The Game Changer: Mitch Daniels Paves a New Path for University Presidents

When the Board of Trustees at Purdue University began its search for a new president in 2012, faculty members made it quite clear that they desired an accomplished academic. Mitch Daniels, a non-academic and former conservative governor of Indiana, was not what they had in mind. As governor, Daniels inflamed many academics nationally and at Purdue because of his stated desire to remove Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States from his state’s K-12 classrooms. That action prompted an antagonistic letter from 90 Purdue faculty members.

Higher education observers who are concerned about increased liberalism on campuses, however, were greatly heartened. Rarely has a conservative been chosen to head a major university in recent years. Daniels’ appointment immediately was perceived as a test for common sense conservative governance.

In some ways, though, he is very much a conventional university president, particularly in his drive to expand Purdue’s already substantial presence in research and economic development.

Still, his January, 2013 open letter sounded a different vision for a college president than is the norm. In it he called for cost-cutting instead of revenue enhancement, academic rigor, accountability, a renewed emphasis on undergraduate education instead of faculty research, a diversity of ideas, and a de-emphasis on athletics.

Whether he will be able to produce a new reality from his vision is still open. When it comes to faculty relations, Daniels has both assuaged and roiled them. Early in his tenure he made it a point to talk to as many professors as possible—in passing, during meetings and over meals—to understand their goals.

Daniels has even raised their pay at a rate higher than most universities. Faculty will receive a 2 percent raise this year and a 3.5 percent raise next year (Purdue also just increased its minimum wage to $10).

Further, even though tension exists on the timing and roll out of a university-wide, standardized assessment measuring intellectual progress of students, faculty members have been heavily involved in the design of the test. Daniels’ relationship with the faculty may be helped by the way he gets his hands dirty, teaching a class on the causes and consequences of WWI.

While Daniels has somewhat massaged the concerns that were raised during his hiring process just three years ago, dissension still arises. He recently eliminated the job of chief diversity officer Christine Taylor, drawing criticism from faculty and liberal circles.

But the move was pragmatic rather than ideological. Provost Debasiah Dutta assumed Taylor’s responsibilities, largely because his role as a recruiter of faculty puts him in a better position to diversify the campus. Dutta pointed out that only four percent of faculty members at Purdue are African-American.

Additionally, the move saved Taylor’s $200,000 salary. Her firing was just one on a long list of administrative cuts made in order to save dollars; Daniels has cut the budget by $40 million in two years. He also eliminated the university’s $185,000 lobbying budget. He has sold cars and consolidated storage space. He saved $5 million per biennium by freezing raises for administrative personnel earning more than $50,000.

Administrative costs are exceptionally ripe for cutting on U.S. campuses. A 2014 study conducted by the New England Center for Investigative Reporting found American universities have more than doubled the number of non-academic professionals or administrators over the last 25 years. Purdue was not immune to this epidemic. In fact, when Daniels got to Purdue there were 75 more administrators than there were at the turn of the millennium. Over those same 13 years, enrollment increased by less than 1,000 students.

Daniels’ focus on cost-cutting is paying dividends for students in the form of a tuition freeze. In the nine years before Daniels assumed office, tuition increased by at least 4.5 percent each year; at the onset of the recession in 2006, tuition increased 9.9 percent.

The tuition freeze began in 2013 and has been in place since. In May, the board-approved budget guaranteed tuition would remain at $10,002 for Hoosiers and $28,808 for out-of-state students for 2016-2017. A freshman who entered Purdue in the fall of 2013 can graduate without ever experiencing a tuition hike.

Additionally, it is cheaper to live on campus now than it was three years ago, and meal plan prices have decreased by over ten percent during Daniel’s’ tenure. In another break from conventional practice, the president struck a deal with Amazon, and the company opened their first-ever brick and mortar store at Purdue. Early estimates show students saved 40 percent on textbook costs last year. Not surprisingly, the National Association of College Stores has filed a lawsuit against Daniels’ university.

Daniels’ bare bones approach, such as buying used furniture and cutting low enrollment programs, has had no negative impact on enrollment. The opposite is true; the 2014 entering class was the largest in several years; 2015’s will be even larger.

This emphasis on growth is coupled with a focus on graduating students on time. The most recent data indicates that only 49.2 percent of Boilermakers graduate on time. Purdue, in a partnership with Gallup, is attempting to address this problem by identifying key experiences shared by students who graduated on time. These experiences include close relationships with faculty, internships, and long term projects.

His concentration on enrollment growth and graduation rates is hardly unconventional. And Daniels is following other national trends. He is expanding study abroad opportunities to equip students to live in the globalized world. He encourages the use of “flipped” classrooms to efficiently educate students in the Internet era.

Another conventional side of Daniels is his desire to increase Purdue’s research and economic development presence. For example, he has initiated programs such as “Deliberate Innovation for Faculty” (DIFF) to help expand faculty research opportunities. In its inaugural year of 2014, DIFF helped facilitate the founding of 24 startups (three times Purdue’s total from the previous year). One of DIFF’s seven faculty leaders, Lonnie Bentley, said of the program:

When I started [my start-up in 2008] there weren’t many resources and just a handful of faculty who had started companies. Then everything changed after Mitch and Dan [Hasler, Purdue Chief Entrepreneurial Officer] came here. The whole climate has changed, and there are so many more resources and services available for Purdue entrepreneurs.

Yet, at other times, Daniels remains true to his conservative roots. While all university administrators must suffer federal and state regulatory burdens, he actively fights against them. For example, in recent testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce, Daniels urged lawmakers to push gently when writing education standards. He claims his school spends $200 million per year complying with rules, money that could otherwise be spent granting 20,000 full time scholarships.

He also called for reform to the financial aid system, accreditation process, and Pell grant flexibility while promoting ideas such as income share agreements and competency-based education.

And he has taken on the restriction of speech that is becoming common in academia. In a recent statement endorsed by the Board, the university issued a “Commitment to Freedom of Expression,” which states:

Concerns about civility and mutual respect can never be used as a justification for closing off discussion of ideas, however offensive or disagreeable those ideas may be to some members of our community.

So far, Daniels has managed to skillfully navigate the treacherous waters of academic politics and actually get some things accomplished; he was not named Fortune magazine’s 41st greatest leader in the world in 2015 for nothing. By really leading, instead of following the pack, he may be paving the way for other non-traditional university presidents at a time when the status quo is no longer enough.