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Purdue President Mung Chiang on how he’ll follow up the “Daniels Decade”

Purdue University President Mung Chiang sat down for an interview with WBAA to discuss his priorities as president (Ben Thorp/WBAA News)
Purdue University President Mung Chiang sat down for an interview with WBAA to discuss his priorities as president (Ben Thorp/WBAA News)

Last year, Purdue University announced Mitch Daniels would be stepping down as president – and that his successor would be Mung Chiang, then-dean of the university’s College of Engineering.

In the first official month of his tenure as president, Chiang spoke with WBAA/WFYI’s Ben Thorp about how he plans to follow up the “Daniels Decade.”

The interview was conducted on Tuesday, Jan. 24.

Thorp: So I was looking through your resume, and I just want to kind of talk about everything that I'm seeing there. You taught at Princeton, you served as the dean in the Purdue College of Engineering, you've got 25 U.S. patents under your belt, and patents in the College of Engineering went up 40 percent during your tenure as the dean there. And you're also the recipient of the Alan T. Waterman Award, which is the most prestigious U.S. award for scientists under 40. What do you want people to take away from your background as an inventor and entrepreneur? And how do you think that's going to translate into your leadership here at Purdue?

Chiang: Well, the number one lesson I learned, whether it's running my research lab – used to be an engineer, now I'm just an administrator. But whether it's in my research work, my teaching work, serving in the U.S. government, in the State Department, or in my private sector startup experience, you know, the number one lesson that I learned is the who before the what: it's all about the team that you have. So I think perhaps one common theme of everything that I've been able to work on so far is a reflection of the team that it was able to be part of. And here at Purdue, we've got an outstanding team. We've got great faculty and students and staff, we've got great neighbors, and staff and alumni and partners. So with this kind of team, we can really go places.

Thorp: From sitting in the trustee meetings and talking with President Daniels as he exited, the big theme seems to be how a transition in leadership will maintain the success and growth of the previous administration. How do you see your role here?

Chiang: Well, Ben, you know, it's going to be Daniels decade, continuing into the future decades. We've had a tremendous momentum with Mitch as a transformational visionary leader and we're going to continue that momentum going forward, with one exception that I've mentioned in front of Ways and Means hearing as well, earlier this month, from Harley Davidson to Häagen-Dazs. So I don't know how to ride a Harley Davidson – you don't want to see me try. But I do consume a lot of ice cream of all brands. Other than that, it’s going to be, you know, full speed ahead and full continuity.

Thorp: I think a lot of people will be asking this, so I'm just gonna make it pretty direct.

How's your leadership going to be different from Mitch Daniels? And how do you see yourself as a different kind of leader?

Chiang: Well, you know, clearly I do not have the experience that Mitch had in national and state leadership roles. I'm a nerdy engineer, I live my life in the academic world. Although I did, as you mentioned, have some experiences in the private sector with my startup companies, working with tech companies, I did serve our country for one year in Washington, D.C. But you know, by and large, I'm an academic person. So you know, nerdy engineers, or just nerds in general I guess, are gonna do things very much related to the academic side of the world.

And I think we've got a lot of outstanding students here. Not all of them are STEM students, by the way. We are proud to be the largest STEM undergraduate source of talent for the country, among the top 63 research universities in America today. But we also recognize there are outstanding students and faculty across the entire campus in many other areas as well. So I'm just proud to serve and think of this role as a role to accelerate and amplify other people's success here on campus.

Thorp: You've been holding a number of listening sessions and now are through one of three expected town hall sessions meeting with the campus community. What are you hearing? And what are you hoping to kind of learn from those sessions?

Chiang: Well, indeed, I've had a great time during the six months of transition to have many listening sessions. Some are around the state – covered almost 40 counties – and by the end of this fiscal year, end of June, I will have covered all 92 counties, listening to our neighbors. Purdue has an extension presence in each and every one of those. I've had many rounds of dining court conversations with students, faculty listening sessions, conversation going on right now, and town halls with undergraduate and graduate students coming up this week.

