Mitch Daniels Next Purdue President: Is He Qualified?
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels will become president of Purdue University upon completion of his term in January. The faculty is apprehensive because Daniels has not had an academic career.
Indianapolis Star (“Gov. Mitch Daniels pick called a coup for Purdue, but qualifications questioned“):
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. It is, however, also 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.
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 funding 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. Córdova, the current president, is an internationally known astrophysicist.
It’s not at all uncommon for university presidents, especially in large state institutions, to have backgrounds in politics, business, or government rather than academia.
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.
Boren and Gates came readily to mind; I was unaware of Celeste’s tenure. Regardless, a state university’s president’s primary mission is fundraising, not academic leadership. (It’s often different at elite private institutions, since they frequently have massive endowments.) Typically, a provost or a vice president of academic affairs handles the day-to-day management of the scholarly side of the house.
Looking at the profiles of the previous Purdue presidents, most of the recent ones did in fact have doctoral degrees and some teaching experience before becoming career academic administrators. Further, most were previously presidents at smaller colleges or of a medical school. Daniels is thus an outlier.