Purdue University Picks Indiana Governor as President

9:38 AM, Jun 20, 2012   |    comments
Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels (Getty)
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Indianapolis (written by John Russlel, Ryan Sabalow, & Mary Beth Schneider/Indianapolis Star) -- 

Purdue University's surprise choice of Gov. Mitch Daniels as its next president is being hailed by many as a coup for the university for his skill in fundraising and leadership.

However, it also is raising questions about whether he has the academic qualifications to lead Indiana's second-largest public university.

By choosing Daniels, Purdue snags a leader who will immediately be able to raise Purdue's profile even beyond its reputation for being a top-flight university for engineers and astronauts.

Daniels has built national recognition by winning two races for governor by wide margins, holding high-level positions in Washington and private industry, and briefly considering a run for the White House. He has deep connections in government and business, executive experience and international contacts.

Neither the governor's office nor Purdue would confirm the news of Daniels' selection. But several sources confirmed that Daniels is the choice of the 10-member board, eight of whom were appointed by Daniels. He will be announced Thursday as Purdue's 12th president after the board votes.

Daniels, whose second term as governor ends in January, will succeed France Córdova as leader of the university. She intends to leave the office July 15. An interim president is expected to bridge the gap.

The university's choice builds on the focus on education that Daniels has kept as governor, including helping to establish Western Governors University, an online option for nontraditional students, and pushing the legislature to reduce the number of credit hours it takes to achieve some degrees.

Dennis Barden, who performs university executive searches for Witt/Kieffer in Oak Brook, Ill., called Daniels' selection "a wow appointment."

"In terms of what a college president does today this is a huge, huge positive," he said. "This is a big win for Purdue."

But some at Purdue were more apprehensive, saying Daniels could have a huge learning curve. They also pointed out he has cut state financing for public universities, raising questions about his commitment to quality programs and affordable tuition. They wonder if Daniels is ready to lead an institution that offers more than 200 areas of study and enrolls nearly 40,000 students.

"I think the faculty would feel more comfortable with someone who has academic experience, someone who's stood in front of a class of Purdue students after a long party weekend and gained their attention -- these kind of challenges," said Otto Doering, professor of agricultural economics at Purdue, who has advised Indiana governors since the 1970s.

To succeed, he said, Daniels will need to immediately reach out to faculty members and include them in his plans.

Last fall, the board's search committee asked the University Senate to conduct a survey that asked students, faculty and staff what kind of expertise they wanted in their next president. All groups surveyed agreed it was "essential that the new president have academic credentials equivalent to a tenured full professor," the committee wrote in its executive summary.

Daniels has an undergraduate degree from Princeton University and a law degree from Georgetown University, but he has spent his career in business and government settings, not in a classroom or research lab.

By contrast, Purdue's presidents have usually been top scholars and lifelong academics, with degrees in medicine, engineering or physics. France Cordova, the current president, is an internationally known astrophysicist.

That said, as word of Daniels' selection reverberated around the campus, some faculty said they were softening their view that the next president must have an academic background.

"It got me thinking here's an individual who's been successful in business," said David J. Williams, a veterinary professor of medical illustration and vice president of the University Senate. "Here's an individual who's been successful in the political arena who could harness all this creative energy at Purdue. I find that part of the idea of Mitch Daniels ... that part of it I find exciting."

The Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, one of the nation's top private foundations that works to enroll and graduate more students from college, called Daniels' appointment a "superb choice."

The Lumina Foundation is at the forefront of a national push for more efficiency in higher education -- an idea embraced by Daniels.

It's not known how much Daniels will earn at Purdue. Cordova now makes $465,750 a year as president. Michael McRobbie, president of Indiana's other Big Ten school, Indiana University, makes about $533,000 a year.

Daniels would not be the first politician to take over a university.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was president of Texas A&M University from 2002 to 2006 and is now chancellor of the College of William and Mary in Virginia. In addition, former Oklahoma Gov. David Boren is president of the University of Oklahoma and former Ohio Gov. Richard Celeste was a successful president at Colorado College.

"I'm not aware of any controversies where someone's politics interfered with the actual scholarly business of running an institution," said Barden, the executive recruiter.

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