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.

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    “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

    Well that’s asinine. As a proud Boilermaker, and one who attended some of these long party weekends, I don’t believe I was ever faced with the need to have my attention gained. This isn’t Hogwarts, where the head of the school addresses the students every day.

    Mitch Daniels will be able to raise funds and will be adept at securing funding from the state. If his presidency is anything like Cordova’s or Jiske’s, he will hardly be involved with any sort of management of the university.

  2. CSAcademic says:

    I’m not so sure that it doesn’t matter. The president does need to represent the university as a whole, and in general, I think that they can do that better if they’ve had academic experience. Ideally, they would even have been professors before.

    The point is not that the president needs to address the students, the point is that the president should have some hands-on experience with what teaching and research is like, which are two of the primary missions of a university.

    That said, it probably shouldn’t be a hard requirement, but rather only (highly) desirable.

  3. mattb says:

    Additionally, at an institute as well established as Purdue, the President is largely a caretaker position beyond fundraising as noted. Unless a crisis occurs or Daniels decides he wants to “radically reinvent” the Uni, he won’t have much effect on the direction of the university.

  4. CSAcademic says:

    @mattb: Unless a crisis occurs or Daniels decides he wants to “radically reinvent” the Uni, he won’t have much effect on the direction of the university.

    However, at least at my university, the president appoints a lot of other positions that can have a direct effect. He’s not going to completely remake Purdue, but I do think he can have a significant, if he chooses to do so.

    Of course, being from Indiana and being from an IU family, I would have no problems with Daniels turning Purdue into a laughingstock. 🙂

  5. James Joyner says:

    @CSAcademic: My preference, as a former academic, would be that college presidents be accomplished scholars who worked their way up as department heads, deans, and provosts. But there have been many successful college presidents who started in academic administration very, very early in life and skipped the academic track.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    It’s not going to be his professional qualifications that will hurt his chances, it will be his unusual married life with his wife. In 1993, his wife left him and their four daughters and married another man in California. She returned a few years later, reconciled with Mitch and the two remarried in 1997.

    The GOP is still pretending to be the party of high morality, so I’m thinking they will not want to campaign on a ticket where TMZ and Entertainment Tonight are furiously looking into the guy she married in California and all of that.

  7. al-Ameda says:


    Oh my god. Sorry James, I was in presidential race mode.

    Do you think his personal life plays into the Purdue presidency position at all?

  8. wr says:

    @James Joyner: Wondering what you thought about the recent occurrences at University of Virginia, where (apparently) several large donors pressured the regents — although called something else there — to fire the recently appointed president because she refused to “run the school like a business” and get rid of the Classics and German departments.

  9. CSAcademic says:

    @al-Ameda: If there is any evidence that Daniels is a dirtball like Edwards, I think it should be reported by the media. Otherwise, they should leave them alone. The whole thing might not reflect well on Daniel’s wife, but in my book at least, it actually reflects well on Daniels.

  10. CSAcademic says:

    @James Joyner: I think the key point for me would be how he has responded to this issue. If he tries to claim that it doesn’t matter, then that would be a danger sign for me. If, on the other hand, he acknowledges that it does matter, but that he will work extra hard to be a good listener, etc., then I think I would be okay with it.

    Our president at my university is a former engineering professor who rose through the ranks, and I think it is definitely helpful. On the other hand, I’d be okay with someone like Daniels if I sensed that he would be conscientious in striving to understand what faculty actually do when they teach, do research, write grant proposals, recruit students, etc.

  11. sam says:

    “The faculty is apprehensive because Daniels has not had an academic career.”

    As one of my professors put it, the job of a university president is to raise money, shut up, and go home.

    What special qualifications, beyond the ability to shmooze to raise the dough, are required?

  12. CSAcademic says:

    @wr: I’m not James, but am a current academic. I don’t have a problem with donors exerting influence on a university. My problem with that situation is that it seems all very underhanded and lacking in transparency and process. Influence is fine, but at a university it should be open and transparent.

  13. sam says:


    Apparently you’re not the only one with a problem. U-Va. board member, professor quit amid uproar over President Teresa Sullivan’s ouster. Maybe we can update Twain:

    First God made Boards of Regents. That was for practice. Then He made idiots.

