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Former Gov. Mitch Daniels’ expectations change as Purdue University President

Things are about to get interesting in West Lafayette, Ind.

Purdue University, located in West Lafayette, is probably best known for its engineering and technical education. The university is nationally ranked in aeronautical, agricultural, civil, chemical, computer, electrical, industrial and mechanical engineering, among other specialties.

In November 2007, Scientist Magazine ranked Purdue as the nation’s fourth best place to work in academia. It counts 22 astronauts among its alumni and also boasts the fourth largest international student population of any American university.

Enter Mitch Daniels, the former governor of Indiana. The Washington Post labeled Daniels, “arguably the most effective conservative governor in America.” At the close of his second term, Daniels left Indiana with a $500 million budget surplus and $2 billion in reserves, reduced the number of state government jobs by 19 percent and introduced the largest school-choice program in America for low-income families.

At noon on Jan. 14, his term as Indiana governor expired. At 2 p.m. that same day, he was in West Lafayette conducting a meeting at Purdue. Mitch Daniels is now the new president of Purdue University.

There was a certain amount of predictable criticism of him heading a major university because – horrors! – he had no academic pedigree or background. His highest academic achievement was a J.D. from Georgetown.

His compensation package at Purdue is unusual. He will earn a base salary of $420,000 plus perks (residence and car). His predecessor earned $555,000. This downward trend was no austerity move by Purdue. Daniels himself insisted on a lower starting salary.

According to his employment contract, which Daniels himself helped design, he could earn an additional 30 percent in bonuses only if certain outcomes were met. These include specified graduation rates, tuition affordability, faculty hiring and promotion and philanthropic support. These improvements would be measured in hard numbers over specified time periods.

Assuming he “makes his numbers” and earns his 30 percent bonus, he would remain 10th in compensation when compared to other Big Ten presidents.

There’s an adage that states, “If you can measure it, you can manage it.” Evidently Purdue’s new president is a strong proponent of it.

Perhaps the two most inefficient industries in America today are higher education and health care. But the winds of change are beginning to blow through both.

Daniels is evidently aware of this. On Jan. 18th, Daniels sent an open letter to Purdue University. In it, he agreed that the faculty should have the “strongest single voice” in decisions about the university and its future.

But Daniels insists, “Shared governance implies shared accountability.” The faculty cannot demand shared governance and simultaneously state that cost control or substandard performance “is someone else’s problem.”

He continued, “We cannot improve low on-time completion rates and maximize student success if no one is willing to modify his schedule, workload or method of teaching.”

He went on, “‘More for everyone’ or ‘everyone gets the same’ are stances of default, inconsistent with the obligations of leadership.”

Productivity and efficiency are concepts beginning to emerge in academic discussions. Academics are beginning to realize that a university’s stakeholders, viz., the citizenry, students and parents – everyone who ultimately pays the bills – are demanding better instructional results. Research is fine, but the faculty is expected to be in the classroom and continually elevating the teaching and learning standards.

Universities are beginning to discover what a good portion of society already understands: results matter as much, if not more, than the process.

Only time will tell if Daniels will be successful. Few things are more powerful than academic inertia. But times are changing, and universities are realizing that their “customers” are not only the students or their parents.

Future employers are increasingly being heard with their own set of wants and needs. Daniels may be the start of a new breed of academic leader.

Things are about to get interesting in West Lafayette, Ind.

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