Mitch Daniels’ Triumphant Tenure as Purdue President

Earlier today, Purdue University announced that longtime president Mitch Daniels would be stepping down effective January 1, 2023. Daniels will leave behind a legacy of principled leadership, moral vision, and prudent fiscal management that would be remarkable in any era—but especially one in which college presidents are often unwilling to make tough decisions or take principled stands.

Back in 2011, Daniels, a two-term Indiana governor known for his conservative horse sense and low-key manner, was frequently mentioned as the Republican best-positioned to puncture the all-hat, no-cattle pretensions of then-President Barack Obama. But Daniels ultimately declined to run and it was the nation’s loss. In 2016, the columnist George Will put it best, when he lamented, “Purdue has the president the nation needs.”

Commentator George Will (L) talks with Mitch Daniels, Governor of Indiana, at the Conservative Political Action conference (CPAC) dinner in Washington February 11, 2011. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The intervening years have only proven how right Will was.

At a time when many college presidents keep jacking up tuition while blaming circumstances beyond their control, Daniels had a more straightforward response: He kept tuition flat. For a decade. That’s right, for the last eleven years, Purdue has frozen tuition. Meanwhile, Daniels also cut room and board costs by five percent—meaning it’s cheaper to attend Purdue now than when Daniels took office a decade ago.

You’d think Daniels would be the featured speaker at every higher education conference and on speed-dial at the Biden Department of Education. The fact that this isn’t the case says everything one needs to know about the state of the higher education debates.

At a time when higher education has been overrun by political agendas, Daniels firmly but graciously stood up to them. Pressed to engage in the usual theatrical apologia after a handful of white supremacist posters appeared on campus, Daniels instead calmly explained, “This is a transparent effort to bait people into overreacting, thereby giving a minuscule fringe group attention it does not deserve, and that we decline to do.” And that was that. Rather than allowing the most maladjusted 1 percent on right or left to drag Purdue into their personal psychodramas, he offered a master class in how mature leaders keep their eye on the ball.

Daniels did what college presidents are supposed to do but too few do today: He provided a model of statesmanship, wisdom, and moral authority for his campus and his nation. In his occasional Washington Post columns, he offered principled, nuanced discussions of timely issues. He made the principled case for why college athletes shouldn’t be paid, highlighted the importance of protecting Ukrainians from Russian aggression, and explained the moral obligation of governments to be responsible stewards of public funds.

Throughout his tenure, in a stance tinged with countercultural courage given the shape of higher education today, Daniels challenged graduates to model timeless values like personal responsibility, individual excellence, and simple kindness. As Daniels told his last graduating class a few days ago in his commencement address:

Somewhere I came across another commencement speech, given at another university by Purdue’s own Neil Armstrong, less than a year after he walked on the moon. He quoted Aldous Huxley: “There’s only one corner of the universe you can be sure of improving, and that’s yourself.” That chore will only get tougher in a world where the machines are smarter than their owners, where it becomes easy to let the machines make the decisions. Quoting the same book I just mentioned, “(R)eason alone may come to seem archaic.” Some people may “let their capacities for independent reason and judgment atrophy.”

Due to other technological miracles, your life expectancy will be decades greater than ours from earlier generations. But that’s not the life expectancy that I think about at these commencements. Purdue expects more of you than a long lifespan. Purdue expects that you will take the best of what you absorbed here into a world that becomes better for your being in it. That you will prove that you are in charge of our technologies and not the other way around. That you will, with Commander Armstrong, constantly improve that little corner of the world that is you.

Daniels has certainly done more than his share to improve his little corner of the world. Kudos.

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Mitch Daniels’ Triumphant Tenure as Purdue President