of access. Thursday’s event was announced just days prior, and Schultz spokesperson Erin McPike said, in response to an Exponent inquiry, the venue’s size forced them to limit guests to those with “mutual interests.”
Mutual interests. From the spokesperson of a potential presidential candidate, no less, what does that even mean?
Purdue spokesperson Tim Doty later said that invited guests included organizations like the Board of Trustees, the Purdue Student Government, the Administrative & Professional Staff Advisory Committee, the Clerical and Service Staff Advisory Committee and members of Greek organizations on campus. Members of the Honors College told The Exponent they were also invited despite being unaffiliated with any of the aforementioned organizations. Doty did not specifically note Honors students were recipients of invitations.
The remaining “unchosen” who wished to witness the speech, numbering approximately 150 people according to Purdue’s estimates, were relegated to the much larger Loeb Playhouse to watch a livestream of this political stump speech.
McPike said on Friday that the choice of venue was merely a product of time constraints. Purdue, on the other hand, said the Schultz team took a look at Loeb Playhouse, yet instead opted for the smaller Fowler Hall and further requested attendees be limited to invited guests.
But Purdue had no obligation to provide a potential presidential candidate a protected venue from which to launch his essentially contrived test of the proverbial political waters.
Daniels has often touted Purdue’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas. Purdue was among the first universities to adopt the “Chicago Principles” soon after Daniels’ arrival in 2013. The policy, created by the University of Chicago in 2015 in response to claims of speech suppression at campuses across the nation, grants “all members of the University community the broadest possible latitude to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn.”
Asked to comment by the Associated Press following Purdue’s adoption of the policy in 2015, Daniels said, “I think that the spirit of free inquiry is still strong on our campus and I hope on most, but clearly there are places where it’s violated in truly unfortunate ways.”
This past Thursday, Daniels himself violated those principles in the most unfortunate of ways, agreeing to limit access to a political speech delivered by a potential presidential candidate for indeterminate reasons.
McPike said Friday that Schultz and Daniels know each other “well,” seemingly implying this selection of venue was a favor extended to a friend. A university campus, though, is not the place for the exchange of favors between friends, particularly when it risks undercutting one of the University’s guiding principles.
This is a precarious time in our country, no matter where one stands on the political spectrum, riddled with rancorous debate regarding the government’s inclusivity, or lack thereof. As a university campus, we should not allow presidential candidates, or any speaker for that matter, to determine who deserves a place in the audience or a seat at the intellectual table, despite the publicity a speaker might bring to the University.
This is Purdue University; we all merit a place.
Presumably, Schultz had his reasons for restricting the audience with the selection of a smaller venue. This is politics, after all, and optics are everything.
But why must Purdue acquiesce?
Regardless, Schultz and Daniels each failed his own test Thursday.
Schultz will need to decide if he wants to run for president of the entire people of this United States or of those chosen few within this country who share his “mutual interests.”
As for Daniels, this was an opportunity to stand for the principles he has championed.
That opportunity, unfortunately, was missed.