First, I'm just deeply appreciative of the Boiler pride. So many Boilermakers doing great work – an immense honor to serve them. And second is that I'm also gathering some recurrent themes. You know, Ben, when you sit down with a few folks in the room, they don't agree on everything among themselves either. And I'm learning from them, and they might have just met each other for the first time. But sometimes you'll pick up like a lot of people keep bringing up certain points, and that makes you want to dive in. And that's why on day one, we created the student housing and well-being Action Council.

Thorp: Okay, so I'm so glad that you brought that up. I was going to ask you about some of the key focuses that I've already seen, and those appear to me to be housing and mental health issues among students. Maybe let's start with mental health. Why is that a key priority? And how is Purdue going to address that here on campus?

Chiang: We're hearing from our undergrad and grad students, a lot from parents, from staff members, that mental health is important to our student’s overall well-being, in addition to safety, and physical health. We recognized that as a priority, and therefore, within the first week, we said we are going to invest in staffing levels and in general service levels so that anybody with a need and they're ready to talk to someone, a professional, then we will not let them wait: whether for the first appointment or for future return appointments. So we're going to add enough capacity on the supply side in services such as those run by CAPS on campus to meet that demand.

Thorp: One of the senses that I've gotten from reading your letters is that there's going to be this renewed focus on faculty and staff in this first year, especially with your decision to step away from the Purdue Research Foundation for just that first year. Talk to me about why you're taking this approach.

Chiang: Well, look, Purdue is a large, complex organization, and there's a lot that I hope to be able to contribute in serving our faculty, staff, and students on this campus. We have Purdue Research Foundation right next door, it is a legally separate entity, nonprofit. And I'm so glad that the Purdue Research Foundation's own board of directors agreed to my suggestion last fall, to consider requesting Mitch Daniels to continue his role as the chair of the board. And I'm so glad that Mitch, upon listening to their plea agreed to continue to serve in that capacity leading the governing board.

Because we've got important activities. In addition to what we just talked about, for example, economic development opportunities to the Greater Lafayette, including Discovery Park District. For example, our presence in Indianapolis, including working with the state and civic and business community leaders in Indianapolis. Those two in particular are very important issues. A lot of those activities happen within Purdue Research Foundation – we've got a great team led by the president of the Foundation, Brian Edelman, and the whole team that he put together, but also the governing board. Having Mitch there continuing as the chair of the board is going to be very, very helpful.

Thorp: Talk a little bit more, is it for you just about juggling all the new duties as you step into this role? Or is it about saying, I really want to make sure that we're doing the academic and the student side correctly before I step into this kind of dual role as also managing some of our kind of more economic development projects ?

Chiang: You said it better than I could have.

Thorp: Okay. I want to touch on housing as well because you brought it up. What I'm hearing from the city of West Lafayette are some concerns about how quickly admissions have ramped up and a feeling  - this is from city councilors - that admissions ramped up without consideration of housing in the region, that there wasn't enough housing to meet the demands. And so what can you tell me about how Purdue is going to address some of these housing shortages? And can we expect more on-campus housing or is the hope that the city will step up and provide more housing and apartment complexes?

Chiang: Well, first of all, it's interesting to look at the number of applicants to our undergraduate population. That number, even after discounting for the Common App boost to almost every school's applicant numbers, rose by about 75 percent over the last eight, nine years. That is tremendous growth. And right now we are looking at this year, perhaps another record year in the number of applicants from high schools, throughout our state, and the United States, and globally. We are actually turning away so many more applicants each year now. And we can’t help if just so many more people want to come to Purdue and get a chance to be admitted.

And now the university has been investing in the housing situation, including the Aspire apartment purchase, turning into student dorms. Now, having said that, of course, we always would like to be one brick higher, if you will. And we are through this Action Council on student housing and well-being, which encompasses undergrad, grad student reps, a parent, and all relevant units across the entire campus, working together and reporting back to the president and the Board of Trustees with recommendations. So I'm very optimistic that there will be a lot of further positive actions taken.

Thorp: I'm also hearing from some graduate workers about their desire for a higher wage here at the university. You know, they point at language in your letter that you put out earlier this year calling graduate workers, “the engine that powers our research and teaching missions” as a kind of a cause for hope. Is there a chance that we might see an increase in the graduate stipends, and our kind of graduates are calling for an increase from $24,000 as the base to something closer to $31,000 as the base. What are your thoughts on that?

