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Not an exit interview: Why Mitch Daniels says he’s ‘not done, yet’ at Purdue
Mitch Daniels sits down for a conversation about his future after Purdue and what he still wants to get done at the university, as his final semester starts on the West Lafayette campus
Ten years ago this week, already named Purdue’s incoming president but still wrapping up his second term as Indiana governor, Mitch Daniels greeted his first Boiler Gold Rush class at Mackey Arena, telling the nervous crowd to get ready to be freshmen together.
Tuesday evening, in his annual Boiler Gold Rush appearance, Daniels rode into Ross-Ade Stadium standing on the back of a golf cart, disguised as Purdue Pete, eventually losing the giant head and unveiling the stunt, and himself, to some of the estimated 9,350 freshmen enrolled for the fall semester.
The subject came up: This was Daniels’ last BGR, with his last first day of a new semester looming Monday.
This summer, Daniels announced his pending retirement – effective: Dec. 31, 2022 – calling 10 years on the West Lafayette campus a nice round number. Purdue trustees named Mung Chiang, dean of engineering and vice president for strategic initiatives, Daniels’ successor and 13th president in the university’s history.
A few hours before he slipped into the Purdue Pete headgear, Daniels talked at length Tuesday afternoon about what he still wants to get done in his final months at Purdue.
Daniels talked about his future, including pressure to run for governor – check the PAC formed recently by former colleagues to give him that nudge – and other parlor-game speculation on behalf of what’s next for him.
But coming off a summer that included big economic development announcements for Purdue’s 400-acre Discovery Park District – including a $1.8 billion plan coming from semiconductor maker SkyWater Technology that eclipses initial hopes to generate $1.2 billion in total investment in the live-work-play concept on the western edge of campus – last week’s news that Indiana and Purdue would split up IUPUI for more brand-friendly approaches to Indianapolis, a new hospital next to campus and prospects of another record-setting enrollment pushing past 50,000 students this fall, Daniels said:
“We’re not done, yet.”
Question: Just walking across campus this afternoon, it’s hard to miss that things coming to life. Are you getting misty at all?
Mitch Daniels: Not yet, but I might. Tonight will be my last BGR. I was just over here thinking about how I’ve never talked more than just a couple or three minutes. But I'll probably make some reference to that.
Question: Do you find that you’re doing a lot of ‘this is my last …’?
Mitch Daniels: I think we're on the front edge of that. I’m trying to think. We haven't had the last anything, yet. Not the last board (of trustees) meeting. Not the last commencement. But the next to the last, maybe. We're getting close. I know what you’re talking about, but sentimental time is probably still a couple months off.
Question: When Kareem Abdul Jabbar was about to retire, every city he went to, they gave him giant rocking chairs, all sorts of gifts.
Mitch Daniels: I’ve been trying to discourage any victory tours.
Question: But there’s just been a flurry of activity right now – the IUPUI announcement last week, a $1.8 billion SkyWater Technology semiconductor plant for the Discovery Park District, a new micro-hospital from Ascension St. Vincent, $204 million in new Rolls Royce facilities ...
Mitch Daniels: Got another one or two coming.
Question: So, what’s coming. And are you at the point where you’re saying, OK, we’ve been setting them up, time to knock them down before I’m out of here?
Mitch Daniels: I guess I'd say it this way: Obviously, you want to do the little things, and we’ve tried to pay attention to detail and nuts and bolts. But all these years, we've tried to identify big things that would make a big difference in the success, reputation and contributions of this place, and then follow through.
My thought is that a lot of people misuse the word strategy. I was taught a long time ago that strategy’s defined by what it leaves out. If you can't name big things, if everything's in there, many so-called strategies are a wish list. Everybody gets to put their favorite in there. So nothing happens. So, what we've tried to do instead, from the very first year, is identify those two or three or four big things that, if done well, could make a very noticeable difference, and concentrate our attention and our resources on those.
