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Plenty of other presidents are walking the same line, both reassuring students that proper steps have been taken to prevent their campuses from becoming coronavirus hot spots, while not appearing to downplay the dangers involved. Sounding tentative might spook students, not to mention faculty and staff members. Sounding brazen might come back to bite you. In a testy MSNBC interview this week, Daniels strayed from his more measured public approach, telling host Katy Tur that “cases on college campuses have an infinitesimal chance of leading to a fatality, as close to zero as you can get.”
It’s a tricky tone to get right, made trickier still by the intense national interest in how colleges will fare this fall.
Perhaps no university will be watched more closely than Purdue, and no president’s reputation is more on the line than Daniels’s. That’s because he emerged as one of the earliest and most vocal proponents of an in-person return to campus. In a May 25 column for The Washington Post, Daniels, who has been Purdue’s president since 2013, argued that “failure to take on the job of reopening would be not only anti-scientific but also an unacceptable breach of duty.”
He pointed out that the predominantly younger demographic on college campuses is less likely to die from the disease (though, it’s worth saying, the risk to long-term health remains in question). What’s more, students “overwhelmingly are eager to continue their educations, in person and on campus.” He went on to lay out all the ways in which the university would attempt to slow potential spread, including installing plexiglass in classrooms (the university has purchased more than five miles of the plastic sheeting), disinfecting shared spaces, and requiring masks when social distancing is impossible.
Shortly after writing that column, Daniels testified in front of the Senate health committee, arguing for “maximum choice” for students — that is, being allowed to attend classes online or in person. He appeared on CNBC explaining how a “very aggressive testing regime,” among a host of other measures, would keep Purdue safe. Recently the university has also announced that it will test all returning students, a move that had initially been dismissed as unnecessary and too costly.
I spoke with Daniels in early June, and then again last week. He stressed that the Post column wasn’t his idea — the editors suggested he address the topic (since 2017, Daniels has opined semi-regularly for the paper on a range of subjects, including the fragility of today’s college students and the benefits of genetically modified salmon). He didn’t set out to be higher education’s cheerleader for resuming in-person classes, but he stood by the message. “The question is not whether, it’s how best to reopen,” he told me. The decision to shut down in March was a no-brainer, in his view, because the disease might be a “clear and present danger” to students. “But then we learned that the medical facts were quite different,” he says. “And then the question shifted to, ‘Can we continue our mission safely, and how might that occur?”
Other colleges have taken the same tack. But as the virus continues to spread, and with roughly a thousand Americans dying each day, many have begun to waver. A growing number of universities — Berkeley, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins among them — have announced that they’re scrapping plans to hold classes in person, shifting entirely online. Smith College’s president, Kathleen McCartney, posted a message to students this week informing them that “troubling trends nationally” led her to conclude that they should not return for the fall semester. She added that the college has a “civic duty” to protect not only those connected to Smith but those who live in the surrounding area. According to The Chronicle’s round-up, 21 percent of institutions, including Purdue, plan to resume primarily in person. More than a quarter of colleges say their plans are still uncertain.
When I spoke with him last week, Daniels remained persuaded that he had made the right call, but he also seemed noticeably more circumspect. “We have a slightly different apprehension now because infection in our state and in nearby communities has gone up,” he said. “We’re at least as concerned about students acquiring the virus off campus and bringing it on, as opposed to bringing it in and then taking it off.” When I told him that he seemed fairly confident about his decision a couple of months ago, he pushed back. “I think apprehensive is a better descriptor,” he said. “There’s so much uncertainty around this situation, and we accept all the warnings and concerns that people raise about trying to congregate thousands of young people at a time like this.”
Those who doubt that colleges can safely reopen worry that the highly social nature of college life will inevitably lead to outbreaks. One kegger, attended by a few dozen undergrads, could have an enormous ripple effect (and indeed, that’s already starting to happen: at the University of Louisville, an off-campus party led to 29 people testing positive for Covid-19). No matter how many times you repeat that it’s necessary to stay six feet apart, or to wear a mask, what are the odds that college students — understandably thrilled to be back among their peers — will abide strictly by those guidelines for several months? And even if they do, there’s no guarantee that the preparations Purdue has made will make a significant difference. Does it really matter, for example, that the university has carefully measured to ensure that there’s 10 feet of space between the headboards of beds in a dorm room?
