My Two Cents: Why Mitch Daniels Has it Right on Re-Opening Campus in Fall

Statistics used by Purdue president Mitch Daniels says that students are at a very low risk in this COVID-19 pandemic, and he believes having students back on campus in the fall — and acting smartly — is the right next step.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — For several weeks now, Purdue president Mitch Daniels has been talking openly about the need to have students back on campus in the fall, with proper protocols in place, of course, to ensure the safety of everyone in and around the university during this COVID-19 pandemic.

He doubled down this weekend in an op/ed column in the Washington Post, saying that not allowing students to continue their education on campus "would be an unacceptable breach of duty.''

And he's right.

Daniels and his team of administrators at Purdue have spent the past several months looking at literally hundreds of suggestions for how things need to go in August for the safe return of students, faculty and university employees young and old.. And even though Purdue hasn't formally rolled out its plan to the public yet — they were asked about it last week by Sports Illustrated but declined comment until a further date — just because it hasn't been announced yet doesn't mean it's not in the works.

Daniels made several defiant posts in the opinion piece, most notably:

  • STUDENTS BARELY AS RISK OF DYING: "The most salient discovery the world has made during these terrible two months is that COVID-19 is a very dangerous disease, specifically for the elderly and the infirm, particularly those with diabetes, hypertension, other cardiovascular illnesses or the obesity that so frequently leads to these disorders. ... The companion discovery is that this bug, so risky in one segment of the population, poses a near-zero risk to young people. Among COVID-19 deaths, 99.9 percent have occurred outside the 15-to-24 age group; the survival rate in the 20-to-29 age bracket is 99.99 percent. Even assuming the United States eventually reaches 150,000 total fatalities, COVID-19 as a risk to the young will rank way below accidents, cancer, heart disease and suicide. In fact, it won’t even make the top 10.'
  • STUDENTS WANT TO BE THERE: "Forty-five thousand young people — the biggest student population we’ve ever had — are telling us they want to be here this fall. To tell them, 'Sorry, we are too incompetent or too fearful to figure out how to protect your elders, so you have to disrupt your education,' would be a gross disservice to them and a default of our responsibility."
  • THINNING OUT CAMPUS GATHERINGS: "We will make our campus less dense in multiple ways. At least one-third of our staff will be required to work remotely. Our technologists have applied what they’ve learned about social distancing to redesign 700 classrooms and labs, and 9,500 dormitory rooms, all of which will be reconfigured with lower occupancy limits. All large-enrollment courses will be offered online as well as in person, to accommodate those who cannot or choose not to come to campus, and to further reduce in-class numbers.''
  • TRUSTING STUDENTS TO MAKE IT WORK: "On arrival in August, each Boilermaker will receive a kit including face masks and a thermometer for daily temperature-taking as well as the 'Protect Purdue Pledge' asking for a commitment to at least a semester of inconvenience, not primarily for the student’s own protection but for the safety of those who teach and otherwise serve them. I will urge students to demonstrate their altruism by complying, but also challenge them to refute the cynics who say that today’s young people are too selfish or self-indulgent to help us make this work.''

The key point to all of this is that Daniels is very aware of his surroundings. He wouldn't have the same belief is he was running a state full of nursing homes for the elderly. He's not. He's running a university with a very young demographic. So he's right to not generalize for the entire population.

What's also important is that if there's any place where there are enough bright, intelligent, knowledgable people around to put proper plans in place to keep everyone safe, it should be in a university setting. Months and months of meetings and planning lead me to believe that Purdue can have a proper plan in place when August rolls around.

The key, of course, is that everyone has to buy in. 

There has to be an awareness of the risks presently involved, for young and old alike. Some of you will cringe when you think that we're going to have to trust a bunch of 18-to-22 year olds to keep this thing in check, but that's where we are at right now.

We can make changes. We can be smart. We can count on people to make good choices. That "Protect Purdue Pledge'' might sound hokey, but it's the core to all of this getting done right. Might people still get sick? Sure. That can happen anywhere. But with proper protocols in place, it is possible to lessen the risk. Not eliminate it, certainly, but lessen it for sure. And act swiftly is someone does fall ill.

We all have to make changes. For me, that will certainly be the plan, too, because it takes everyone to make this work. The line I used several months ago was that we are only going to be as safe as our weakest link in all of this, and I still believe that. We need to keep the "Idiot Club'' membership to a minimum.

Are there selfish reasons for me wanting students back on campus? Well, they aren't selfish, just wishful. Students back on campus in the fall means that football can happen in the fall, and it gives me and my colleagues plenty to write about. Football in the fall helps with my job and the ones who will work with me, certainly, but it also will help with the jobs of literally thousands of people in and around West Lafayette.  So, sure, I really want that to happen.

I also am longing for a return to a sliver of normalcy, even a "new normal.'' I have followed all the social distancing guidelines since I left Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg being sick five feet away from me at the Big Ten basketball tournament in mid-March. I have stayed inside other than that weekly grocery store run, for me and my 88-year-old mother, who's not allowed to go out in public at all. 

I wear a mask in public, and that doesn't bother me. I use hand sanitizer constantly, and can still laugh that my hands are consuming more alcohol than my mouth these days, but that's OK. too. I avoid big crowds at all costs, and even small crowds, outside of that grocery run.

I can change, too. On game days in West Lafayette — or even after practice or some media availability — I always enjoy stopping somewhere for a sandwich and a beverage or two, adult or otherwise. A night at Harry's is always good, right? This fall, I probably won't do that. I'll be 62 later this year, and I'm not 22. My risks are higher, so I'll choose not to take them. I can make that sacrifice for a season. A Harry's sandwich to go can work, too. 

West Lafayette has been a ghost town for nearly three months now, and here's to hoping in comes alive again in a few months. Purdue needs that. West Lafayette and the surrounding areas need that.

We all need that. 

So let's be smart, and move forward. It can be done.