Questions are brewing about how Gov. Mitch Daniels would run Purdue University once he is selected as its new president this week.
IBJ and other media outlets, all citing anonymous sources, reported that Purdue's Board of Trustees will vote Thursday to name Daniels to succeed France Cordova as president of the state's second-largest university. Cordova will retire next month after five years at Purdue's helm.
Daniels will step down as governor in January after eight years in office. State law bars him from seeking a third term.
He is set to become the 12th president of Purdue, which has about 75,000 students on its West Lafayette and regional campuses.
Daniels declined to answer questions from reporters Wednesday morning about his future following an economic development announcement event in Indianapolis.
Daniels did said Wednesday that he believes changes are needed to how higher education is approached. He says more people who've attended college have loan debt than degrees and that situation can't be sustained.
The 63-year-old Daniels would not be subject to a rule that requires most Purdue administrators to retire at age 65. Trustees vice chairman Thomas Spurgeon said Tuesday that under university policy, newly hired people can stay in their post until they can build a $44,000 annuity. He said that typically takes seven to eight years.
There is little question Daniels has support among the 10-member board of trustees: He appointed eight of them, including three he re-appointed on Tuesday.
Daniels, who received a bachelor's degree from Princeton University in 1971 and a law degree from Georgetown University in 1979, will be the first president of Purdue without extensive experience administering higher education. But he's no stranger to new endeavors: He had never run for elective office before his first gubernatorial run eight years ago.
His other former jobs include White House budget director, president of Eli Lilly and Co.'s North American Pharmaceutical Operations, CEO of the Hudson Institute conservative think tank, chief of staff to Sen. Richard Lugar and a senior adviser to President Ronald Reagan.
Daniels declined last year to seek the Republican presidential nomination, citing family considerations, but has been mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate to presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney.
While his appointment at Purdue likely will end that talk, Indianapolis Republican strategist Mike Murphy said it could give Daniels a strong launch pad should he seek office again later.
"It provides Mitch with a great national platform, a la Woodrow Wilson at Princeton," he said.
Indiana Democrats, who have spent the last eight years scrapping with Daniels, said his appointment will cloud the perception of Purdue as a non-partisan institution. State Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City, said the university's decisions under his tenure would be viewed through the "kaleidoscope" of Republican interests.
However, Dennis Barden, senior vice president with Illinois-based executive search firm Witt/Kiefer, said Daniels would clearly meet the needs of the job as a university president, which is increasingly dominated by fundraising and external relations.
"Purdue is just taking what I would think is an enormously giant leap in terms of working with the Legislature," said Barden, who once ran Witt/Kiefer's higher education practice.
Cordova is retiring next month after leading the school for five years. She turns 65 in August.
Daniels has been rumored to be a candidate since Cordova announced in July 2011 that she would retire.
Michael Berghoff, the Purdue trustee who has chaired the presidential search committee, wouldn’t comment on the rumors about Daniels during an interview with IBJ in March. But he did acknowledge that the Purdue trustees were looking for someone who had the ability both to raise money and to make the university operate efficiently.
“Perhaps five years ago, 10 years ago, the financial piece was mostly about fundraising,” said Berghoff, a Purdue alumnus who is president of Lenex Steel Corp. in Indianapolis. “Now, the financial piece is about fundraising as well as about operations.”
Daniels will take Purdue’s helm amid major challenges facing the university and its peers. U.S. public research universities like Purdue are facing clouds ahead, after roughly 20 years of “boom times,” wrote higher education analysts at New York-based Moody’s Investors Service in a December report. Students and parents increasingly can’t absorb massive tuition hikes, and state funding has not kept pace with inflation.
“It’s definitely a tougher environment,” said Diane Viacava, Moody’s analyst following Purdue, which Moody’s assigns its highest credit rating. “Although higher education remains highly desirable, it is increasingly competitive.”
Purdue is the state’s seventh-largest employer, with 15,000 workers. Its well-regarded programs in science, technology, engineering, computers and agriculture churn out a steady stream of the workers employers want.
In addition, its professors’ research can produce the technical innovations needed to launch new high-value products and companies that have the best shot of reversing Indiana’s long decline, relative to the rest of the nation, in personal incomes.