One of the most troubling aspects of the current wave of anti-intellectualism we are experiencing is Congress’ declining support for basic research. No matter that we have ample evidence that such research pays massive dividends down the road– the focus on austerity has provided a convenient excuse for cutting the grant opportunities that have led to breakthroughs in science and medicine and have provided the foundation on which technological advances have been based.
In the face of this disinvestment, university presidents and chancellors representing 165 institutions signed a letter in July calling on President Barack Obama and Congress to close what they called the nation’s widening “innovation deficit.”
As JC Online reported,
The letter — signed by presidents of Yale, MIT, most Big Ten universities and all of Purdue’s self-designated peer universities — says declining federal investments in research and cuts as a result of sequestration could lead to fewer U.S.-based innovation and scientific breakthroughs in the future.
Purdue’s President, Mitch Daniels, refused to add Purdue to that list of signatories, citing the deficit. ” I abstained from signing it, in my case, because of its complete omission of any recognition of the severe fiscal condition in which the nation finds itself.”
Where to start?
First, despite Republicans’ adamant refusal to notice, the U.S. deficit has declined steadily during the Obama administration. It will decline 155 billion just in 2013, according to the Congressional Budget Office. In fact, we are experiencing the most rapid deficit reduction since WWII. The reasons for that decline can be debated–as ill-considered as the sequester was, it may well have contributed–but the fact that the deficit has been significantly reduced cannot be denied. Citing the nation’s “severe fiscal condition” as a reason for Purdue’s non-signatory status simply reinforces a growing public conviction that Mitch Daniels is a partisan politician who does not understand the mission of the university he leads.
The problem is not a prior career in political life. Others have made the transition from politician to academic, and done so successfully. The problem is that Daniels seems utterly unaware of the difference between partisanship and scholarship, between ideology and philosophy, and–as the Zinn controversy so clearly illustrated–between indoctrination and education.
As we know, Daniels orchestrated his move to Purdue, appointing the Trustees who would–surprise!–choose him to lead the University. He evidently viewed the job as simply another platform for partisan persuasion– with the added benefit of seeming disinterestedness. But he clearly didn’t understand what universities are about. Failure to recognize the importance of funded academic research–failure to appreciate the centrality of that research to classroom performance, among other things–is refusal to understand the interests of the institution he leads.
With his refusal to sign the letter, and his purported reason for that refusal, Daniels has chosen Republican talking points over the needs of his University.
It’s really a shame. Had he chosen to use his formidable political skills and partisan connections on behalf of Purdue’s scholarly mission, Daniels could have been a great asset as President, despite the clouded process that delivered him to the office.
That he did not make that choice is becoming clearer by the day.