University President: A Conversation with Mitch Daniels, Part I

Selfie time with Mitch Daniels (right) (Purdue University/Alex Kumar)
Curbing costs, protecting free speech, and more

Editor’s Note: Today begins a three-part series, building on a piece that we have published in the current issue of National Review.

Mitch Daniels is remarkably unchanging, both in his looks and in his views. You would recognize him at 100 paces. He looks basically the way he did when he was a Reagan aide. He thinks basically the same way too — one of the last of the Reaganite Mohicans. Today, he is president of Purdue University, and I’ve arrived at his office for a conversation.

Daniels has had a busy, multifaceted life. He was born in 1949, making him 70 today. He went to Princeton University and later to Georgetown Law. He worked as an aide to Richard Lugar, the longtime Indiana senator. Then he was in the White House, with Reagan. Leaving the White House, he headed up a think tank, the Hudson Institute. Then he worked as an executive for Eli Lilly, the Indianapolis-based pharmaceutical company. In the first two and a half years of the George W. Bush presidency, he was budget director. In 2004, he was elected governor of Indiana. In 2008, he was reelected. A lot of people wanted him to run for president in 2012, but he declined. In January 2013, the day his second term expired, he became president of Purdue. Moreover, he started writing a column for the Washington Post two years ago.

“You must never be bored,” I remark to him. “I never have been,” he says, adding, “I’m gonna run out the string of jobs here sometime, and I hope to finish never having been bored.”

I imagine that leadership is leadership, at one level: whether you’re a football coach or an orchestra conductor or a CEO or what have you. Yes, says Daniels. “I wouldn’t take that too far — there are all kinds of businesses and institutions I could name where I would be utterly unqualified for top responsibility by lack of some technical knowledge or domain-specific knowledge — but, yeah, there are certain habits and practices and traits that have traveled well and that I have been able to apply. I am always learning something from one assignment, I hope, that will be of value in the next.”

He likes being around young people, right? Oh, yes. “That’s why I’m here,” he says, “as much as for any other reason.” He has long had a test of whether he will like or appreciate someone: Does the person in question like kids, and, specifically, other people’s kids? “And here I am,” says Daniels, “surrounded by 30-some thousand of other people’s kids. It’s certainly one of the top two or three joys of the job.”

I have read that he eats with them, in dorms, Greek houses, and other places. “I had dinner last night at a fraternity house.” I have read that he works out with them. “I’ll be headed to the gym after we talk.” And that he attends football games with them. “Football for me is a full-contact sport. I go around the stadium and thank people for coming. I always stop to see the band, and see the other team’s cheerleaders, and see what’s going on in the student section.”

All of this is both “fun and functional,” he says. He learned a long time ago that, while you respect the roles and authority of people working under you, you have to be in touch with the “ground level” yourself. There, you will get information you might not otherwise get, and it will be unfiltered. He has always encouraged his subordinates to follow Don Corleone’s rule: “Bad news first.” Sometimes, though, he doesn’t get it, but he is likely to get it from the consumer — as he did in his Eli Lilly days — or the citizen-voter — as he did in his gubernatorial days — or the student, as he does now.

During his tenure at Purdue, he has been known across the country for keeping costs down — and runaway costs are a scourge of collegiate life in general. When Daniels was White House budget director, Bush nicknamed him “The Blade.” He has been a blade here at Purdue, correct? Daniels responds that he’s not sure he deserved the title in Washington or deserves it now. Maybe people give him too much credit. I suggest to him that Cap the Knife would say much the same. “I bet he would,” says Daniels. (Caspar Weinberger — later Reagan’s defense secretary — was budget director under Nixon, in 1972 and ’73. His nickname, “Cap the Knife,” was a play on “Mack the Knife,” the song from Weill and Brecht’s Threepenny Opera.) Nevertheless, says Daniels, he can point to areas, both in Washington and at Purdue, where “we were able to limit the amount of someone else’s money that someone was spending without good effect.”

Parents must appreciate him, I say, for fighting tuition creep. They are his current constituents, in a sense, along with students, their children. True, says Daniels, but don’t forget the alumni. They are appreciative too. He elaborates: Purdue, for all its academic excellence, especially in the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and math), is a public university. What’s more, it is a land-grant university. “This is not a place where the children of wealth and privilege have by and large come. It’s a place where the kid off the farm or from the small town or from the inner city has come.” Alumni, says Daniels, appreciate that the Purdue administration is looking out for the student and his ability to pay.

People at Purdue disagree about anything and everything, says Daniels, but one thing they agree on is: “We would like this place to be affordable and accessible to people who can meet our standards, no matter where they come from.” And “one way we have been able to hold the line is, people in jobs large and small think about this” — costs, affordability, accessibility — “and are a little more careful about making sure that, when we spend money, it’s for a necessary and high-value purpose.”

Okay, another subject: political correctness. Is it a problem here at Purdue, as it is on so many other campuses, notoriously? “It is a phenomenon,” says the president, but not the problem it is elsewhere. “We have every stripe of opinion here — thank goodness.” Some of the opinions are extreme and strident. “But the center of gravity here is just incontrovertibly different than it is at many of the places we all hear and read about.”

Purdue is STEM-centric — either the second- or third-most STEM-centric university in the country, says Daniels. Can political correctness and ideology sneak into those fields? Sure, but it’s harder than in the humanities. “Many of our faculty and students are working very, very hard at the academic essence of what they’re doing,” says Daniels. “Students at Purdue, I think I can reliably tell you, are studying harder than many of their counterparts at other places.”

In any event, no one is allowed to shut anyone else up, according to the president. Free speech is emphasized, along with civil disagreement. In fact, these things are stressed during freshman orientation. The orientation includes skits in which students and faculty participate, “demonstrating how one expresses disagreement,” the president says.

In January 2015, the University of Chicago adopted its famous statement — the Chicago Statement — on freedom of expression. The ideas or rules therein are known as the “Chicago Principles.” They say, in a nutshell, that academic freedom will not be impeded, and that members of the community will carry out their work in a spirit of toleration and pluralism. Princeton adopted the Chicago Principles for itself. Then came Purdue. Daniels says he “xeroxed” the principles as fast as he could. Since then, almost 70 universities have followed suit.

It occurs to me to ask Daniels, “Did you feel free to express yourself when you were an undergrad at Princeton?” “Oh, sure,” he says. “Of course, at that time, free speech was a banner of the Left,” so “there has been a role reversal.” Back then, crusty college administrations were thought to be stifling free-spirited, left-leaning students. Many of those left-leaners went on to be stiflers themselves. Yet some of them still hold the banner of free speech aloft, and Daniels cites two of them: Professor Geoffrey R. Stone of the University of Chicago Law School, who was the driving force behind the Chicago Principles, and Nadine Strossen, the president of the American Civil Liberties Union from 1991 to 2008. Both of them have been guests here at Purdue.

Stone and Strossen, says Daniels, are “examples of people who understand the centrality of freedom of expression to maintaining all our other freedoms and found themselves a little disoriented when people with whom they might agree on many or most policies set themselves up as the enemies of freedom of expression.” He then says, “Hurray for them for holding fast to their principles.”

He thinks that “this worm is turning somewhat” — that the speech-stiflers are losing ground, thanks to their ferocious excesses. I ask, “Are we seeing a righteous backlash?” “Tentatively, I think we do see one,” answers Daniels.

Editor’s Note: Tomorrow, in Part II, we will hear Mitch Daniels’s views on federal spending and borrowing — an ominous problem — and what to do about it.


The Latest