WEST LAFAYETTE – Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is meeting skeptics head-on as he educates himself about the challenges he’ll face as the next president of Purdue University.
Daniels is midway through a six-month transition from his role as governor to one of leading a land-grant university. He’s spending time on campus, reaching out to national higher-education leaders and immersing himself in issues.
Daniels’ appointment June 21 was met with an outpouring of displeasure from many faculty, alumni and students, who questioned his qualifications and worried about how his cuts to education funding and reputation as a change agent would play out in his new role.
According to the Journal & Courier, Purdue received 340 emails between June 19 and 25 in which anti-Daniels missives outnumbered pro-Daniels letters by a margin of nearly 8 to 1.
Daniels is using vacation days from his governor’s job to meet with faculty, staff and students. But he says the visits aren’t designed to win anyone over.
It is much more about learning the job. But if there is one unanimous bit of input one gets from talking to people here, talking to people who have been at other universities, from reading, it is: The better the communication, the stronger the sense of common purpose is between the faculty, who are the core of the university, and whoever holds the job I’ll hold, the better, Daniels said.
Daniels says he intends to continue the goals of predecessors in striving to make Purdue a pre-eminent university in research, learning, outreach and educational value.
But his reputation as a privatizer of services – such as the state’s welfare system and the Indiana Toll Road – and for cutting K-12 education funding have left many uneasy.
Alumni R. Thomas and Anne Schowe of Santa Barbara, Calif., donated a house at 1341 Northwestern Ave. in West Lafayette to Purdue that is home of the Global Policy Research Institute, among other gifts.
Hours after word of Daniels’ appointment spread, Anne Schowe sent an email to university development officers announcing she would stop financial support except for previous pledges to the policy institute because of issues with Daniels, including his decision to sign a law cutting Medicaid funding to Planned Parenthood of Indiana because it provides abortions.
Our family has a long-term commitment to Purdue and love for Purdue, she said. Mr. Daniels’ tenure, now that it has come to pass, will be a short episode in the total history of a great university.
Daniels says decisions he made as governor were appropriate for that job but shouldn’t be used to predict what he’ll bring to Purdue.
First off, I respect them to have their opinions on what I did in my old job, my current job now, Daniels said. I hope they would stop and think that in my new assignment that we have exactly the same objectives: a greater Purdue that is affordable to all those students who can meet its standards.
That is all I will be working on.
Ebony Barrett-Kennedy, a clerk in the facility engineering department, attended a recent meeting with Daniels and was pleased that he seemed to be interested in learning about Purdue.
I appreciate someone who can come in and say they don’t know something, she said.
But she still worries that it won’t translate into action after Daniels takes over in January.
He is still courting the job he was given, she said.
Daniels said he does his own homework and has engaged in an intensive process to prepare for his new job.
He said he has reached out to about 50 education leaders, including David Boren, former governor of Oklahoma and now University of Oklahoma system president; Robert Gates, former president of Texas A&M, director of the CIA and, most recently, former secretary of defense in the Obama administration; and William Bowen, former Princeton University and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation president.
DePauw University President Brian Casey said he and Daniels spoke for 90 minutes about how the culture of a university differs from that of state government. He said Daniels took notes throughout.
The first thing he is going to have to wrestle with is shared governance. That is an entirely different way that faculty governs, Casey said.
One of the things you have to recognize right away – he is extremely intelligent. But the question is, can he radically manage something that is different than what he is used to.
He is not coming in as an unknown character; he has so much notoriety. But now he is reintroducing himself to a new constituency.
Purdue professor Melanie Shoffner said that notoriety may fade once Daniels is seen making an effort to understand Purdue’s colleges and helping them solve their issues.
I think he has positioned himself in politics as someone who is a change agent, wants to alter the landscape, she said. So change is not a bad thing. I don’t think people here are opposed to change. They just don’t know what his change is.
J. Paul Robinson, chairman of the University Senate, said many faculty were shocked by Daniels’ appointment because he did not come up through academic ranks as past presidents had.
But he said he doesn’t want Daniels to be a clone of other presidents.
I don’t want him to be shackled, he said.