Mitch Daniels has been fairly highly regarded both for his tenure as governor of Indiana and as president of Purdue University. Obviously he has critics, especially those who differ with his politics. But it’s clear Mitch is a man of ideas and has done a pretty good job at implementing them. Many Republicans still lament that he decided against running for president in 2012.
What he gets most noted for in both roles is financial conservatism. As incoming governor he faced a billion dollar budget deficit that he was able to close, then he successfully navigated the state through the Great Recession. At Purdue he’s most famous for having frozen tuition since his arrival.
What’s missing from this is how different his tenures as governor and university president have been in the important dimension of quality place making. As governor, Daniels was hostile to place making activities and capital spending other than for roads. As university president, he rivals Carmel mayor Jim Brainard as a place builder extraordinaire.
As governor, Daniels railed against what he termed “gold-plated” projects. Here’s what he told the Weekly Standard in 2010.
When we were first campaigning, I started to notice, we’d drive through these rural counties, these very poor counties, and we’d drive up over a hill and on the other side you’d see a brand-new high school that looked like Frank Lloyd Wright had just been there. Enormous gold-plated buildings. It turned out we had higher capita expenditures for educational construction per square foot than any other state. There’d be a bond issue and then the architects and contractors would run amok, spending money on things that had nothing to do with academics. I understand why it happens. The school board likes it because they get to play designer for a year. But we couldn’t afford it.
It wasn’t just schools in poor communities he didn’t like. His Department of Local Government Finance vetoed a schools project in the booming Indianapolis suburb of Greenwood and also shot down a new library in booming north suburban Westfield. In both cases supporters of the bond issues had actually won a petition drive over opponents, but that didn’t matter to the Daniels administration.
To be clear, he did green light a new stadium for the Colts and other items (while being sure to point out that he “took a little gold-plating off”). But it’s fair to say he was skeptical of big dollar expenditures on capital projects, and especially anything that was above average in cost.
As president of Purdue University, however, Daniels, in partnership with the city of West Lafayette, has been an incredible builder of very high grade projects. For example, here’s a picture of the newly reconstructed State St., main street through campus, with separated road, bike, and pedestrian paths, landscaping, decorative lighting, etc.
This is not only a gold-plated project, it’s arguably the nicest urban street in state of Indiana. Note the high grade, Indy Cultural Trail type bike path.
Purdue also released a new campus masterplan that’s focused in improving quality of place. Part of the idea is about making West Lafayette a much more nationally competitive environment from a quality of life perspective. Reputationally, it has not traditionally been of the premier college towns in the Big Ten or nationally. Daniels has clearly been working to change that. As the local paper reported:
“So, when you walk through this campus, you not only see a tightly organized, functional, clean, purposeful place, you see a place that you want to live, a place you want to bring your kids,” Berghoff said. “So, when (West Lafayette) Mayor (John) Dennis or Suresh (Garimella, executive vice president for research) are courting some Fortune 500 company to come to West Lafayette, and they’re also visiting, who knows, Boston or Bloomington or some suburb of Chicago, they walk away and say, ‘This has a great feel about it.’”
One major initiative is the Discovery Park District, a complete reimagining of the west side of campus as a mixed use, urban type district connecting to the tech park and other newly developed buildings, which are world class, on the far side of the major highway of US 231. It’s a $1 billion public-private partnership.
I made the Carmel comparison because Purdue is using some of the same techniques. The Purdue Research Foundation is the equivalent of Carmel’s redevelopment commission, which obtains site control and then finances infrastructure. Also like central Carmel, the university is the de facto master developer, recruiting private developers to help implement its vision through public-private partnerships.
If you haven’t been to West Lafayette recently, the change is already dramatic. He surely wouldn’t say this but my guess is Daniels saw that the campus and surrounds didn’t measure up to par, and set about changing that. It’s an under-reported part of the Daniels success story at Purdue.
Why the change in approach? Being president of Purdue is essentially running a local government. The switch from running a state to running a de facto locality seems to have prompted Daniels to add some new tools to his tool chest.
Note that he did not abandon his fiscal conservatism to do this. Tuition has been frozen. And I believe room and board and textbooks are actually cheaper than when he got there. He developed the “Back a Boiler” program to give the university skin the game on loan repayments. Etc. This makes Purdue a good candidate for a case study to document how he and the city pulled this off. It wasn’t some tax and spend type program.
It would be interesting to see how Daniels might have approached being governor if it had come after running Purdue instead of before it. Might he have been more friendly to local government capital improvements, particularly ones with higher grade designs? I’d like to think so. It would have made him an even more effective governor. Making Indiana’s communities more competitive from a quality of built environment perspective is critical to their ability to compete in today’s economy. Daniels clearly sees the role it plays in Purdue’s competitiveness.