June 21, 2012, marked a dividing line in the professional life of Mitch Daniels.
Before walking off the Loeb Playhouse stage that day, announced as the 12th president of Purdue University even though he still had months to go as Indiana governor, Daniels vowed to put partisan politics aside, starting at that moment.
“I don’t think there was any alternative to it,” Daniels said a day after being introduced on campus. “To me it was very, very straightforward. My responsibilities are going to change in six months, but my association with Purdue started [June 21].”
That was no small promise for a sitting governor who made no bones about his conservative politics, his partisan GOP position and the lengths he’d go to prove that his way was the way to go.
It also was a promise met with plenty of skepticism on campus, in the community and across the state. Was it possible for a guy only a few months removed from consideration for a run for the White House to switch it on and off? And was it possible for this particular politician — simultaneously lauded and reviled for his hardball stance on everything from education reform to collective bargaining — to really get the nuances of academic freedom?
Since June 21, 2012, I’ve worked a version of this question into conversations with faculty members: “What’s your take on your new boss’ adjustment?” There’s no single answer. The consensus, from the “My Man Mitch” crowd to the initially skeptical, has been that Daniels has been true to his word to keep academic freedom up front and politics at the side of the road.
But with this caveat: Everyone’s watching and waiting.
Last week provided a revelation via the Associated Press that Daniels, in a series of 2010 emails, looked to stifle the works of left-wing historian Howard Zinn. The then-governor branded Zinn a “fraud” who “force-fed a totally false version of our history” in Indiana classrooms.