WASHINGTON - When Gov. Mitch Daniels officially takes over as president of Purdue University in January, it will mark the second time in consecutive presidencies that the school has transcended the traditional when choosing its leader.
Daniels follows Purdue’s first female and first Hispanic president, France Cordova, who leaves an important legacy even though she served just five years. The first breakthrough she achieved was to bring diversity to the leadership at Hovde Hall, Purdue’s administration building.
Although he’s a white male, Daniels, too, represents diversity in the chief executive position at Purdue. He’s the first president not to come from a science background. He also is the first to step into the role straight from politics.
What this means is that Daniels can bring a different perspective to Purdue. Just as he’ll have to adjust to the science and engineering faculties, they’ll have to adjust to him, too. They won’t be dealing with a president who, like Cordova, the former chief scientist at NASA, has spent time working in a lab.
But they will have a president who has a varied and rich professional background – serving as chief of staff to Sen. Richard Lugar and as a top aide to President Ronald Reagan, remaking himself as a think-tank executive with the Hudson Institute, working for more than a decade as a top executive at Eli Lilly and Co., running the Office of Management and Budget under President George W. Bush and then winning two terms as governor of Indiana.
With these points on his life trajectory, Daniels will offer a unique approach to running a university. He’ll have a different understanding of how the world works and what Purdue’s role in that world should be. He won’t have to learn the political dimensions of a college presidency; he’ll be an expert in that area from his first day.
Critics have said that Daniels is not qualified to be a university president because one thing he hasn’t done in his career is worked in the publish-or-perish academic environment. He’s written two books, but his curriculum vitae is not sprinkled with peer-reviewed articles in scholarly journals. In his self-deprecating manner, Daniels took on this skepticism directly in his statement upon accepting the position. “I have not made a life in the academy, but I have spent my life reading, admiring and attempting to learn from those who do,” Daniels said. “I am not a scholar in the sciences, but I am as avid a student of their advances as a lay person can be, and have taken every step I could think of to elevate the scientific disciplines in the eyes of our citizens and in the educational paths of our young people. I will have to earn the honor of this appointment through strenuous work to build the understanding, alliances and personal relationships, especially with the faculty, required for a successful presidency.” It’s likely that Daniels wrote those words himself. Unlike many politicians, he does his own writing. When he speaks, you’re hearing his own words expressing his own beliefs.
If you’ve read the first chapter of his book, “Keeping the Republic,” you know that Daniels likes to think expansively and critically. He lays the ground work for the urgent need to build public support to tackle the country’s burgeoning debt problem – what he calls the “red menace” – by taking the reader on a rhetorical tour of the history of democracy that ranges from Plato to Pericles to the Renaissance to Nietzsche to Hamilton, Madison, Adams, de Tocqueville and even Tom Friedman. Daniels makes connections and draws parallels. He likely is demonstrating the liberal arts education he received as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a law student at Georgetown University. I hope he brings this mindset to Purdue.
The school has a strong tradition of science and technology breakthroughs and must build every day on those advances for the good of Indiana, the nation and the world. But Purdue must teach its scientists and engineers to think critically and express themselves articulately – something that it too often overlooks.
One of the exciting things about Cordova’s tenure was that she stressed interdisciplinary learning. For instance, she established the Global Policy Research Institute “to create synergies between researchers across disciplinary lines in order to address global challenges,” according to Purdue literature. This kind of approach is not surprising from someone whose undergraduate major was English.
I’m not suggesting that Purdue be transformed into a liberal arts college. But the liberal arts must be elevated because beyond campus is a global economy that demands people who can think and communicate as well as crunch numbers. Daniels probably understands this better than anyone else Purdue could have hired.
I want Daniels to succeed in West Lafayette because I’m a proud Purdue alum and Purdue investor. My annual donation qualifies me for membership in the President’s Council. I want to see my modest contribution support a well-rounded school.
The Daniels administration holds much promise. I hope he will build on the strong Purdue science and technology pedigree by helping all of us Boilermakers think differently.

Schoeff is HPI's Washington correspondent.