WASHINGTON – The Wall Street Journal recently ranked Purdue University as the fifth-best public school in the nation and the 43rd overall. That’s heady recognition but not enough to attract much attention from Hoosier politicians. In the political world, there are plenty of volatile issues for members of Congress to navigate. They step gingerly into the fray, making sure to emphasize the message of the day that will be most helpful to them.
That’s what makes something like Purdue’s ranking an inviting respite. To use an analogy based on Indiana’s favorite sport, it’s a layup for a lawmaker who wants to promote good news about the state. Why not celebrate Purdue’s once again placing highly in the Journal’s ratings? But only one member of the Indiana congressional delegation said anything. Rep. Jim Banks, R-3rd CD, tweeted: “Not surprised that Purdue is thriving with @purduemitch at the helm.”
Indeed, the WSJ’s ranking is another example of how Purdue is advancing since Daniels took over as president nearly five years ago. One thing Daniels hasn’t been able to change, however, is the fact that Purdue continues to be overshadowed by Indiana University when it comes to adoration from Indiana politerati, despite the fact that Daniels himself came to Purdue from the top of the Hoosier political mountain following his two terms as governor.
At this point, I have to make a full disclosure: I’m a Purdue partisan. I’m a proud alum and an annual donor. I have been a loyal Boilermaker fan since elementary school, when my sister was earning her pharmacy degree at Purdue.That means that I’ve now spent decades in the Purdue minority. We’re outnumbered by the Indiana partisans – a combination of alums and other IU backers, many of whom joined the ranks when Bobby Knight worship was at its zenith.
But the Knight situation is instructive. Yes, he won three national championships, but former Purdue Coach Gene Keady had a winning record against him and achieved great success without the controversy that Knight foisted on IU. That’s kind of the way it goes with Purdue. The school consistently excels, but often does so under the radar, at least in Indiana.
Now that I’ve lived more of my life outside of Indiana – 25 years in Washington, D.C., and almost one year, just after graduating from Purdue, in New York City – than in Indiana, I have a new perspective on the Purdue-IU rivalry. In the state, the Bloomington school dominates. But once you cross the border, Purdue becomes the better known of the two.
This essay is not meant as a criticism of IU. I wish IU well academically. I want IU professors to discover cures for diseases and win Nobel Prizes. I want IU grads to get great jobs and become leaders in their fields. Each of those IU victories is good for the state.
When it comes to sports, I follow the philosophy on the popular t-shirt: My two favorite teams are Purdue and whoever is playing IU. It’s fun to mix it up with Hoosier fans about what occurs on athletic courts and fields. In this arena, though, we again see a political tilt toward IU. For instance, when Purdue made it to the Sweet 16 last year, the achievement was mostly ignored by Hoosier pols. If – okay, when – IU basketball makes it back to that level, we won’t hear the end of it from the state’s politicians. There will probably be daily tweets during the NCAA tournament wishing IU good luck.
The Wall Street Journal ranking is a more serious a matter deserving the attention of Hoosier politicians. It’s true that rankings can be disputed, especially by schools at the bottom of the lists. The Journal survey is different from most. Its assessment is based on outcomes (graduates’ salaries and debt loads), resources (the amount schools spend on “instruction and academic services”), engagement (students’ interactions with faculty and other students) and environment (the diversity of the campus community).
Out of more than 1,000 universities in the survey, Purdue placed 43rd overall and fifth among state schools. It tied for the best student-faculty ratio (12:1) of any public school in the Top 100. “These institutions proved they could offer a low-cost option, often to a more diverse student body, and provide comparable outcomes to the private schools that dominate the top of the charts,” WSJ reporter Melissa Korn wrote in a story about the state schools in the rankings.
Next year, I hope IU can join Purdue near the top of the WSJ state-school list, perhaps Purdue at three and IU at five. Maybe then all Indiana politicians will take note.

Schoeff is HPI’s Washington correspondent.