Much like in the last job, I’ll never forget the first year. We have a (General Assembly) session that people still remember as maybe the most active in memory. Just huge stuff. And I remember we had a press conference at the end of it. One of the newspaper reporters, she said, ‘Boy, governor, you all really gave us an awful lot to cover this year. What's next?” And somebody had said, “That was something, but next year is a short session – we don’t do much.” I said, what do you mean, “we don’t do much?” We can’t let a year go by.
That was always our attitude. And I've tried to do that here. So working back to your question: Yes, we have we have started some things I won't be here to finish. But that doesn't mean it was a mistake to start them. I just don't think an enterprise like this can take a year off or a semester off, especially as competitive as our world is. I think you’ve got to constantly be looking for opportunities to get better or more distinctive. So, yeah, we've got some new things going and some more in prospect. The job is to try to hand them off without dropping the baton.
Question: Will we see much of that happen between now and December?
Mitch Daniels: Well, “much” …
Question: Or some of that?
Mitch Daniels: Let me just say that you just saw Friday something that’s been in the oven for quite a while.
Question: For a year, at least, on IUPUI, right?
Mitch Daniels: At least. Let me say that won’t be the last one.
Question: In a break at the last trustees meeting, you mentioned there was a time when you wondered if it was possible to fill the Discovery Park District. And that now you’re wondering whether it’s time to start thinking beyond that 400 acres.
Mitch Daniels: They may look like a great idea, but until somebody signs on the line, you always have to fret a little bit.
Question: Was there a tipping point where you thought, OK, this Discovery Park District idea is going to work?
Mitch Daniels: I want to say Saab. It wasn’t the first. Rolls Royce was a pre-existing relationship that is growing very substantially – I mean, it’s very important. But you would say, well, that wasn't necessarily a validation of the whole new district concept. Schweitzer (Engineering Laboratories) was a big deal. We did have a little in because (company founder) Ed Schweitzer is an alum. And so you could say, well, that tilted the table a little bit. Saab didn't know us from Dubuque. I felt during that conversation and persuading them to come to a place that I don't think was their first or second or third choice when they started – not where they probably imagined – it required us to bring to the table those elements that we think are special about the district. Specifically, the welcoming, live-work-play living arrangements for their team and, most importantly, the research partnership with the university. That was sort of the one. …
In a previous life (as governor), it was Honda (coming to Greensburg, Indiana). By the time that Honda picked us – they had 40-some states competing – we had already had some successes, and we were starting to come up in the ranks of best places for business and all of that. But that was the one that told me, we've arrived as a really competitive state.
I would say that in the context of the (Discovery Park District) and that concept, probably (Saab’s fighter jet fuselage plant) was that one here. Now I think you've seen the same elements and factors at play with SkyWater. And I've got very high hopes that you'll see a couple more fairly soon that, again, reflect that same combination – we can access your students, we’ve got a great business environment and a great living environment for our people, and we’ve got the possibility to work with your researchers. That bundle.
Question: On the scale of what’s out there in the works now, with SkyWater on the top end, are these next ones close to that level?
Mitch Daniels: I would say the ones that I think are most likely soon are big, but not SkyWater big. By any previous measure, SkyWater is awfully big.
Question: This week, West Lafayette started talking about a study for a wastewater plant expansion. The idea was that there was room for the development and people coming at Discovery Park District now. But beyond that, the city needs to get ready.
Mitch Daniels: I think it’s certainly prudent to plan for it. You’ve heard me say, for some time now, West Lafayette, I think, is destined to be a boomtown. You don’t want to overrun your capacity to deliver.
Question: About possibly needing more ground, more acreage for Discovery Park District. Is that just pie in the sky? Or is that in the works in the background?
Mitch Daniels: It’s not a tomorrow thing. But it’s very much like the wastewater plant conversation you just reported on. No, it’s not tomorrow. But it could be the day after. It’s not too soon to be thinking about it. It's a huge advantage, when somebody is scouting, to have at least the basics. That's why we had to do (the $120 million) State Street (project) first. It wasn't just about traffic safety and beautification, although it did those things, too. It was really about trying to build the foundation, so you could say to somebody it’s shovel ready and all that.
