A Year of Surprises at Purdue

Purdue U.

Mitchell E. Daniels Jr.
January 13, 2014

Several months before Purdue University selected Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., Indiana's conservative Republican governor, as its president, a faculty-led committee outlined the qualities that it wanted to see in the institution's next leader.

It was essential, the 24-member advisory committee said, that the next president have strong academic credentials. "Mitch Daniels," says David J. Williams, University Senate chair, "was the last person on earth I would have pictured as president."

To some of Mr. Williams's faculty colleagues as well, it seemed unthinkable that Purdue, a public land-grant university, could be led by someone like Mr. Daniels, who had presided over state budget cuts in education during his eight years as governor. The cards seemed to be stacked against Mr. Daniels.

But as Mr. Daniels, who is 64, marks one year at Purdue, much has changed.

"I've come to view Mitch as a change agent," says Mr. Williams, a professor of medical illustration in Purdue's College of Veterinary Medicine. "It's been good to have somebody like him, who's forcing us to ask questions that we've long avoided asking ourselves."

Mr. Daniels says his first year has been about consensus building. Through meetings and meals with faculty members and student leaders—"sweat equity," he calls it—Mr. Daniels has quickly won favor among many across the university.

In March he announced plans to freeze tuition for the next two years, becoming the first Purdue president in nearly four decades to forgo a tuition increase; the process that led to that decision, he says, involved months of conversations with university stakeholders.

"I was once told, 'If he does his job, nobody on a campus learns more than a university president,'" Mr. Daniels says. "That's certainly been the case with me."

Much of what Mr. Daniels has learned over the past year, he says, has been unexpected. It came as a surprise, for example, when he realized how isolated academic departments at Purdue are from one another. "That makes executive action a little different from my time as governor," he says. "You have to find ways to draw people together across boundaries that they don't naturally cross."

Mr. Daniels, who received a bachelor's degree from Princeton University's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and a law degree from Georgetown University, is part of a small but growing cohort of college leaders who come from nontraditional backgrounds. In 2011 one in five presidents came from outside higher education, according to a report by the American Council on Education; in 2006 just 13 percent did.

As perhaps the most high-profile nontraditional president today, Mr. Daniels has quickly become a leading national spokesman on higher education, with an avalanche of opportunities over the past year to give interviews and speeches. Those opportunities, he says, have enabled him to raise Purdue's national profile.

Last month, for example, Mr. Daniels announced an unprecedented university partnership with Gallup. Through it, researchers will collect data over the next several years from thousands of college graduates from Purdue and elsewhere, in an effort to measure what effect college had on graduates' careers and quality of life.

The heightened attention that has followed Mr. Daniels, though, has brought with it heightened criticism. Mr. Daniels came under fire last July after a series of emails obtained by the Associated Press revealed that, as governor in 2010, he wanted to ban from Indiana institutions the teaching of the writings of Howard Zinn, the liberal historian who is best known for A People's History of the United States, a wildly popular but controversial American-history textbook. Professors took the emails as a sign that Mr. Daniels did not understand and respect the core tenets of academic freedom.

Then, in October, Mr. Daniels was criticized for giving a speech at a conservative think tank. Making the speech, some professors said, showed that Mr. Daniels was politicizing the presidency.

That Mr. Daniels was able to move past both incidents with little lasting damage is a sign of his collaborative nature, says Thomas E. Spurgeon, chair of Purdue's Board of Trustees. "As governor," Mr. Spurgeon says, "he wasn't always the most popular guy, and he's learned to engage with his detractors."

Mr. Daniels's cut-and-slash budgeting approach as director of the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush—he earned the nickname "The Blade"—is similar to his approach as governor and as a university president.When he announced the tuition freeze at Purdue, he said the university would have to cut $40-million to make up for lost revenue. The announcement of those cuts did not sit well with some professors, who said that Mr. Daniels was slashing the institution's budget blindly.

As Mr. Daniels becomes an increasingly influential commentator on higher education, some have speculated that the Purdue presidency may be merely a platform for him to relaunch his political career. Many Republican powerbrokers wanted Mr. Daniels to run for president in 2012; he decided against entering the race, citing family considerations.

With several years of experience leading a major research university, Mr. Daniels could be a compelling candidate for national office, if he were to choose to run. He insists, though, that he is in higher education for the long haul.

"The door was open in 2012 in a way that it will never be again," he says. "This has been an exciting and fascinating year, and I'm looking forward to many more like it."