What they described to me could be a new model—a change in the culture—of finance in higher education, bringing market pressures to bear on processes that had never faced them before. Savings came, Daniels said, “from a couple of big things, and lots of little things.” Low-hanging fruit was plucked early: The residence halls, which housed young people who all owned cellphones, still used landlines, so they were quickly removed. Payroll, which incredibly was still using paper time sheets, was digitized. Food service was centralized.
Daniels also addressed complaints from students and faculty about the price of textbooks. After six months of weighing options, Purdue struck a deal with Amazon to provide textbooks, saving students 30 percent on average and more than $2 million in the first few years, according to the school. The arrangement lapsed recently, but Amazon’s first brick-and-mortar store is still on campus, and textbook costs remain lower than before.
And so a virtuous circle was established, according to Purdue and its president. The predictably flat tuition attracted more students, creating a larger student body that brought in increased revenue, which allowed for the hiring of more and higher-quality faculty, whose research the university could profitably license to the private sector, where alumni, delighted at the celebrated achievements of their alma mater, helped increase donations by 136 percent over six years, which in turn has helped keep the freeze in place.
While Daniels’s approach wins mostly praise on campus, David Sanders, a biological-sciences professor and frequent critic of Daniels’s policies, told me he hears quiet grumbles. “The freeze is a marvelous admissions marketing tool,” Sanders said. But the surge in enrollment “puts a lot of stresses on the city and the campus.” In his own department of biological sciences, despite the campuswide improvement in the student-teacher ratio, “introductory-class sizes are much larger,” requiring more students to monitor lectures remotely. And as resources get reallocated, “there’s far more competition between faculty and between departments,” he said. “The institution is less collegial.” (Most faculty members contacted for this story declined to comment.)
However widely these misgivings are shared, no one denies that the freeze and the other innovations have set Purdue in a new direction, one much more in keeping with Daniels’s brand of populism.
“When I got here,” he told me, “there was an effort to become the ‘Stanford of the Midwest,’ an elite institution along those lines,” which would have meant shrinking enrollment, cutting out kids at the low end of the class to skew the average toward the top.
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Daniels speaks frequently of Purdue’s mission as a land-grant school, chartered under Civil War–era legislation that helped establish colleges devoted to teaching agriculture, engineering, and other practical arts to the children of prairie pioneers. “We were put here to democratize higher education,” he said.