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Mitch Daniels reflects on career, legacy at Purdue

Daniels worked in the Bush administration, was an Eli Lilly executive and Indiana governor. He took the top job at Purdue after considering a run at the White House.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — Mitch Daniels is stepping down as Purdue's president at the end of 2022.  

Today, I spent an hour with Daniels to learn about his highlights as the "Boiler Boss" and his plans for the future.

Daniels joked when I opened our conversation by asking why he was retiring.

"First, I don't use that word. Please don't use it around Cheri [Daniels]. I am moving on," Daniels said.

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His 10 years as Boiler Boss are winding down. Daniels is proud of this year's record enrollment of 50,000 undergrad and graduate students in West Lafayette, rising rankings and applications doubling.

"We don't want to be known for how many students we turn away. We want to be known for how many students we turn out for the benefit of Indiana and the broader society," Daniels said.

Credit: AP
FILE- In this June 21, 2012 file photo Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels speaks to a student after being named as the next president of Purdue University by the school's trustees in West Lafayette, Ind. Daniels will take the helm of the school after leaving office in January and succeeds France Cordova who will leave in July after five years at Purdue's helm. As he prepares to leave office this month, Gov. Mitch Daniels says he hopes his big thinking, long a foreign concept in Indiana politics, will become the norm. Daniels will leave Indiana a state modeled after the businessman's conservatism he practiced and studied for decades, with all the successes and mistakes that came of his bold vision.(AP Photo/Michael Conroy, File)

Daniels' career includes working in President George W. Bush's administration, as an executive at Eli Lilly and two terms as Indiana's governor, leading some to wonder if he wanted his old job again.

"I'm not thinking about that. I don't know where those things get started, but it wasn't with me," Daniels said.

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Daniels took the top job at Purdue after considering a run for the White House — something he says he wouldn't consider in 2024.

"People say timing is everything. It probably is. That cycle 2012 election. It had an air of reality about it. I honestly believe, as objectively as I can be, we would have been nominated. I don't know if we would have won the election. Having passed on that for good reason, I've never given it another thought since," Daniels said.

Credit: AP
FILE- In this Nov. 4, 2008, file photo Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels is congratulated by a supporter following a his re-election speech in Indianapolis. As he prepares to leave office this month, Gov. Mitch Daniels says he hopes his big thinking, long a foreign concept in Indiana politics, will become the norm. Daniels will leave Indiana a state modeled after the businessman's conservatism he practiced and studied for decades, with all the successes and mistakes that came of his bold vision. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

According to Daniels, he's taken "a vow of political celibacy" at Purdue, wanting to stay neutral while leading "Boiler nation." But, the former Republican governor has observations about what's happening in Washington, D.C.

"I think both parties have come to be dominated by their fringe. Extreme left. Extreme right," Daniels said.

Credit: AP
FILE - In this Nov. 7, 2012 file photo, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, right, congratulates Gov.-elect Mike Pence following a news conference at the Statehouse in Indianapolis. Lawmakers will gather in Indianapolis Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, for a session dominated by drafting the state's biennial budget and consideration of Pence's priorities, including a proposed personal income tax cut. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings, File)

I asked Daniels if he had any thoughts about former President Donald Trump.  

"I don't talk about him. Haven't up to this point. It's not the day to do that," Daniels said. "I never met him."

Daniels loves Purdue sports and also joked about the in-state rivalry with Indiana University.   

"They need to up their game a little. We've been beating them like a drum the last few years," Daniels said.

Daniels told me his best day as president was watching Purdue upset undefeated and second-ranked Ohio State at Ross-Ade Stadium.

"That was the time of Tyler Trent. The incredibly courageous young man, who in so many ways, personified what we want Purdue students to be. Purposeful, courageous beyond words as he was dying from cancer," Daniels said. "But, if you remember, he predicted that win and predicted it on national TV and then, my goodness, it happened."

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The Purdue president said college sports have taken some unfortunate turns.

"They're going to professionalize Division 1 football essentially," Daniels said. "It's perfectly understandable that these young men and women ought to be able to make some money and the reputations their skills have built. It's not going to stop there. They're going to have what amounts to paid professional athletes, probably unionized. It'll be entertaining, for the schools fortunate enough to be in that new stratum. It'll be very successful financially. But, it won't be college sports the way we've known it."

Credit: Purdue University photo/Rebecca McElhoe
Purdue University President Mitch Daniels and Nathan Peercy from Cupertino, California, who graduated Saturday (May 15) from the College of Science, drive around Ross-Ade Stadium on the “couch cart.” The cart delivered Daniels to the speaker’s platform for Saturday’s commencement ceremony.

Daniels is concerned about the national debt and how it will impact future generations.

"The debts we've continued to pile up at such an unimaginable rate that we're going to deposit on an innocent younger generation. These are dollars that we didn't borrow to invest in their future. We've borrowed and spent them on today's adults," Daniels said.

According to Daniels, our state's economy is doing very well. He's happy Indiana lawmakers passed a law that includes a $200 refund check for Hoosiers.

"As the author of automatic rebate bill, I'm pleased each time it kicks in and leaves money in the pockets of those who earned it," Daniels said. "I said in promoting the idea, it's better to stay in your pocket than burn a hole in the pocket of government."

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For now, Daniels is concentrating on the job at hand. Five months to the finish line, Daniels said he hasn't thought about whether there's another race in his future.

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