Keynoter Mitch Daniels Sparks Thoughtful Signature Event Conversation
Keynoter Mitch Daniels Sparks Thoughtful Signature Event Conversation
By Bill Wax, Communications Director
Former Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels gave those attending Bellevue University’s seventh annual Signature Event a lot to think about Tuesday, September 29, at Omaha’s Joslyn Art Museum.
The conversational “fireside chat” format of the evening program gave the audience of more than 200 a window into Daniels’ own experiences as a parent, businessman, Governor, and current President of Purdue University.
After a brief welcome by Bellevue University President Mary Hawkins, who introduced a short video presentation featuring testimonials by recent student scholarship recipients, Daniels fielded questions from Bellevue University Board Vice Chair Michael “Mike” Cassling. The conversation touched on many of the key issues of our time. The keynoter spiced his thoughtful responses with humor, personal anecdotes, and lessons gleaned from his career. He also answered several audience questions. Excerpts from the conversation, by topic, follow:
Issue: Higher Education
Q. As President of a large University, what are your suggestions for reforming or reinventing higher education? A. “All of the officers at the university where I work will tell you that the biggest single problem is the K-12 system. Many students have not been well served by it…The traditional, age 18 to 24 year-old residing on a campus now accounts for only about one-fifth of all college students…“We have poured hundreds of billions of dollars into improving access to higher ed, but attainment (numbers and percentage of the population who complete college degrees) hasn’t changed much…Thank goodness for Bellevue University and other innovative institutions who are gearing up to help the other four-fifths, older, working students, to meet the challenge…We especially need to help students who either skipped or missed an opportunity when they were a typical college age, to achieve that credential and the readiness that goes with it.”
Q. What can we do, as a nation, to address the growing amount of student loan debt? A. “Total student debt is now $1.3 trillion and climbing, and average individual debt is over $30,000. It’s a problem that is not fully understood. Working with Gallup Organization, your hometown company, Purdue has collaborated on the two largest studies of college students in history…One of the key findings of that research is that debt not only burdens students financially, but the other consequences are pretty severe. A high percentage of them are postponing marriage and child bearing. Lower percentages are starting businesses than was true in the recent past. And very high percentages of them are not able to move out and become fully independent…I tell parents who are visiting our campus that if they send their son or daughter to Purdue, they will not move back into their basement after graduation…
“I am testifying tomorrow (Wednesday, September 30) morning in Washington, D.C., on the subject of Student Finance, and I will be making the point that the student finance superstructure that in place now has been a major cause for the debt and also the higher cost of college. One reason that Purdue (and most any other college you could name) raised tuition for 30 straight years is that they could. And the biggest reason they could is because of all the money that the government was flooding into the marketplace.” (As President of Purdue, Daniels has spearheaded a successful four-year effort to freeze tuition rates there.)
ISSUE: American Democracy
Q. Do you think our “American Spirit” is eroding, and is democracy still viable? A. I’m worried about it for the first time in my life. I think the immediate problem that will help us return to the country we have been is a return to stronger economic growth…Our nation’s founders understood the virtue of freedom and the value of freedom. It has been a magnet for people from other countries for so long! The success of freedom has produced the fruit of freedom. We cannot sustain that if we cannot offer that same promise going forward…
“We’ve seen some unprecedented changes in public opinion. For example, there’s been a huge drop in the percentage of people who say a college education is worth it. That’s not good. And there’s been a huge change in the percentage of people who think their children will live better then they do. I think they are wrong, but we cannot continue to thrive, staggering along at growth rates of 1 or 2 percent as we have been for the past several years.
“I think we need to recover that optimism that drives a dynamic economy. If people begin to doubt the American Dream that Bellevue does such a great job of teaching, it (doubt) will eventually be self-fulfilling.
ISSUE: The National Debt and Deficit Spending
Q. We now have a growing national debt of $18 trillion dollars. In your recent book, Keeping the Republic: Saving America by Trusting Americans, you talked about the “Red Menace.” When are we going to tackle that problem? A. Red Menace is a play on the old Cold War line. I was asserting that red ink is the new threat to our national security. We can’t remain in charge of our own destiny at the debt levels that we are accumulating. It’s the most dominant factor facing America.
The public, I think, gets desensitized to things too easily. We have four daughters. I used to say that when the first one caught a cold, we rushed her down to the doctor. When the fourth one swallowed a quarter, I took it out of her allowance. Recently I heard a news commentator (debt) say, ‘We are suffering from Deficit Attention Disorder.’ We have to pay attention to this problem or we will pay a tremendous price…
“We are fortunate that America is still a blessed country. The world uses our currency. We are still the best place for people to invest. We have the luxury of time. But we need to get started on this. The heart of the problem is the grotesquely underfunded entitlement system that we have set up. They (entitlement programs) are worse than unfunded and un-fundable. There’s a dishonesty involved here. There’s the notion that it (entitlement program funds) is their money that they’ve paid in. That’s not true and it never was. The system from the beginning has been a pay as you go system…It’s not sustainable…I believe it’s a genuine national emergency.
“If you want my suggestions, I would start by means testing entitlement programs, which has been resisted for political reasons. We need to focus the resources on those who badly need them. We do not want to be a country where people are destitute. Secondly, we need to stop over-indexing increases in benefits. And we should significantly raise the retirement age. Life expectancy of today’s college-age students at Purdue is probably well over 100 years. When Social Security was established, it was 65 years. FDR thought that was a good number, because hardly anyone was living past that at the time…We need to get started…It reminds me of an old country song, If I’d have shot you when I should have, I’d be out of jail by now. There’s no time like the present.”
ISSUE: Civic Engagement
Q. In your book you talk about “reconstruction” of the Union. Tell us a little about that. A. I chose that term advisedly. The term “reconstruction” after the Civil War referred not to infrastructure but to rebuilding the Union, the unity of the America people. That’s pretty much where we are right now. The Kirkpatrick Signature Series here at Bellevue University ought to have its counterpart at every college campus in the country and all the way back down through the K-12 system. We are a unique nation, united not in the typical ways such as religion or ethnicity or tribe. We are united by an idea (freedom). If you’re going to build a great nation around an idea, everybody ought to understand the idea and subscribe to it.”
Daniels said he believes current generations of students have been force fed a false view of American history that even denigrates the country and its leaders, and provides no basis to expand public confidence and help to sustain the freedoms which we take for granted.
Q. What is your assessment of the current state of partisan politics? A. Some of you remember comedian Lily Tomlin. She once said that, ‘No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up’…There are days when I feel that way…We have gotten ourselves into a situation, and I think the way out will have to be non-partisan Presidential leadership…Somebody has got to start speaking the language of unity in this country rather than division...We are borrowing money internationally and spending it on today. If we were genuinely spending that money on something we could call investment—infrastructure and defense assets that will have lasting value—you could make some justification for the borrowing. But we’re not. We’re borrowing and spending on consumption and handing the bill to our children and grand-children. It’s really not a very moral thing to do…
“If we are going to persuade our fellow citizens to change, it’s going to have to start with national leadership that says “E pluribus unum’ (out of many, one). We are going to have to talk seriously about addressing the set of serious threats facing us all. Our quadrennial opportunity to change direction is coming. We need to get back to a mentality of being a society of ‘haves and want to haves’ rather than ‘haves and have nots.’”
Daniels also fielded questions on K-12 education, government regulation, the current crowded field of Presidential candidates, and healthcare. A dessert reception followed.