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Purdue leader talks city’s role, importance of STEM education

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Mitch Daniels wants Purdue to be considered the best STEM-centric university in the United States, saying there is no higher aspiration toward creating more Indiana jobs.

“A first class, STEM-oriented, research-based university can be an engine unlike any other for lifting the economy of the state that’s lucky enough to have it,” said Daniels, the former Indiana governor who is in his second year as president of Purdue.

Daniels spoke of Purdue’s commitment to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) in the keynote address at Monday’s Columbus Economic Development Board annual meeting at The Commons.

“We are already the third-most STEM-centric (university), with just over half of our undergraduate diplomas last year in the STEM disciplines,” Daniels said. “There is no asset that a state or region can and should aspire to if it wants to be economically successful and dynamic in this world than a STEM-based, high-technology research university.”

The university will hire as many as 100 new faculty members in STEM-related areas and transform its College of Technology into the Purdue Polytechnic Institute, a hub for consumer-oriented research, Daniels said.

Research efforts will focus on advancing plant science and drug discovery, and the university’s goals will be about feeding and healing the world, Daniels said.

He emphasized that a key element of Purdue’s strategy must be providing an affordable, first-class education for everyone who wants it. One of the first things he did after taking over at Purdue was to freeze tuition rates at the main campus in Lafayette after

36 years of increases.

“This is a huge problem, and again we are trying to address it immediately at Purdue,” Daniels said. “It was frozen for this year, it will be frozen again for next year; and in a couple of weeks, when our board meets, I’m going to ask them for a resolution freezing it for a third year. What I said to the campus was, instead of asking our students and their families to adjust their budgets to our spending, how about if we try to adjust our spending to their budgets.’”

Doug Thomas, vice president of human resources for Faurecia, said he applauds Daniels for taking such a bold and innovative approach.

“I was talking to some of my colleagues here about how refreshing it is to have someone who has actually spent a career outside of academics to go into a university setting and make the necessary changes,” Thomas said. “I think he’s got a really vibrant perspective, and he’s taking us back to the roots of what Purdue University is all about.”

Mimicking Columbus

Daniels offered strong praise for Columbus, saying he would like to see Purdue reach the kind of success in its higher education goals that the city has achieved in its economic efforts.

He referred to Columbus as “the big cylinder” in the region’s economic engine.

“We hope Purdue can provide the same sort of advantage to Indiana,” Daniels said.

Almost immediately after he first was elected in 2004, Daniels created the Indiana Economic Development Corp., looking to spur new investment in the state and create employment opportunities. He became Purdue University’s 12th president in January 2013, at the conclusion of his second term as governor.

He received a standing ovation at his introduction from the more than 400 people at the luncheon and another at the conclusion of his remarks.

Daniels began his presentation by talking about the unique characteristics that distinguish Columbus.

“I’ve done so on this continent and many others for over a decade now over the increasing pride but also increasing awe at what a gem, a jewel, an exemplary community this is,” Daniels said.

He spoke about the value of creating an economic development mechanism at the state level as governor and his belief that Purdue University can be an extension of that.

Local strategies

Jason Hester, executive director of the Columbus Economic Development Board, praised Daniels for his ongoing leadership role in economic development as both Indiana governor and Purdue University president.

“There were literally hundreds of victories that this state had as a result of his leadership,” Hester said.

Hester talked about the board’s objective to anticipate and meet the needs of the region’s companies.

“First and foremost, we want to understand the needs of our existing employers,” Hester said. “Next, we want to be prepared to welcome and answer the questions of new community-minded base businesses that will help grow our economy and bring economic well-

being to our residents.”

3-point plan

Kurt Ellis, 2014 chairman of the Columbus Economic Development Board, pointed to three key objectives that the board focuses on to achieve its mission to build a world-class community.

“We do everything that we can to ensure the growth of existing primary businesses,” Ellis said. “Next, we work to attract ideal new business, and third, we work with our community partners, both public and private, to build on and improve our area’s desirability for businesses and residents.”

Ellis pointed to several economic indicators that suggest those efforts are paying off.

In 2012, the real gross domestic product (GPD) growth in Columbus was

9.6 percent, which was the fifth-highest-growing metro area in the United States. Of that growth, 86 percent was directly attributed to durable goods manufacturing.

Bartholomew County also ranks in the top 2 percent of all U.S. counties for manufacturing employment strength.

“Manufacturing is alive and well within Bartholomew County,” Ellis said.

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