A cynical take is that college leaders like Daniels are shifting the onus to students in order that, should there be an outbreak, administrators can click their tongues at youthful carelessness, rather than accept the blame themselves for shaping an environment destined to fail. Daniels thinks that’s unfair. “If you were to look at the message we’ve been sending, it’s all about facts,” he says. “It centers on the fact that personal responsibility and discipline by all of us is the factor that will be decisive. Everybody’s pledged to self-monitor and distance and wear masks, and I can’t promise that’ll happen to a high enough extent. But of course that’s the single most important factor, where you’re talking about a college campus or Seoul, Korea. Can it happen? I believe it can.”
An even more cynical take is that Purdue and other institutions are essentially lying to students and that a bustling campus can’t help but be a disaster right now, but they also know that students don’t want to pay full tuition for cobbled-together Zoom classes, so they’re stringing everyone along to get their money. Daniels scoffs at that too. “I don’t know anyone in higher ed who would think that way,” he says. “I promise you we could close this university for a year and be in rock-solid financial shape. Now, we would have done huge injury to the lives of thousands of young people, and we would also have thrown a lot of people out of work. And we would have damaged our local community’s economies substantially. But none of that would be a reason to run a serious medical risk if we thought that was the likely outcome.”
So why not go exclusively online for the fall? While that won’t do much for the local economies, it would presumably allow students to keep up academically — which is, at least in theory, the primary purpose of college attendance. And Purdue University has often touted the quality of its online offerings. In 2018, it purchased Kaplan University and rechristened it Purdue University Global, promising to provide a “world-class education.” While Purdue University Global is geared for older students, you might assume that Purdue would be particularly well-positioned to make the online shift.
Daniels, who spent his own undergraduate days at Princeton, vouches for the quality of Purdue’s online courses, while at the same time making the case for the intangible superiority of quads, cafeterias, and lecture halls. “Certainly our goal is that the content of any online course that we produce must be as good as what it is in traditional delivery. We’re committed to making sure it’s just as credit-worthy as if they’re sitting here,” he says. “But there is an added element to the on-campus experience. The greater interactivity with faculty is probably the most important thing, and — let’s face it — the maturing and socialization that most campuses enable.” He also notes that 88 percent of Purdue students have elected to return in person, even with an online option. He cites the “intense interest among students not to have their education either interrupted or affected by the lack of all that on-campus experience.”
I spoke to a few friends and former colleagues of Daniels, as well to a number of professors and administrators at Purdue. They tend to describe him as a personable, if private man who is inquisitive and self-deprecating. He’s also comfortable calling the shots (“he’s bored if he’s not in charge,” said one longtime friend). “He’s all about doing the principled, practical thing,” is how Joshua Bolten, who was George W. Bush’s chief of staff, describes Daniels. Richard Kuhn, a virologist at Purdue who has played a role in shaping the university’s fall plans, said Daniels asks good questions. “He wanted to know as much as possible about what we knew for certain, and what we were uncertain about,” says Kuhn. “He would say he’d read something in a British journal of medicine and wanted to know more. He’s done that with a wide range of people.”
Daniels was a somewhat surprising pick for the Purdue presidency, and some at the university had their doubts, in part because he didn’t have a background in academe. Even after seven-and-a-half years as a university president, Daniels doesn’t feel like he’s a part of the higher-ed establishment. “I know I’m not a member of the club,” he says. “People seem to see me as an outsider because I didn’t spend my whole career in the academy.” He adds: “That’s just an observation, not a complaint.”
For Daniels and other presidents, how they handle this crisis is likely to be the defining characteristic of their tenures. It may be that Daniels’s call for a return to campus will, in retrospect, be hailed as a bold move made in the face of overly cautious opposition. It might prevent the disruption of college life for tens of thousands of students, who will — as he suggested in his video message — be proud of their perseverance. Or it might turn out to be a colossal, tragic error in judgement. And while it’s possible Daniels is feeling somewhat less sure of the decision he made in May, it doesn’t seem like he’s about to change course now. “Our message to students and everyone else on campus is that no one can say, with assurance, that this can work all the way through to Thanksgiving,” he says. “All we can say is that we believe it’s absolutely the right thing to try.”