Chiang: Well, first of all, the university has always, and we'll continue to recognize the important roles that our graduate students play in both research and teaching. And that includes master's students, as well as PhD students and professional students. And we deeply appreciate them. I've had the chance to work with more than 50 PhD students and postdocs in my own lab, at Purdue and at a prior institution. And in fact, about half of them have become professors in research universities themselves. So they've also had PhD students. Some actually are now professors too. So when I go to, say – conferences, [the] Wireless Network Conference – I get to see my academic great-grandchild, for example – I mean, it's scary. But you know, it is a very important part of academic life.

Now as a university, we have been investing – for example, about a year ago now, the university invested resources to boost the student stipend for PhD students. And some colleges – including the largest college in terms of research and graduate students, college of engineering that I used to be the dean of – prior to that, already invested to elevate the entirety of the graduate student stipend profile from the minimum, to the median, to the higher end to be competitive. And we recognize that we got to compete for the best talents against our peer institutions, with inflation and with what other institutions are doing. We got to stay competitive.

So part of the student housing and well-being, even though we didn't spell it out in the name of the Action Council, is going to be about graduate students and there will be an action committee focused on graduate student stipends.

Thorp: And figuring out, I guess, what is a fair stipend?

Chiang: Well, you know, I think again, some colleges started doing that – university as a whole, a year ago, put in a substantial investment to elevate stipends. That's reflected in both TAs and RAs – teaching assistants and research assistants. Teaching assistants are funded by university’s central fund. Research assistants are, generally speaking, put in the budget to external research funding agencies by professors. So we've put in mechanisms to elevate both – and this is something that matters to me, matters to the university, significantly. So this year, through this Action Council, we will continue to evaluate what further actions we can take on the graduate student stipend this year.

Thorp: And are we going to get results from this Action Council this year? I mean, do you have a sense for a timeline here?

Chiang: Well, it's called Action Council, and I put the word action in there to highlight that this is not just a general conversation. We are driven by a sense of purpose. And we want to do things with intent and intentionality and intensity. So that's a lot of alliterations there. We will very much be geared towards action-driven recommendations from the Action Council, and then it will be for the Board of Trustees to have a conversation about it as well. So I'm very optimistic that we realize we’ve got to be competitive, and we’ve got to attract and retain the best talents among our graduate students. And we will be taking actions.

Thorp: In your first town hall, you reportedly talked about, again, both of these issues, housing and compensation for staff being a priority. I think that may beg the question here - if we see increases in terms of where university funding is going there, is there a danger that the university's decade-long tuition freeze may be coming to a close?

Chiang: Well, you know, it's interesting. You are not the first one asking me that question. I got that from back in June last year, you know – people started asking me once they heard the announcement of me becoming Purdue’s next president, saying ‘So, Mung, what about the tuition freeze? Are you going to continue it?’ Well, I assure you and all your audiences, as I assured others, that affordability remains a top priority in the minds of Purdue.

We are so proud that not only we saved many families, parents, and students a lot of their future income or their current savings. But also we believe that it is part of our DNA to enable student access and success. So that as a public land grant institution, Purdue University will be enabling pathways whereby more lives will be lifted and uplifted. So affordability will remain a priority. And the Board of Trustees, and myself, have made it clear that we intend to continue tuition freeze for as long as we can.

Now, we will always evaluate this on an annual basis. So we do it year by year. And depending on all factors considered, then we make a recommendation to the Board of Trustees, and then they vote and decide for the following fiscal year. So we'll see what's going to happen in the coming trustees meeting.

Thorp: But you're saying the goal is to maintain it for as long as possible?

Chiang: We will maintain the tuition freeze for as long as possible. And we're going to do it as we have always done on an annual basis.

Thorp: You traveled with Gov. Holcomb last year as part of an effort to meet with foreign businesses in Taiwan and South Korea. We've seen a number of recent announcements about the companies coming to West Lafayette, and Daniels teased a few more would be coming as he left. Talk to me about what other developments we might see in the West Lafayette region.

