Purdue University President Mitch Daniels’ defenders are correct when they say there’s a faction on campus that probably will forever lock in on the notion that a political tiger can’t change his stripes.
And the defenders are correct that Daniels shouldn’t get hung up on that. So much of what he’s doing on campus is shaking Purdue up in the right way.
But for the rest — those who were willing to give the governor-turned-university president a fair shake — Daniels gave a metric and told people to hold him to it: Partisan politics stopped in June 2012, the day he was announced as the next Purdue president.
So why would Daniels tempt fate by walking so close to a political trip wire?
Last week, Daniels flew to Minneapolis to give a talk to a conservative think tank called the Center of the American Experiment. His audience — the group says its “aim is nothing less than shifting Minnesota’s intellectual and political center of gravity to the right” — by itself, is not a concern.
The topic, and why Daniels is broaching it now, is.
The particulars of his speech aren’t clear. Daniels and those who were there aren’t sharing. But last week’s fundraiser, which included the chance to donate to get photo ops or dinner with Daniels, was touted as a discussion of what Daniels did as governor to cut taxes and preserve state finances. The center’s promo for the event looked forward to Daniels’ advice “for what Minnesotans might hope leads to a few teachable moments in St. Paul.”
You could say Daniels was steering clear of his partisan past if he’d gone to any group — with any political lean — to tell about Purdue’s role in higher education or some other campus-related topic.
But here the conversation was his time as governor — a time in his career for which he makes no apologies.
“Look, I had a job that required me to — wait, it didn’t require me, but I chose to — take clear stances on a thousand issues,” Daniels told the J&C in July, when he was fending off controversy over emails he wrote as governor about keeping the work of historian Howard Zinn out of Indiana’s public schools.
That led to reaffirmation of his promise to separate his political past from his university future.
“The pledge I took [when named Purdue president], first of all, was to forsake anything partisan — which I have done, without exception — and to stay out of public issues that could be construed that way,” Daniels said in July. “And I think I’ve been faithful to that.”
Purdue’s trustees told J&C reporter Hayleigh Colombo they aren’t concerned with last week’s paid speaking engagement. They say they have an arrangement with Daniels so if he’s paid to make an appearance, that counts as personal time. They even say they are OK with Daniels using Purdue’s jet to hit those personal time speaking engagements, if it means he can get back to Purdue business sooner.
So Daniels is in the clear with his immediate bosses.
Outside of that, the verdict isn’t as clear. Daniels wastes the good will offered by the likes of professor David Williams, chairman of the University Senate. In September, Williams called out skeptical faculty and asked them to lay down arms in an “undeclared ideological war.” His point: Give Daniels some breathing room and space to work.
Williams’ truce, though, was predicated on Daniels keeping his focus on the university and not on the politics of right-to-work laws or whatever was covered in Minneapolis.
Daniels says he understands the meaning of appearances. This is the same guy who swore off lobbying at the Statehouse for a year, just so things didn’t look out of place with revolving door, lawmaker-to-lobbyist policies he put into place as governor.
But his career at Purdue, 10 months in now, will continue to be questioned and pulled down whenever he steps, however innocently, onto political turf.
The ultimate metric that matters here is: When does Mitch Daniels become known as Purdue president, not the former governor of Indiana? With this week’s speaking engagement, he didn’t help himself in that category.
— Journal & Courier, Lafayette