  14. al-Ameda says:


    I The whole thing might not reflect well on Daniel’s wife, but in my book at least, it actually reflects well on Daniels.

    I believe that Daniels is very qualified for that appointment at Purdue.

  15. CSAcademic says:

    @sam: Your professor was espousing what he thought a president should do, which is basically just raise money. The issue, however, is that the president has a lot of power and there is no guarantee that he will stick to fund-raising. Faculty will fear that he will come in with some hare-brained initiatives that show a complete lack of understanding, and try to ram them through.

    For example, what if he came in and blindly tried to set university-wide objective requirements for tenure: 5 papers per year, $500K in grant money, teaching scores of X or higher? Any actual professor knows that such a policy would be highly problematic for a host of reasons. I’m not saying that Daniels would actually do something hare-brained, but rather that these are the kinds of concerns that faculty would have.

  16. Scott says:

    I remember Gates being very successful at A&M. I think a high profile leader such as Daniels may actually be an asset since he can resist and push back on the political hacks on the Board of Trustees ( see U of Texas or U of VA for outside interference problems) or politicians in the state government..

  17. gawaine says:

    I think we need to see his birth certificate.

  18. EmeritaHears says:

    Can anyone say “Steve Beering”? He had no academic credentials and very thin academic experience (IU Med School Dean for 9 yrs). In spite of that, he was considered by many to be one of the most effective and successful university presidents.

    I think I detect the scent of elitism in some comments, and perhaps a whiff of political bias.

  19. Belena Chapp says:

    I have an advanced degree from Purdue and I just told the student calling from the Alumni Office that I won’t give another dime to the university because of this hire. This partisan politician cuts public higher ed with no remorse. John Purdue is rolling in his grave.

  20. Betty Barclay says:

    NOT being in academia is his biggest plus. As a Purdue Alum, I couldn’t be more proud of this pick. Mitch Daniels is a giant among Governors and will bring discipline and integrity to Purdue University.

  21. Betty Barclay says:

    @CSAcademic: Daniels’ wife left him and he took her back. The Governor did not cheat on his wife.

  22. Dan F says:

    Did you know that he appointed all of the Purdue Trustees while he was Gov.? Thank you for your big campaign donation. How about a seat on the board? Wow. This stinks.

  23. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Betty Barclay:

    Purdue doesn’t currently have discipline and integrity?

  24. Jim says:

    Not completely surprising. Ike was president of Columbia University between his army service and his 1952 Presidential run.

    But will Mitch’s solution to Purdue’s money woes be to lease the university to a Spanish-Australian consortium for 75 years, as he did with the Indiana Toll Road?

  25. Jim says:


    Um, I think the political hacks on the board of trustees are the ones putting him in as President….

  26. keith says:

    I’m sure he’ll find a way to pander to Eli Lilly and Pharma while at Purdue as well. I really hate to hear this pill pushing crook is going to run Purdue.

  27. keith says:

    @Betty Barclay: Mitch is going to collect a nice hefty paycheck courtesy of the board of trustees he appointed while he was governor. This is corruption 100% and Purdue is being bled dry.

  28. Egads! says:

    I am terribly upset with Purdue’s Board of TRUSTEES to come to the decision to have Mitch Daniels as the President of Purdue. I am near the end of completing my degree at Purdue and I cannot bear the thought that his name will be scribbled on it. This is definitely a black day for Purdue.

  29. G Edward says:

    I think the problem is more what he represents (not a friend to public education) and not what he is (as a university president). Better choices were a pencil-width away.

  30. kent strock says:

    I graduated from Purdue with several degrees in the liberal arts and ended up teaching at the Indiana community college system that Daniels exerted a lot of control in developing. He shifted millions of dollars to the Ivy Tech system because it is cheap and not because he cared about education. The academic standards at Iyy Tech are an afterthought and the point of the system was to pass as many people as possible and to “educate” workers for corporations. The system was packed with numbers/corporate guys and issue of plagiarism were laughed off as well as basic learning. He will be a great fundraiser. He packed the board of trustees with corporate friends who are now repaying the favor.