The presidents of Johns Hopkins and Purdue send strikingly different messages; only one of the men passes the leadership test

I begin this blog post admitting a bias: I believe a person’s true character comes through during times of crisis. You must decide the degree to which those sentiments influence what you’re about to read.

The presidents of Johns Hopkins University and Purdue University have shared how the next few months, and the fall semester, might look like on their campuses. Through their statements reviewing how coronavirus, the worst crisis to hit higher education in more than a decade, continues to challenge their institutions, one of the presidents has demonstrated empathy, compassion and self-sacrifice. The other has shown little more than tone deafness.

Ronald Daniels is the president at Johns Hopkins. His letter acknowledges that every person on that campus matters. Mitch Daniels is the president at Purdue. His letter openly acknowledges that death be damned, the university should return to normal operations this fall.

Ronald Daniels defines leadership as caring for people, practicing humble stewardship, affirming transparency and seeing himself and his fellow campus leaders as servants. He’s a man to be admired.

Mitch Daniels defines leadership as closing one’s eyes to potential suffering so that economic losses might be reduced. He should have joined the recent protests in multiple U.S. cities during which people suggested stay-at-home orders were tyrannical.

Ronald Daniels commitment to leadership can perhaps best be summed up by this excerpt from his correspondence to the campus:

Johns Hopkins enters this moment with a focus first and foremost on our people—those we live, learn, and work with, and those we are honored to serve.

“A focus first and foremost on our people.”

Mitch Daniels’ disregard for leadership perhaps can be best summed up by this statement:

At least 80% of our population is made up of young people, say, 35 and under. All data to date tell us that the COVID-19 virus, while it transmits rapidly in this age group, poses close to zero lethal threat to them.

Lethal threat.

What a nice choice of words to share with a board of trustees, fellow campus leaders, alumni, faculty, staff, friends of the university, parents, and current and future students.

Ronald Daniels allows his letter to illustrate how top administrators will take double-digit pay cuts in order to aid the overall financial health of the university. With hard numbers, he reviews how the university’s bottom line has been, and will continue to be, affected by the coronavirus pandemic. He doesn’t ignore the potential for furloughs or layoffs, but you’re urged to notice how it’s discussed:

University-level HR will work closely with the divisions to establish fair and appropriate supports in the form of transitional assistance for affected employees. We also are working to devise enhanced incentives for faculty in affected programs and departments to consider voluntary retirement options, and we are establishing a special COVID-19 Employee Relief Fund to provide grants to employees who are struggling financially through this pandemic.

“Fair and appropriate supports.”

“Grants to employees who are struggling financially through this pandemic.”

Mitch Daniels’ effort at putting people at ease looks like this:

The roughly 20% of our Purdue community who are over 35 years old contains a significant number of people with diabetes, asthma, hypertension, and other ailments which together comprise a very high percentage of the fatal and most severe COVID-19 cases.

We will consider new policies and practices that keep these groups separate, or minimize contact between them. Literally, our students pose a far greater danger to others than the virus poses to them. We all have a role, and a responsibility, in ensuring the health of the Purdue community.

“Keep these groups separate.”

“Our students pose a far greater danger to others.”

I’ve not read every story associated with coronavirus, but I don’t recall any medical professional confirming that 35 is the magical age at which coronavirus matters. I accept that the CDC’s provisional data show the number of deaths in the U.S. from the virus escalates based on age, but I’m not sure one can draw a conclusion that a 34-year-old man ought to be walking around the West Lafayette, Indiana, area (home to Purdue University) smiling and happy while a 36-year-old woman ought to be trembling in fear as her path crosses with other people.

When will Johns Hopkins University open its doors again? No one knows with certainty; here’s how Ronald Daniels addresses the decision-making process:

The university has convened working groups to assess options and planning for the eventual safe and prudent reopening and return to campus for all in-person activities and programs, ranging from patient care to lab-based research to general instruction and the undergraduate residential experience.

“Safe and prudent reopening.”

What does Mitch Daniels think about the reopening of Purdue University?

Closing down our entire society, including our university, was a correct and necessary step. It has had invaluable results. But like any action so drastic, it has come at extraordinary costs, as much human as economic, and at some point, clearly before next fall, those will begin to vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance.

“Vastly outweigh the benefits of its continuance.”

I was speaking to my university president, Dr. Christopher Howard, a couple of weeks ago. As we ended our phone call, he said this: “I don’t know what’s going to happen next, but I know we, all of us, will get through this together.”

Ronald Daniels would agree.

6 thoughts on “The presidents of Johns Hopkins and Purdue send strikingly different messages; only one of the men passes the leadership test

  1. Mitch Daniels has been proven to be a deeply thoughtful, wise, caring leader as a US President cabinet member, an Indiana Governor and a Big Ten University President. He has displayed deep integrity, discipline and maturity as a leader. Mature leaders practice Radical Candor where you both “Care Deeply” but “Speak Honestly.”

    You can and must do both as a leader.

    Ron Daniels is dancing around the painful truth with, “All of us will get through this together.” The painful truth is that Herd Immunity, or a vaccine, is the only way out. A vaccine is 12 -18 months out. Shutting down the economy for 12-18 months has serious economic and health risks.

    There are no risk free paths here.

    1. Couldn’t have said it better myself. As a Purdue grad/supporter, I am proud of President Daniels and trust his judgement. At least he is preparing for the students return, and his policies are not set in stone.

  2. The reader of this piece would have been far better served had they been presented with the backgrounds of both men in order to provide proper context into how these men arrived at their outlooks. By all accounts, Ronald Daniels is a career academic and public policy wonk. As such, he dines on the public teat in order to secure funding to further progressive policy goals. Mitch Daniels, on the other hand, has direct corporate executive experience in the pharmaceutical sector coupled with years running for public office and operating a state as the governor of Indiana. In other words, he brings a unique and well-qualified skill set of what it takes to balance health and economic outcomes. He has also frozen tuition at Purdue since 2012 and is on target to deliver 10 straight years of this feat by 2022. By contrast, John Hopkins’ tuition fees will have increased almost 50% during this same period. I’ll leave it to the reader to draw their own conclusions about the definition of leadership.

  3. The author of this article doesn’t appear to be a very well informed individual to come these kinds of conclusions. Recent studies suggest that death rate of Covid-19 is very very low. Close to 0.6% in fact and it’s even less lethal to young people. The studies were done by left leaning groups, yet I’m sure these numbers have never been aired on CNN, MSLSD, etc. I’m more than confident that Mr Daniels is aware of all of the facts.

  4. Thank you to everyone who has replied thus far! Such a skewed look at what is going on here.

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