Question: Talking about growth at Purdue, you have 10,000 more students on campus than at the start of your tenure. How big is too big? Or is it ever too big? What is a reasonable number?
Mitch Daniels: I'm tempted to say that’s the strategic question we've been working on with the board for some time. I have to laugh and point out that a couple of years ago, after all this deep thinking we did and all these projections and all the rest of that, we said, you know, we think we could reach 36,000 and handle that by 2027. Of course, we blew right through it.
Question: You’re talking undergraduate. You’re set to come close to 38,000 this semester, right?
Mitch Daniels: So, we’re doing fine. But that is the question. Applications, yield, therefore attendance – just because it's done this, we don't want to make the mistake of assuming anything about the future. The headwinds that people keep writing about (in higher education) are just as real. Fewer 18-year-olds and suddenly much lower inclination to go to college. Might be temporary, but we don't know. It's a question to we thought about very, very carefully. Last Friday, we had a lot of reasons for wanting to have the extension of this campus to Indianapolis. A lot of reasons – meeting the needs down there, giving our students and faculty new options, both as to where to live and work while they study. But if successful, it would allow us to grow further without stretching the capacity of this place further.
Question: I’m not sure you’ve heard through the West Lafayette City Council, some grumbling about enrollment growth and what it’s taken to handle it. How many more big apartment complexes do we need to do? That sort of thing. They’ve said: OK, give us a number. How do you think Purdue needs to handle that from here? Or is it too late?
Mitch Daniels: I think what this surfaces is the really important need to maintain the terrific relationship we've had with the city – cities, plural, with Lafayette. You got a change of leadership coming at West Lafayette, a change in leadership here. I hope it won't change anything about that. I think we've stayed not only in close communication, but in harness. I mean, you go looking for a town-gown partnership to resemble State Street. Somewhere there might be. I don't know where. It’s entirely appropriate for them to want to know – and for this place to tell them. For the moment, I think we're at or near a threshold. The board and those who will follow me here will need to keep addressing that and keep the line open to city hall.
Question: I remember you and Mayor John Dennis on heavy equipment, moving dirt west of campus at the start of the State Street Project. The mayor always talks up his partnership with you and the campus. During the SkyWater announcement in July, you talked about you and the mayor, your relationship and working together. There were some tears when you told him, “This is your day, John.” (See the video below.) Was that a chance to say not just so much about the relationship, but it a chance to say something while, given his prognosis of early onset Alzheimer’s, he's there to take in?
Mitch Daniels: I was certainly planning to acknowledge his presence. It was just spontaneous. Going in, I hadn’t planned to say quite what I did, but there was John in the in the front row, and it just brought it to mind. I blurted out whatever exactly what I said. But I'm really glad, because obviously he appreciated it. The crowd's reaction told you that they felt affectionate about him and grateful for all he's done. It was lucky that I got the impulse. But I'm glad I acted on it.
Question: With developments on campus and at the Discovery Park District, a lot has concentrated on national defense. There’s some unease and some concern that Purdue is selling out to a military bent – leaning too much into defense contract type work. How do you respond to that?
Mitch Daniels: Since nobody’s said it to me, I haven’t.
Question: It came up, for example, during Rolls-Royce’s tax abatement conversations with the city council. Some public comment was, Are we sure this is what we want to do?
Mitch Daniels: They’re within their rights to ask. My answer is, we're a public university. National security is the most important public responsibility of any government. The safety of its people is the reason governments come into existence to begin with. … So, zero apologies for participating, if we can.
We don't imagine we can do everything here. We try to concentrate our energy and resources on things we think we can do really well and be special at. And not everything. We're not trying to design aircraft carriers. Hypersonics – take that. That's a real danger to this country. We are behind. It's the first time, in all my working life I've been around these questions. Every time an amateur like me says, Should we worry that the Russians had so many of whatever? The answer was: “Don't worry, our technology's better. We're way ahead.” Nobody says that about hypersonics. If we can make some contribution to keeping that threat under control, I would I would hope everybody would see the virtue of that.
