Leadership & Governance

Mitch Daniels Finds Good Food and a Willingness to Change at Purdue

Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., Purdue University

October 19, 2015

Video produced by Carmen Mendoza and Julia Schmalz
Purdue's president began his job in January 2013 with no leadership experience in academe. What he has learned since then is that small but meaningful changes can lead to big savings for students.

 

ERIC KELDERMAN: We're here today with Mitch Daniels, currently the president of Purdue University since January, 2013 and before that, a very long career in politics and business, most notably as the Governor of Indiana. Welcome to The Chronicle, Mr. Daniels.

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: I appreciate being here.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Yeah, we're glad you could make it. You have become, I would say, something of a poster boy in news stories about university leaders that have come from outside academic backgrounds. And I want to know, from your point of view after almost three years on the job, when you look back, what are some of the most surprising or shocking or interesting things that you've learned about the university that you didn't know when you were, say, governor.

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: Oh, there are a lot of those. First of all, it's not that unusual. And I'm certainly not campaigning to be on anybody's poster There's a lot of people, many of whom I conferred with before I took up my duties-- David Boren, Bob Gates, lots and lots of people out there who came from other than a life in academia.

But still, plenty of surprises. Sometimes I start that answer by saying, the food. It's an extraordinary quality and variety of food that college students eat. I eat with students on a fairly frequent basis. And I always tease them about the fact that college food's not supposed to be like this.

But likewise, I think I've been pleasantly surprised by the receptiveness, at least on the Purdue campus, of people to try some new things and to commit, in our case particularly, to keeping a Purdue education while still rigorous and undiluted, affordable.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Before you took over the job, you said you were pleasantly surprised at people's willingness to change. Were you under the impression that change would be much more difficult at Purdue than it has been, say.

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: Oh, I didn't know what rate to expect. And don't get me wrong-- higher ed moves pretty slowly, relative to other realms. But everybody knows that. There are jokes about it and books about it. And I guess I'm just saying that I've found Purdue in this and other respects relatively a more congenial place to the sort of changes, but also just the sort of emphases that I think are important in higher ed today-- affordability, rigor, accountability, and so forth.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Before you even started your job, as you know, there was a lot of concern. There were critics out there that were worried that you would come to the university, that the budget cuts you would make would be draconian that might be targeted, for instance, at humanities or other large programs, that your past or your conservative political views might also somehow influence the direction or academic appointments, things like that.

What have you done over the past three years to sort of quell those concerns? And do you feel confident that you've sort of won over your critics at this point?

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: All I can say is there wasn't that much noise at the beginning. There hasn't been any for a long time. So I hope that anybody who was laboring under complete misperceptions like that, or misconceptions, has been pleasantly surprised.

No, I mean, we are serious about affordability. Purdue, you would know, we're midway through at least a four-year freeze on tuition, in and out of state. But we had a 3.5% salary increase, or pool for salary increases last year. Largest in our peer group. And maybe one of the largest anywhere.

So we're very committed to investing heavily in the university, making major investments-- expansion of our engineering college, computer science school, our so-called Purdue Polytechnic Institute, which is an interesting transformation of traditional pedagogy in that area, deep investments in research in highly specific and selected areas. So these things can coexist. And we're committed to all of them.

Those folks who had apprehensions in the beginning I hope are feeling a little differently now. And as for the liberal arts, I'm a product of the liberal arts.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Oh, you are?

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: I'm an advocate for the liberal arts. I've raised substantial money for endowed chairs and the like. And I see a bigger role, frankly, for them in Purdue's future. So working on all these fronts.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Right. When you talk about the savings for students-- and you've frozen tuition for four years and you've made, I believe it was, initially, a 5% reduction in room and board costs for students. And that's remained stable, right?

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: Yeah. Well, we did two of those.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Right

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: In board costs.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Oh, excellent. When you were poring over the budget, what were the areas that you found, I guess, most right for cuts?

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: Yeah. Well, there have been some significant steps forward. A good example is the health care plan, which was, I would say, very outmoded. And by modernizing it, making it more consumerist, first of all, we've seen rapid adoption from one quarter to three quarters of our faculty and staff have adopted a consumerist, HSA-type model. And they have lowered their premiums substantially. But the school has exceeded expectations in lowering the overall cost that were occurring. So that was one big stroke.

But the point I've made, Eric, very often-- learned it in business, seen it elsewhere, seen it government-- there are only so many places, I like to say, where you can take a cleaver and take a great big piece of fat out. The issue-- and I really see it in higher ed-- is the fat is marbled throughout the animal. And so you have to be willing to look everywhere. And you have to try to get others in the act, not do this top-down.

So for instance, when we first froze tuition, we asked the campus, everybody, please participate. We created an account to offset what would otherwise have been a 37th consecutive year of tuition increase and asked people to submit ideas for reductions, small or large. And we also asked people, if they wanted to, to forgo a pay increase. And many did.

This year, a variation on that. When we announced 3.5% increase, it's fair to say this was a positive surprise. But I did say every department, every college, every unit gets 3%, regardless. To get the extra half percent, we need you to come forward with a plan that will help us become a little more efficient, a plan for spending reductions, and in particular, a plan for better space utilization. Could you schedule more classes on slow periods than we currently have? This sort of thing.

So by the way, every unit, every college, and every administrative unit chose to earn the half a point--

ERIC KELDERMAN: Yeah.

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: And have more for everyone's salary. And we got, as I say, a lot of improvements across the campus that could not have been spotted by somebody sitting at the center.

ERIC KELDERMAN: Right. Great. Well, thank you very much for your time today.

MITCHELL E. DANIELS JR: Yeah, sure.

ERIC KELDERMAN: It's great having you here to The Chronicle.

 

Eric Kelderman writes about money and accountability in higher education, including such areas as state policy, accreditation, and legal affairs. You can find him on Twitter @etkeld, or email him at eric.kelderman@chronicle.com.