WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — With Indiana hemorrhaging revenue during the Great Recession, Gov. Mitch Daniels targeted higher education to help fill the gap – including nearly $30 million in state cuts at Purdue University.
On Thursday, trustees there unanimously approved him as the school's 12th president. Students, faculty members and legislators wondered how the governor would transition to a new job with such starkly different duties – particularly considering he still has six months left in his old one.
Daniels said it will involve a lot of listening. The former White House budget director and Eli Lilly executive has a Princeton bachelor's degree and Georgetown law degree but virtually no experience working in academia.
"I don't even know what I don't know yet. All I know is there's a lot I don't know," he told about 100 students at an afternoon gathering on campus.
Besides segueing from budget hawk to higher-ed advocate, the change for Daniels also will be extreme in the world of politics. The outspoken conservative was once considered such a rising star that many Republicans encouraged him to seek the presidency – or at least make himself available as a potential running mate or Cabinet choice for presumptive nominee Mitt Romney.
He said his appointment means he won't be involved in partisan politics after making one last out-of-state appearance this weekend.
"No campaigning, no commenting about anybody's campaigning – in the state or out state or anywhere else – no fundraising, nothing. I won't be a delegate to the national convention," he said.
Daniels, 63, will take office in January once his second term as governor expires.
That sudden withdrawal from the political spotlight is a sharp change for Daniels, who has written op-ed pieces, spoken on Republican causes to gatherings of conservatives, been a fixture on Sunday morning news shows and delivered the GOP's response to President Barack Obama's State of the Union address this year.
The stance is one of necessity. University presidents need to be able to unite, not divide, said Robert Bontempo, who teaches executive education at the Columbia Business School in New York.
"You can't give people orders and tell them what to do," he said. "You have to lead by consensus, because they have lifetime jobs."
Bontempo said politicians tend to make the transition to university leadership more successfully than private sector executives. He cited Bob Kerrey, a former governor and two-term senator from Nebraska who is running for the Senate again after 10 years as president of the New School for Social Research in New York City.
Since 2009, Daniels has ordered more than $150 million in cuts to public education – about one-fifth of that to Purdue. Adam Hoover, a 2008 Purdue graduate who is organizing a public protest over Daniels' selection, said he thinks Daniels is hostile to the cause.
"It's disturbing that one man could both cut the budget of a public university and control the exact impact of those cuts," Hoover said in an email to The Associated Press.
The university also came under fire from state lawmakers over its tuition increases at the height of the recession. Purdue's in-state tuition rates have risen by as much as 62 percent since 2004, according to figures provided by the university.
As governor, Daniels approved a new right to work law that angered unions and signed off on a law that would cut most public funding to Planned Parenthood because it provides abortions. He also pushed through the nation's largest school voucher program, drawing fire from critics who said using taxpayer money so students could to attend private schools violated the constitutional separation of church and state.
"I don't think he has a proven track record in terms of being able to get the job done and doing things the right way," said Tim Neuhaus, 28, of Baltimore, Md., who graduated from Purdue in 2010 with a bachelor of science degree and works as a project engineer for a commercial construction company.
Mindy Anderson, 33, who is seeking a doctorate in pharmacy and teaches veterinary classes at Purdue, said she thought Daniels was a great choice because of his leadership skills. She said she wasn't concerned that he had cut higher education spending in the past.
"He didn't do it irresponsibly. I think he did his homework and got the information he needed and did what he needed for the financial health of the state," she said.
Daniels won't be in a position to decide on allocations to Purdue during the remainder of his term as governor because the Legislature does not reconvene until January.
But Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City and a member of the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, questioned whether Purdue would be treated more favorably than other state-supported universities when the Republican-dominated General Assembly is making appropriations.
"What do the folks in the inner sanctum of Indiana University or Ball State University have to say? Do they think they're going to be treated the same way?" Pelath said. "It would be foolish not to look down the road and consider the possible implications."
Daniels will have to win over faculty and students who question whether having him appointed by a board he largely appointed poses a conflict of interest. Some also are leery of his lack of academic experience and his reputation for shaking up the status quo.
Morris Levy, a biological sciences professor who just completed a term as University Senate chairman on June 1, said some faculty worried that Daniels might lower the school's academic standards. He pointed to the governor's support of the Legislature's recent decision to limit the number of college credits state university students need to earn a degree.
"The intrusion of politics into the academy is something everyone ought to be wary of," Levy said. "But he does bring enormous skills to the job we haven't previously had."
Purdue officials said they anticipated some negative reaction to Daniels' selection but said support was overwhelmingly in favor of his appointment to succeed France Cordova, who will step down in July after five years at Purdue's helm.
"He's a visionary. He's a strategist. He's an innovator. But most of all, he's a doer," said Trustees President Keith Karch.
Associated Press writers Charles Wilson, Ken Kusmer and Tom LoBianco in Indianapolis contributed to this story.