Purdue President Daniels: ‘Biggest risk of all is that we stop taking risks at all’

Purdue University President Mitch Daniels made these remarks during the spring commencement May 15, 2021, on the West Lafayette campus.

This year, when I say I am happy to be here, I’m not just making small talk. If you’re like me, you’re happy to be anywhere after the year we’ve all been through. I wish we were over in Elliott Hall, celebrating your achievements individually as only Purdue does among schools our size. But this beats the virtual version we were forced to in 2020 and marks a long step back on the path to fully normal life.

As we’ve never done an outdoor commencement before, we may have gotten a few things wrong. For one thing, way out here on the 50-yard line, it feels like we’ve carried that social distance thing a little far. However well it goes, like everything about your senior year, it will be one for the history books. For all the trouble and downsides, there can be some real value in living through a time like that.

For decades to come, scholars and ordinary citizens alike will look back on your senior year, trying to identify its consequences, and imagine what lives so disrupted were like. As they do so, they will know more than we can now about the results of the choices today’s leaders made. They will reach judgments, with the benefit of hindsight, about the wisdom and maturity with which our nation handled the challenge of this particular pandemic. Odds are, not all those judgments will be favorable. Time will tell.

An ability to comprehend and work with complex facts and data has always been part of a Purdue education. At least since the Industrial Age, that’s been an essential tool for a useful life of the kind at which Boilermakers excel.

Mitch Daniels and Nathan Peercy Purdue University President Mitch Daniels and Nathan Peercy from Cupertino, California, who graduated Saturday (May 15) from the College of Science, drive around Ross-Ade Stadium on the “couch cart.” The cart delivered Daniels to the speaker’s platform for Saturday’s commencement ceremony. (Purdue University photo/Rebecca McElhoe)

But that’s never been nearly so true as today. Massive amounts of information are being collected, intentionally by us and silently by the machines we invent and use in daily life.  Interpreting its meaning, and discovering patterns within it, is perhaps the most important skill in the economy of 2021. Our faculty has determined that data analysis, as we now call it, should be as universal a part of a Boilermaker education as English composition.

You’ll leave this stadium able to evaluate statistics and whether they are significant or meaningless. You’ll know better than to confuse correlation with causation. You’ll look at decisions critically, and holistically, understanding that any objective pursued too far eventually yields diminishing returns not worth their cost. That, just as medicines have side effects, almost all actions produce collateral consequences, often collateral damage.

It doesn’t stretch a point to say that we wouldn’t be meeting here today without those skills.  Keeping Purdue open last fall, so that you could stay on schedule and graduate today, required the daily examination of COVID-19 infection rates and patterns of its spread on and around campus. Prior to that, the decision to reopen at all involved a reading of the available data, which showed that people your age were at far less risk from the virus than from a host of other dangers.

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Starting soon, the decisions will be yours to make. In businesses you start or join, in causes in which you feel called to enlist, or in that most important of all organizations, the families I hope you will form. Wherever they are, the very essence of your coming leadership roles will lie in making hard choices. After weighing all the options, the competing priorities and the uncertainties that even the biggest databases cannot totally eliminate, others will look to you to choose. 

The risk of failure, of a hit to one’s reputation, or just that the gains don’t outweigh the costs,  all these can deter or even paralyze a person out of fulfilling the responsibility someone has entrusted to them. Should I make this investment, or husband my cash? Take that job offer, or stay where I’m comfortable? Engage in this debate, or sit silently?  Choose this life partner, or play it safe?

This last year, many of your elders failed this fundamental test of leadership. They let their understandable human fear of uncertainty overcome their duty to balance all the interests for which they were responsible. They hid behind the advice of experts in one field but ignored the warnings of experts in other realms that they might do harm beyond the good they hoped to accomplish. 

Sometimes they let what might be termed the mad pursuit of zero, in this case zero risk of anyone contracting the virus, block out other competing concerns, like the protection of mental health, the educational needs of small children, or the survival of small businesses. Pursuing one goal to the utter exclusion of all others is not to make a choice but to run from it. It’s not leadership; it’s abdication. I feel confident your Purdue preparation won’t let you fall prey to it.

