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June 24, 2012

State of the Statehouse: ‘Blade’ goes to college

Interesting dynamic with Daniels’ becoming Purdue president

INDIANAPOLIS — The news that Gov. Mitch Daniels would be the next president of Purdue University brought some grumbling from some faculty that he lacked the academic credentials for the top spot.

Daniels’ lack of a doctorate and scholarly journal articles should be the least of their worries.

He’s not a lifelong academic like many past Purdue presidents, but it’s his nickname — The Blade — that should have his campus critics quivering.

He picked up that tag when he headed federal Office Management and Budget under President George W. Bush. He’s sharpened the edge when he became governor, slashing about 7,000 state jobs.

Of all the things that have been written and said about Daniels since the news of his appointment first leaked out last Tuesday, the most telling may be these words that came from his mouth:

“There are more Americans today with college debt than with college diplomas,” Daniels told reporters pestering him for a quote before the announcement was made. “So there are an awful lot of people saying that as important as it is, the way it is may need some changes.”

Universities are notoriously change-resistant — convinced, I suppose, that all that collective brain power makes them as infallible as the pope.

But Daniels is likely to bank his reputation on changing the way the state’s second-largest public university conducts its business.

Back in 2010, when Daniels cut funding for higher education to help balance the state’s cash-strapped budget, he told whining university administrators to buck up.

He made clear that less state dollars was the “new normal.” And he challenged them to see those budget cuts as “opportunities” for doing more with less.

Daniels’ critics see him a cheapskate when it comes to how dollars are doled out to education and other public services.

They see him as miserly with money — and not in a good way.

But I suspect his questioning of universities’ soaring tuition costs and their failure to turn out even half their students on time with a degree has resonated with many Hoosiers, no matter if Mitch is their man or not.

Back in 2009, just as the recession was sucking the life and heart out of so many middle-class families, Purdue University tried to justify what amounted to a nearly 17 percent hike in tuition and fees over a two-year period.

The then-head of the State Budget Committee, Republican Sen. Luke Kenley of Noblesville, held hostage Purdue’s construction projects until the university regained its senses.

It’s hard to imagine Purdue’s next president taking a beating from state budget makers like the outgoing president has suffered.

Daniels, of course, is now going to have to put his money where his mouth has been: He’s the guy who pushed for performance-based funding that ties an increasing amount of state dollars to how well universities meet their on-time graduation metrics.

He’s also the guy that’s been pushing universities to decrease student debt load and accelerate their degree programs that will get actually get their graduates a job.

And his big goal — one shared by the Indiana Higher Education Commission — to get 60 percent of Hoosiers a college degree by 2025 has been deemed impossible by his soon-to-be peers.

To his campus critics: Forget that he doesn’t have the academic chops you want. You’ve got much more to worry about from The Blade.

Maureen Hayden is the Indiana Statehouse bureau chief for CNHI, the parent company of the Tribune-Star. She can be reached at maureen.hayden@indianamediagroup.com.

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