Question: How much influence, how much of a say, did you have in Mung Chiang being the hire as your successor as president?
Mitch Daniels: I don’t want to comment. It was the board’s decision. I think they made a smart one, but I’m going to leave it at that.
Question: You’ve been pretty open about praising him at trustees’ meetings, calling him one of the best hires you’ve ever had.
Mitch Daniels: Yeah, 100%.
Question: You’re comfortable with that, but not saying what kind of role you had in that?
Mitch Daniels: The only thing I'll say is that I have always felt that a person in a job like mine hasn't done it satisfactorily unless she or he had at least worked on the possibilities of a strong transition. You have to put the institution first, not your own personal preferences or ambition, so forth. So, I will say that I spent a lot of time the last few years with the board, identifying alternative possibilities and trying to give multiple people chances to do new and bigger things, show what they could do. And I think the board had choices. We’ll just stick with Mung. We gave him the extra assignment for special projects. So, he was working with us on things like SkyWater. He took the year with the State Department – a whole new experience for him. Meanwhile, other folks also had grown in their assignments. I just think that's a general obligation of the job. …
Question: Do you think the process put him at a disadvantage, having come in without an announced search?
Mitch Daniels: I think it’s a great advantage. We’re not going to blow a year flailing around. Searches are sometimes absolutely essential. And the board said as much. If they didn't think they had somebody they had a five-year job interview with, they'd have had a search. I just think when that happens, very often it's an indication that the board or the organization hasn't done its job – can’t find or don’t have anybody that can do it, so we better go look elsewhere. I do think higher ed has a search obsession. I've teased people here about it many times. I’ve said, I'm not sure that you guys can hire a custodian without a search committee. Often it's very essential, of course it is. But sometimes maybe shouldn't be, and it can be a substitute for real work.
Question: Let's talk about succession plans. I mean, what's yours?
Mitch Daniels: Don't have one.
Question: I don’t totally buy that. What about the succession plans you’ve been talking about, being prepared for what’s next?
Mitch Daniels: That’s the institution. I never had one for myself. I really haven’t. From my own standpoint, it’s been one unexpected development after another. This job was completely unexpected. I wasn’t looking to do this. You and I have talked about that many times.
Question: Do you expect an unexpected thing to come?
Mitch Daniels: I love our students, and for most of them, someone has told them that you’ve got to have a plan. It's like they think they can plan their whole life. I just love that sense of purpose. But every time they asked me the career planning question, I have to laugh and say, ask somebody else, because I didn't do much of it. I used to tell them the first few years, if somebody had asked me right up until December of 2000 – right after the last hanging chad fell (in the presidential election), and I got a phone call saying, “We want you to come into the (George W. Bush) administration” – if anybody had asked me right up until then, What are you going to be doing in April of 2015 or ‘16? I just would have said, Well, let me think – I’ll be getting ready to retire from Eli Lilly and Co. It’s where I work, this is what I do, I'm enjoying every minute of it. But my life changed completely three times since then. So I used to tell them that as a way to say, sure, have a plan, but be open to possibilities that are likely to come along. That's been my track.
I really don't know exactly what I'll be doing in January or February. Maybe all for the first time in my life, I’ll take a little break. Might do some writing. But right now, I genuinely am too occupied trying to bring along some things like one we just unveiled, as well as affect, I hope, a completely smooth transition to the new team.
Question: When you announced you were leaving, there were about two people out there asking about Purdue and about 98 people asking you about politics. What would keep you from going back into politics? What kind of prodding would it take to get you back in? People are chattering. Is it a run for governor? Is it Indianapolis mayor? A run for president?
Mitch Daniels: I guess those are natural questions. But they’re just way off the mark. This decision was about this place and doing the right thing by this place and being able to finish with some real confidence. We're leaving the place in strong shape and strong hands. Life has taken care of itself before. If there is another mission out there – and there might be or might not be – but if there is, maybe it’ll show itself. But it’s not like I had anything else in mind.