But there’s a companion quality you’ll need to be the leaders you can be. That’s the willingness to take risks. Not reckless ones, but the risks that still remain after all the evidence has been considered.

Great societies before us tended to look backward for their inspiration, to locate their golden ages in the past. Here our eyes have always been forward. Now signs abound of Americans losing that eagerness to move ahead boldly.

Before the virus visited us, there were already troubling signs that fearfulness was beginning to erode the spirit of adventure, the willingness to take considered risks, on which this nation’s greatness was built and from which all progress originates. Rates of business startups, moving in pursuit of a better job, or the strongest of all bets on the future, having children, all have fallen sharply in recent years. And now there are warnings that the year 2020 may have weakened that spirit further.

As early as April of last year, researchers at the Federal Reserve of St. Louis documented the “belief-scarring effects” of COVID-19. Psychologists proved a long time ago that we humans tend to overestimate how common terrible events are. Because they are terrible, we are more sure to hear about them, and we trick ourselves into believing that they are far more likely than they really are.

Now we learn that such misconceptions can be long-lasting. The scarring effect is, the Fed’s economists tell us, “a persistent change in beliefs about the probability of an extreme, negative shock producing” … long-lived responses to transitory events, especially extreme, unlikely ones.”

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Fortunately, Boilermakers don’t scar easily. If Amelia Earhart had been intimidated by uncertainty, we wouldn’t know her name. If our recent board chair Keith Krach had stayed within the safe confines of a giant corporation’s career ladder, the world would not enjoy the huge efficiency breakthroughs of Ariba and Docusign. If Neil Armstrong, Gus Grissom and more than a score more Purdue astronauts had run from risk, humanity’s knowledge of its universe would be far short of its current boundaries. 

In the most jarring book of recent years, the Israeli philosopher Yuval Harari predicts that humans your age will live to see the “last days of death”, when the species we call Homo sapiens becomes “godlings” and immortal. He sees this happening through one of the same technologies at which this university excels: either biological engineering, or cyborg engineering, of our organic beings, or simply the complete replacement of humans by super intelligent machines.

Immortality sounds good, until Harari points out the implications. One of them would be a total aversion to risk. As the author explains it, if you believe you can live forever, why would you ever take a chance of any kind? 

I hope that the experiences of 2020 left you with an attitude not of fearfulness but of confidence. Confidence that we can tackle hard problems, and that hiding from them is rarely the best course. That given a careful examination of the available facts and a thoughtful calculation of relative risks, we can overcome even the biggest obstacles and be the masters of our fates and our futures.

As school started again at her campus, the provost of the University of Kansas sent a message to her students and colleagues that is relevant far beyond the present day or the recent pandemic. “In times of high anxiety,” she wrote, “it is human nature to crave certainty for the safety it provides. The problem with craving certainty is that it is a false hope; it is a craving that can never fully be met.” She quoted the astronomer Carl Sagan: “The history of science teaches us that the most we can hope for is successive improvement in our understanding, learning from our mistakes … with the proviso that absolute certainty will always elude us.”

Maybe the great historian Jacques Barzun summed it up best: “The last degree of caution is cowardice.”

Certainty is an illusion. Perfect safety is a mirage. Zero is always unattainable, except in the case of absolute zero where, as you remember, all motion and life itself stop.

You are leaving here ready for leadership. Your academic records say so. The history of Purdue graduates says so. The character you demonstrated this last year, when your embrace of the Purdue Pledge enabled this place to stay open at all, clearly says so.

We expect, no, we know, that you will tackle leadership’s challenges as they present themselves to you. You’re taking with you the tools to weigh alternatives, balance priorities, assess relative risks. All you’ll need is the courage to act on the conclusions you reach.

Now take that readiness into a fearful, timid world crying for direction and boldness, where the biggest risk of all is that we stop taking risks at all.

Hail Purdue, and each of you.


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