Chiang: Well, you know, first I think that bringing in more tech companies and their jobs to our neighborhood is something that's very good for our students. They can intern there, they can do co-op there, they can do projects with the companies. It’s very good for our faculty members, because the professors can work on research, collaboration, write proposals together, and maybe turn some of their research into deployable technologies. It's very good for our town and the Greater Lafayette region. As more jobs are going to create more wealth, and therefore more opportunities for quality of life, education systems, health care systems, and so on. As I travel across all these counties, what I see often as a recurring theme – again, a lot of differences among the counties, but a recurring theme is – if you care about broadband, you care about quality of life, you care about schools, you care about your hospitals, then you do want population, wealth, and job creation.

So Purdue, as a public land grant, is proud to be an economic growth engine for our state of Indiana, and co-generate what I would call the three elements: workforce talents, jobs and careers, and knowledge together. So talents, jobs, and knowledge co-creation, with a quality at a scale that is second to none in the United States, as is our basketball team today. I don't know when you are airing this recorded interview. But as of today, we are the number one basketball team in America. So we do that second to none, with a quality and a scale that is second to none in the U.S. Now, it is also true that in addition to the successes over the past couple of years, we've got some interesting upcoming ones too.

For example, just last Friday, we celebrated Stratolaunch. That this is a hypersonic company, a very innovative aerospace company. And they are headquartered in the desert in California. But now they are opening an advanced program office right here in the Convergent Center in Discovery Park District. So there'll be a few more coming, working hard as one single team with the Greater Lafayette region, with our neighbors. We just had a wonderful dinner reception for them last night, and with the state of Indiana, especially IEDC and Secretary Chambers.

Thorp: Anything I'm not asking you about this and about things that you're thinking about as you come into this role that you want to say or you think is important to mention?

Chiang: Well, let's see, we did talk about basketball. We did talk about ice cream. We did talk about housing and well-being. You know, I do hope we can talk a bit about, you know, there's something special about Purdue. And it's a unique combination of excellence and values. It’s a unique combination of excellence at scale. I'm a person who likes to draw charts. I know it's hard to do that on radio, but let's try it together with your audience.

Draw a two-dimensional chart. On one axis, it is scale – how big is the place? How many students? How many faculty? And how many are you educating? How many patents, generally? How many research results? On the y axis is the quality, is the excellence, however you measure that. Okay, now, if you look at where Purdue University sits, it is at that top right corner in this 2D graph here, right? So that excellence at scale is something truly remarkable. How can you be bigger and better at the same time?

Now, just this morning, say, it was announced that in this year’s U.S. News World Report ranking of online programs, Purdue’s online Engineering Program is one notch higher, number two in America now. And at the same time, we're able to expand the number of master online students by many factors in the last few years. So bigger and better. Always one brick higher in both dimensions is not easy. It's not easy. But, well, the Boilermakers have been able to make it work. We'll continue to do that.

Thorp: I think that puts a nice cap on things. Because at the beginning I asked is the goal here to maintain growth and you're saying the goal is to maintain growth, but also quality?

Chiang: Yes, absolutely. Quality, individualized attention to our students, whether they're undergrad or grad, whether they're online or residential, and providing agile curricula that meet their needs, while at the same time groundbreaking research. Research that sometimes have a direct societal impact, sometimes save lives. You know, we are revitalizing a lot of the events post-COVID, one of which is the Westwood lecture series.

We invited one of our own faculty, professor Chi Hwan Lee, who has appointments in multiple colleges and departments here, and he's going to talk about sticker-like biomedical devices. That's going to help make people who are almost blind to be able to see clearly. Talking about injecting these little tiny devices onto your skin to detect disease before they get too bad. And that's just one of the thousands of examples. I just can't tell you how excited and humbled I am to be able to serve alongside all these talents and serve them well.

Thorp: Last question and hardest question. How far is Purdue basketball gonna go this year?

Chiang: It's gonna go as far as I guess number one. Well, you know, it's a ballgame. You can never predict the results. There are strong teams out there – we respect them. But so far, we've seen just an outstanding team working together. And we're proud of all our student-athletes. And in this particular case, well, hey, I'm knocking right here on this wood. I will very much be excited to see a Final Four. And beyond that, as you know, it's sort of hard to tell, or competing at the highest level. It depends on a lot of other factors. But I think we're in it to win it. And we're determined to be outstanding in everything we choose to do.

Thorp: President, thank you for your time.

Chiang: Thank you, Ben. Good to be here.