How Mitch Daniels’ visionary leadership transformed Purdue University

September 16, 2022

As the price of college tuition skyrockets and student loan forgiveness dominates the higher education landscape, one retiring college president looms large: Purdue University’s Mitch Daniels, who famously froze tuition for each of the 11 years he held the top position.

But while the freeze has led many of the accolades and favorable news coverage about Daniels’ tenure, he has done far more than keep costs low. He’s also grown the student body, doubled donor revenue, and improved Purdue’s national standing for the quality of its STEM programs. He’s also made Purdue the center of attention and investment for major corporations.

Daniels’ strategy rewrote the book on how to accelerate growth. Many organizations think that you have to spend money to make money. Instead, in an email interview, he explained that “exercising care with finances and narrowing strategic choices” for investments of available money improved Purdue’s programs. This led to record student enrollment, which “supported both our investments in higher quality and our ability to keep extending the tuition freeze.”

In other words: Daniels kept spending low, reinvested more dollars into fewer areas, and created a flywheel of success which led to more student attendance, which created more revenue for investing in better programs, which attracted more students.

Setting, executing, & achieving goals

Daniels, who said he leaves the question of success “for others to judge,” said that his approach started with three objectives:

  • For the university “to thrive as it entered…an era of much greater skepticism about the value of higher education.”
  • Building “one of the preeminent STEM universities in the country.”
  • “Elevat[ing] Purdue’s national recognition, reputation, and prestige.”

Again, Daniels is famous for saving students an average of nearly $6,000 per year in tuition since his tenure began. But he also propelled the other side of the university’s balance sheet. New donor records were set in Fiscal Year 2022, and donations which averaged about $250 million annually for the prior 12 years averaged about $400 million annually during Daniels’ tenure…on a trend which appears likely to continue to grow even after FY 2022’s record $540 million in giving.

Other factors indicate a widespread culture of success. Purdue has received high rankings for its STEM programs and overall value to students and faculty retention was slightly higher average under Daniels than it was from 2008 to 2012. Meanwhile, the student body grew by almost 25% among undergraduates, and more than a third in graduate programs.

And Daniels’ strategy won’t grind to a halt after he leaves later this year. MediaTek is opening the company’s first semiconductor chip design center in the Midwest on Purdue’s campus, and Saab is opening a fighter jet plant on-site. These partnerships will keep students on the leading edge of technology, the American economy, and the high-paying jobs of the future.

Communicating success

Changing the course of a billion-dollar ship with thousands of employees, tens of thousands of customers (students and parents), and thousands of other diverse stakeholders (lawmakers, influencers, donors, and others) isn’t easy. Daniels’ communications team has been busy making sure that all stakeholders see, understand, and are behind the vision. As an example, a 2020 feature posted by The Atlantic barely included any criticism, even though Daniels is an outspoken conservative and universities tend to be slow-moving, left-of-center institutions.

Many poor educational institutions have excellent communications teams, but the results don’t match the lipstick on the really ugly pig. Other institutions, meanwhile, have excellent student outcomes, but don’t have the communications strategy or team to show stakeholders the value they provide.

Daniels has the whole package. His communications team has built upon his vision and back-end implementation, pushing Daniels to the forefront of the educational conversation through tools like speeches, a Washington Post column, and the many well-designed fact sheets linked throughout this piece. His opposition to President Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness proposal, for example, would hold no weight if 60 percent of Purdue students didn’t graduate debt-free, one-third more than the national average.

Daniels isn’t an educator; he’s a leader

As the price of tuition, room, and board continue to far outpace inflation and student loans quadruple compared to the amount held in 2003, college administrators should follow the Daniels model by:

  • Identifying clear objectives.
  • Narrowing strategic choices to create greater value for each dollar spent.
  • Showing that value to all stakeholders. Daniels’ communications team has made sure that key target audiences notice the institution’s success.
  • Prioritizing both sides of the balance sheet – keep spending low while growing the top line.
  • Building important alliances to expand the value of the “student experience” and, in the case of public universities like Purdue, the taxpayers’ investment.

Daniels may be humble enough to leave his legacy to the judgment of others. We’d say it’s clear that just as Henry Ford wasn’t just a car guy and Bill Gates was far more than a computer programmer, Purdue’s retiring president is far more than an educator.

He’s a visionary leader.

This piece was originally published at Real Clear Markets by Dustin Siggins & Marc Ransford.

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