Last week the Indiana Humanities Council gathered a large crowd of people together in the Columbia Club for a three-day event called the Indiana Leadership Summit. Representatives were there from the state's public and private sectors, including business, government, philanthropy, education and the arts. The theme for the conference was "The Next Indiana: The Urgency of Change."
We talk about change in Indiana as a way of papering over our failure of imagination to deal with problems we know we've had for a long time.
On Tuesday night, conference-goers heard Republican and Democrat candidates for governor, Mitch Daniels and Joe Kernan, individually speak to how they each would manage change in Indiana were they elected. The next day, a number of people commented on the civility and basic decency the candidates exhibited in their respective public interviews. The presence of Kernan and Daniels lent the proceedings that followed a sense of connection to the real world that sometimes seems tenuous at conferences like this.
On Wednesday morning, Thomas Snyder, president and CEO of Delco Remy International and chair of the Humanities Council, congratulated the council's leadership for its vision in identifying change as a crucial theme for our state. He went so far as to say that the council had shown uncommon foresight by identifying the urgency of change theme as early as 1999.
I thought I heard an echo. Ten years before, in 1989, I happened to work for the Indiana Humanities Council. At that time it was my job to edit a book about the state called Where We Live: Essays About Indiana. I wrote the Introduction that began thus: "Indiana is changing ... Change, the shifting and remodeling of circumstances and expectations, is probably the dominant characteristic of our time."
I bring this up only to make a point: If there is one constant in this state of ours, it is a tendency to think that by observing something - like change - we are actually doing something about it.
Change, of course, happens to us whether we do anything about it or not. You will be measurably older when you finish reading this column than you were when you started it. I cannot take responsibility for what happens to your brain cells during this period of time.
We talk about change in Indiana as a way of papering over our failure of imagination to deal with problems we know we've had for a long time. When did you last hear anybody bragging about Indiana's public schools system, or the quality of our environment, or, for that matter, our booming economy?
At the conference it became apparent that, in Indiana, we are trying to use change as a code word for policy. Change has a natural, organic and even inevitable sort of ring. It's something that happens because it needs to. For some reason this is more palatable than realizing that making our schools better or attracting new businesses here is going to require making decisions and altering behaviors.
That's hard for Hoosiers to swallow. As historian James Madison pointed out in an essay written for the conference: "Hoosiers were always committed to individual freedom and to the corollaries of low taxes and low expectations of government. Because government restricts freedom, they said, distrust it and expect little of it. Send to the state Legislature representatives who prefer small-town horse play and liar's bench inaction."
Other states - like Illinois, like Michigan, like Wisconsin - are in a hurry to create policies that solve problems and create opportunities. It's not that they necessarily have a greater belief in the power of government. No, as one of the conference speakers, G. Curtis Clark of IBM, put it, there's a general feeling out there that while you can't always run a government like a business, you can't run a government the way we've been running our governments, either.
Creativity is the key. And so, in some places, we're beginning to see novel collaborations taking shape that create unprecedented relationships between state and local governments, business, universities and philanthropic organizations.
The conference appearances by Daniels and Kernan underscored the fact that this is an election year. At a time like this, change can be more than an abstract principle. People can make it happen at the ballot box - to some extent. This situation plainly puts Joe Kernan at a disadvantage. Democrats have held the Governor's Office for 16 years and their record is, frankly, dismal. What's worse is that, so far, Kernan seems more committed to defending that record than in articulating a vision about where Indiana goes next.
Daniels has made the most of this. But he's also shown a troubling tendency to play to old-time Hoosier prejudice against government. Never mind that he oversaw the budget-busting Bush deficit as head of OMB in Washington. He wants us to think of him as a common sense businessman. He says we have to change the way government is run - fine. Nothing in his record or in what he's had to say suggests he has a handle on a creative alternative.
Change happens. But unless we learn to think clearly and speak plainly, the changes we'll be seeing will look the way they usually do in Indiana - like more of the same, only less.