By Timothy Cox and Lesley Weidenbener
The Statehouse File
INDIANAPOLIS – Purdue University will have to wait for Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels – at least for the next few months.
Daniels – without ever acknowledging that he will indeed be named Purdue’s 12th president at a trustee’s meeting Thursday – said he will not leave the Statehouse before his term ends in December and no plans to run for higher office thereafter.
“I’m committed to this job,” Daniels said, as reporters peppered him with questions about news that he would soon be named the next president of Purdue, the state’s second largest university. “Absolutely.”
That means Purdue will likely be with an interim leader after its current president, France Cordova, retires this summer. The school’s plans will be revealed in more detail Thursday morning, when the trustees are scheduled to vote on the next president.
In the mean time, neither Daniels nor officials at Purdue were willing to confirm that he was the pick. Instead, those close to the decision confirmed it on Tuesday.
But reporters tried hard on Wednesday to get Daniels to commit.
Reporter: You said in December that one of your biggest regrets in your eight years (as governor) was not reforming higher education more. Do you think you can do it more from the inside than the outside?”
Daniels: That would be a hypothetical. Nice try.
But the governor was willing to talk about his views on higher education – and his record on the issue.
“It’s got big challenges of course and we’ve talked about them for years,” Daniels said. “Making it affordable for young people, helping young people get through in time and not take five and six years. Those are some big challenges, but somebody’s got to solve them in the interest of our state.”
Daniels had indeed said in December that changes in the structure and priorities in higher education were among the changes that would be left “undone” when he finished his eight years in office. He said then that “there’s a lot of inertia in that system.”
But on Wednesday, he said there is growing momentum for changes.
“You can’t pick up a magazine or newspaper these days without reading an article challenging higher ed as it is,” Daniels said.
Some are questioning whether college is worth the cost and whether the debt is worth the diploma, Daniels said. “There are more Americans today with college debt than with college diplomas,” he said. “So there are an awful lot of people saying that as important as it is, the way it is may need some changes.”
But already, some critics of Purdue’s decision to hire Daniels say that he’s the wrong leader to make those changes. They complain he has no background in academia (outside his bachelor’s degree from Princeton University and his law degree from Georgetown University) and that he cut higher education funding while governor.
Daniels acknowledged Wednesday that an academic background would “obviously be helpful” to a university leader. But he didn’t say it was a necessity.
“So let’s just say that maybe someone who reveres higher ed and wants very desperately to see it succeed as well as possible, but comes at things from a slightly different, maybe complementary set of experiences, can contribute something,” Daniels said coyly.
The governor also defended his record. He reminded reporters that he’d proposed a privatization of the Hoosier Lottery with the goal of generating additional dollars of higher education and college scholarships. The General Assembly let the idea die.
“I proposed the biggest infusion of money to higher education than anybody ever conceived of in this state,” Daniels said. “I think it would’ve been a billion dollars or more. We couldn’t get the legislature to agree, but that should be a signal of how important it is.”
He said higher education is “more important than it’s ever been,” particularly in the way that universities are reaching beyond their educational missions and into economic development and job creation.
And he said schools must decide what they want to do well.
“Priorities turn into money,” he said. “If you have clear priorities, you free up money to do the things that are most important.”
Timothy Cox is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.