Annual Open Letter to the People of Purdue from Mitch Daniels
January 9, 2017
I enjoyed the great good fortune of knowing Gen. Jimmy Doolittle, pioneer aviator and war hero, during the last few years of his life. The general is best remembered for conceiving and pulling off the impossibly audacious air raid of Tokyo just months after Pearl Harbor, lifting American morale and signaling to the Japanese that they had chosen the wrong foe for their sneak attack.
But long before his World War II exploits, Jimmy Doolittle was perhaps the nation’s most innovative developer of the young field of manned flight. A serious scholar as well as a brave pilot, he studied at MIT between the wars. He became the first pilot to fly blind, by instruments alone, and developed the concept of high-octane fuel. He led the growth of aviation technology through both thought and deed; he would have made a perfect Boilermaker.
The general has been on my mind lately because of the nickname he acquired during his storied career. He was called “the master of the calculated risk.” Although he took chances, often life-threatening ones, they were never merely reckless or exhibitionist. Rather, his innovations were always preceded by careful analysis that, in his considered judgment, justified the risks he undertook, in pursuit of the breakthroughs and progress he envisioned.
As 2017 opens at Purdue, we face a number of decisions that, while trivial compared to the mortal dangers Doolittle confronted, involve substantial risk of either misjudgment or outright failure. In each case, we have tried to think over the options carefully, and examined the risks of inaction alongside the odds of success. Several of the items in this year’s letter fall into this category of “calculated risk”; its readers are invited to make their own calculations.