WEST LAFAYETTE —
Mitch Daniels still occasionally gets called “governor” in deference to the eight years he spent as Indiana’s chief executive. Thirteen months after leaving office, the old title is the exception to his honorific as Purdue University’s high-profile “President Daniels.”
The ambitious agenda set by Daniels — including a tuition freeze that broke 36 years of price increases — has captured the kind of national attention he once earned as the state’s outspoken conservative governor. Daniels now enters his second year at the helm of Purdue with an expanded set of priorities but a continued commitment to cost cutting.
“For a land-grant university like Purdue, affordability is especially important,” said Daniels, who earned the nickname “The Blade” as head of the Office of Management and Budget for President George W. Bush. “We were put here to open the gates of higher education to people of all income levels.”
Daniels is no stranger to national attention; at one time he was a potential Republican candidate for the White House. But in recent months he’s been appearing in the news sections of Bloomberg, Politico and the Wall Street Journal touting higher education reform.
Last summer he was presented as a national “thought leader” at an NBC-sponsored education summit where he talked about college access as a remedy to income inequality. In January, the Chronicle for Higher Education described him as “perhaps the most high-profile nontraditional college leader” in the nation.
“You know me,” Daniels said during a recent interview in his Purdue office. “I’m restless until I know we’ve got something big to move on.”
In his first year leading Indiana’s second-largest university, with more than 38,700 students, Daniels made big moves to rein in what he sees as the runaway costs of higher education. He instituted a two-year tuition freeze, which he now wants to extend into a third year, while calling for $40 million in university-wide spending cuts.
He also emphasized his focus on holding the university accountable to students who shoulder heavy debt and face uncertain job prospects, by pressing the faculty and staff to come with up performance-based metrics on which they can be graded.
He did so while often repeating the phrase, “College costs too much and delivers too little.”
Daniels also enters his second year having quieted some his critics.
When Purdue trustees named him to head the 145-year-old institution known best for its engineering, agriculture and veterinary schools, faculty leaders questioned picking a politician with a law degree as a university president. And they sharply criticized his record as a governor who reduced education spending and cut the state workforce by 7,000 employees.
“We couldn’t be on more different planets politically,” said David Williams, chairman of the faculty’s University Senate. “But I’ve come to believe he’s the right man at the right time in the right place.”
Williams said he hopes that Daniels — once a top executive for the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. — uses his business acumen and political expertise to help Purdue thrive as more colleges and universities show serious signs of stress.
He said he now appreciates why the Purdue president keeps asking what he calls the “pajamas test question.” That is: With the advent of inexpensive and credible online learning, why would anyone want to leave the comfort of home to attend a costly traditional college?
“I’ve come to see him as a change agent,” Williams said of the 64-year-old Daniels. “It’s been good to have somebody like him. He’s forcing us to ask questions that we’ve long avoided asking ourselves.”
Still, Daniels can’t completely shake off his legacy as governor.
Last July, he drew fire when The Associated Press published emails revealing that, as governor in 2010, Daniels suggested banning from schools the book, “A People’s History of the United States,” written by the liberal historian Howard Zinn. In response, some Purdue professors and students staged a protest reading of the book after accusing Daniels of disrespecting the core tenets of academic freedom. As an added poke, they announced the creation of a Howard Zinn Memorial Scholarship.
Daniels noted at the time that he’d expressed an opinion that Zinn’s book should not be taught in public schools, which he said doesn’t undermine his commitment to academic freedom at Purdue.
Daniels has been beset by other controversies, as well.
Earlier this year, he again upset critics when he declined to take an official stand as Purdue president on the debate over the proposed amendment to the state constitution that would ban gay marriage — a proposal he supported as governor. The presidents of Indiana University, Wabash College, DePauw University and Butler University have all been vocal opponents.
And last month, after a tragic campus shooting that left a 21-year-old student dead and another student charged with murder, some faculty members criticized him for failing to push for more gun control laws as governor.
Daniels said he won’t let controversy distract from his mission of being “fully focused on Purdue.” In the aftermath of the shooting, he asked faculty and staff to weigh in on campus security measures.
“We’ve all got a lot to learn here,” he said. “I don’t know what the right answer is. We’ll try to find out.”
Meanwhile, he remains focused on the 10-point plan he crafted during his first year as president. The “Purdue Moves” plan calls for more private investment in research at a time of dwindling federal dollars. It pushes faculty to embrace technology in the classroom to catch up with tech-savvy students.
And it commits the university to a new accountability metric designed to measure Purdue’s impact on graduates’ careers and quality of life. That new metric is called the Gallup-Purdue Index. It’s the result of a partnership Daniels forged with the Gallup polling organization.
Through it, researchers will collect data over the next several years from thousands of college graduates from Purdue and elsewhere. Beyond measuring what alumni earn, it will ask graduates about their well-being and workplace engagement to see how a college education impacts later happiness in life.
Daniels won support for the index from the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, the nation’s largest private foundation dedicated to increasing college completion. Lumina president Jamie Merisotis said the Index reflects Daniels’ willingness — not always welcomed by his peers — to upset the higher education apple cart.
“He dove into his new job without hesitation,” Merisotis said, of Daniels’ willingness to acknowledge that universities are under increasing pressure to deliver much more for their students. “He’s really grappling (with changes in higher education) in the best possible way.”
In an open letter to the Purdue community explaining his priorities, Daniels warned that the university cannot rest on its laurels: “(H)istory is littered with extinct institutions, businesses, or entire industries that dallied in arrogant denial as the bases of their past success were undermined and washed away.”
The identity of “Governor Daniels” is also fast fading to the increased presence of “Purdue Mitch” on Twitter. His friendly, Purdue-centric tweets boost the Boilermakers and feature photos of him regularly dining with students in their residence halls. They’ve attracted more than 10,500 Twitter followers.
As for getting called “governor”: “It doesn’t happen much anymore,” he said. “I think people see me working on Purdue and on higher education. Whatever memory they may have of me as governor is fading away.”
— Maureen Hayden covers the Statehouse for the CNHI newspapers in Indiana. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @MaureenHayden