Question: So “PB 1,” the car you inherited from (former President) France Córdova. Did it make it through your administration like you’d hoped?
Mitch Daniels: Absolutely. Still going strong.
Question: How many miles did you put on it?
Mitch Daniels: 156,000 now, I think. I didn’t put them all on. There were 70,000, maybe, when we got there. She shows no signs of quitting, that 2006 Toyota Avalon. “Peanut Butter One,” as my daughters renamed it.
Question: Did you honestly think you’d make it with that car?
Mitch Daniels: You know what I’ll compare it to – I hadn’t thought of this before – a little bit like the (tuition) freeze. You know, year to year. If you’d asked me at the front end, Will this still be the case in 10 years? I would have said, Probably not. But I was wrong on both.
Question: Do you think you’re leaving that tuition freeze question to Mung Chiang and to the next level of people who are left to say, OK, it’s over?
Mitch Daniels: That’s a question every school faces every year. What you know is we've already assured not just this year, but next year. That was already baked in, before I decided, on leaving 12/31. But I felt good about the fact that whoever the board chose would have at least the first year, they wouldn't have to make a change then. It's funny that people act like, gosh, it'd be some sort of a blow or tragedy if Purdue has raised tuition by 2 or 3%. But you know, nothing lasts forever. And just think how much lower it would be even then.
Question: Ho much are you going to do to help Mung Chiang in the transition? And how much are you prepared to stay out of the way? Where are you drawing that line?
Mitch Daniels: I’m very much of the view that when you're gone, you're gone. Now they've certainly said – the board and Mung – have asked, will I stay associated in some way? I won't have anything to do with day-to-day operations and all the new things I know Mung will initiate. But if I can pitch in in some way that keeps me out of his way, apparently they want to have that conversation. But my starting point is that hanging around is what you don’t do.
Question: Do you see an emeritus role of some sort on campus?
Mitch Daniels: I don’t know. It's nothing I would suggest. My starting point is really the opposite.
Question: I know you’re not to all the “lasts,” yet. But what are you going to miss?
Mitch Daniels: The students for sure – first, second and third are the interactions with students. I've really enjoyed encounters with alums. Because you know, so many men and women who've gone out and done great things, and essentially, almost none of them started from a position of wealth and privilege. Now, that's this place. I've always been so inspired by that. I'm sure I'll still bump into alums, but it won't be in quite the same context as it is here.
Question: You talked about what you’ll miss. Do you feel that things could have been smoother with the faculty in your time? Or do you think that that was overblown?
Mitch Daniels: Vastly overblown. I've got files full of nice notes from faculty. I've had so many positive interactions. People here are supposed to disagree about things, and it was only natural. And at the beginning, of course, especially natural. It was natural for people to wonder. Was I just passing through? Was I just trying to use the job to get to somewhere else? Was I going to be respectful of everything that makes a university what it is? But, you know, it's been 99% positive for a very long time.
Question: On that, do you feel like you’ve acquitted yourself over 10 years?
Mitch Daniels: I hope so. I've been pretty scrupulous about staying out of politics or anything close to it. That was one thing that I thought was important. People wondered, naturally. We’ve invested in the place very heavily. We've grown the faculty dramatically. On the other hand, I think I've stayed out of things that I could have meddled in – tried to be respectful of the processes we have. Hiring, firing and tenure, stuff like that. I do think, and this is measurable, that we’ve elevated the recognition and reputation of Purdue. It’s risen nationally. And I think that serves our faculty well. It ought to help them win their own recognitions and their own research opportunities and things like that.
Question: This really wasn’t meant to be an exit interview. Any closing thoughts heading into a final semester?
Mitch Daniels: When it’s closer to the exit, I probably will be more sentimental. Right now, we’ve got a lot going on. We’ve got a lot of plates spinning here. And that’s the way you want it.
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