Purdue University, known for its outstanding academic programs, has long sought a higher national profile. Choosing Mitch Daniels as its president should go a long way toward achieving that goal.
News that the governor will become Purdue’s 12th president in January when his second term ends immediately set off discussion of the benefits and challenges of Daniels leading the state’s second-largest research institution.
Among the immediate benefits for Purdue is the attention that will come from naming a leader who has been in the national spotlight, first as budget chief for President George W. Bush, then as a highly respected governor. Most recently, Daniels’ flirtation with the idea of running for president made him, at least temporarily, a political rock star.
Even before Purdue’s official announcement of his hiring, the news was covered by national media from The New York Times to the Washington Post. The hiring of a Big Ten university president rarely receives such attention.
Daniels’ name recognition and political savvy will shine a light on Purdue, positioning the university to take fundraising to another level and grow what is already one of the country’s largest public university endowments.
Even more intriguing will be how he applies his penchant for efficiency and results to a major university. You can expect Daniels to give the university a thorough going-over, all in an attempt to produce the best result for its students at the lowest cost.
That’s sure to produce some winners and losers in the Purdue system. University assets that he deems valuable but underused will get a boost. Bloated or underperforming units will be reformed, streamlined or eliminated. It won’t be business as usual for some entrenched university employees.
A governor who hammered the state’s public universities for spending too much money and failing to keep tuition in check will get a chance to turn conviction into action, and the world—at the very least administrators in Bloomington and legislators in Indianapolis—will be watching.
Daniels’ desire for efficiency and results isn’t likely to be much different in West Lafayette than it’s been at the Statehouse, but he’ll be dealing with different constituents.
Students and alumni aren’t voters, and faculty members aren’t state legislators.
Daniels, a top-notch executive who’s used to being the smartest guy in the room, will need to tread lightly with the intelligent, passionate group of people he’ll interact with at Purdue. Many of them won’t be happy about having a non-academic running the university. Daniels the political candidate might need to be more present than Daniels the blunt executive, at least in the early going.
The challenges will be numerous, but when the history of Daniels’ Purdue presidency is written, we expect the consensus will be that the governor was a bold choice and a transformative leader.•
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