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Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
Chancellor Michael Wartell shakes hands with a graduate during IPFW commencement ceremonies last month at Memorial Coliseum. He leaves the post at the end of this week.

Point of pride

IPFW confidence grew under Wartell

Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
IPFW officials proposed renaming the new student services complex in honor of Michael and Ruth Wartell.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
The atrium between the Walb Union and the Gates Sports Center at IPFW. The construction was part of the renovation of the Gates Sports Center.
Cathie Rowand | The Journal Gazette
IPFW has seen more than $243 million in new construction during the tenure of Chancellor Michael Wartell.

New buildings on the IPFW campus are the visible signs of Michael Wartell’s 18-year tenure as chancellor. But his most lasting influence is less tangible: a sense of pride and purpose in students, faculty and the community at large.

No longer is IPFW branded as “Bypass High.” The university’s faculty produces research worthy of the best institutions, and its graduates find their skills as marketable as those who studied in West Lafayette or Bloomington. The campus bookstore is a sea of Mastodon blue and white instead of an outlet for black-and-gold Purdue gear or IU’s cream and crimson.

And now, as IPFW moves from years of stable leadership into what looks to be a stormy transition period, state lawmakers are set to consider IPFW governance by its parent Purdue University. The shoddy manner in which Purdue trustees treated Wartell and the choice they made for his replacement haven’t gone unnoticed by Sen. Dennis Kruse, co-chairman of the Indiana Select Commission on Education.

“Should we have more autonomy in Fort Wayne?” he asked last week. “Should this become the Fort Wayne State University? The question should be raised again. It may not go anywhere, but it is worthy to ask the question.”

Awkward transition

If all went as expected, the 50-year history of Fort Wayne’s regional campus would end with an account of Wartell’s impending retirement from IPFW, noting that he led the university to its milestone anniversary and was preparing to hand it off to a successor. But Wartell and the university became victims of poor timing when Purdue President France Córdova’s five-year contract neared its expiration and pressure reportedly grew not to extend her tenure. The fact that she would turn 65 shortly after her term ended was a convenient excuse for replacing Córdova.

Wartell, however, was turning 65 in October. Purdue’s outdated and wrongheaded retirement policy requires top administrators to retire at the end of the fiscal year in which they turn 65. The trustees could have handled the situation deftly by announcing his tenure would be extended through IPFW’s anniversary commemoration in 2014. That would allow the new leader on the West Lafayette campus to have the final word on the regional campus appointment. There certainly was precedent for allowing an administrator to stay on the job. Purdue has granted exceptions seven times since 1996, including extensions for Presidents Steven Beering and Martin Jischke, and Purdue-North Central Chancellor Dale Alspaugh.

Instead, the trustees – at least three of them septuagenarians – stuck with the mandatory age 65 retirement rule and pushed ahead with a chancellor search process that ended in the selection of 64-year-old Vicky Carwein, chancellor of the 1,500-student Washington State Universities Tri Cities campus in Richland, Wash. Only the trustees seemed to think it wasn’t suspicious to push out a popular 65-year-old leader in favor of a 64-year-old, even as board vice chairman Thomas Spurgeon insisted Wartell wasn’t forced to retire for performance issues.

Carwein’s academic and administrative record is strong, but several IPFW observers suggest she’s been set up to fail.

“It’s a real slap in our face to bring in a 64-year-old woman – because, you know damn well they are going to turn around and this is going to be a revolving door for chancellors,” said Frank V. Paladino, professor and chairman of the IPFW biology department and member of a committee that reviewed Wartell’s performance just two years ago. “If you refer to a corporate model, you don’t take one of the CEOs of your branch corporations who has doubled the enrollment, doubled the revenue and increased the plant size and then go ahead and replace him and bring in somebody who’s one year younger than him.

“I don’t know the woman – I think she could be wonderful, fabulous, great, and I’m looking forward to working with her – but you don’t do that. It’s a slap in the face to us by the board of trustees and it’s a slap in the face to the Fort Wayne community. Because what they are doing is saying that Fort Wayne is not important – we don’t want you to have the long-term leadership and stability that’s good for a university.”

Susan Hannah, who stepped down as vice chancellor of academic affairs in 2008 but continues to teach in the political science department, praised Purdue’s choice of a woman as chancellor but said the trustees have made it difficult for her to succeed.

“I think they undercut her,” Hannah said, upon learning Carwein’s age. “They make themselves look like hypocrites.”

Evolving relationship

The leadership change in Fort Wayne inevitably focuses attention on the regional campus’ relationship with Purdue, one that has changed since IPFW was founded.

“When this place started, there was a lot of control by West Lafayette,” said Michael Nusbaumer, a sociology professor and former IU speaker for the faculty Senate. “The amount of autonomy was dependent on who the president was. Maybe I wouldn’t call it autonomy – maybe it was benign neglect.”

Barbara Blauvelt, secretary for the departments of history and political science, will mark her 43rd year at IPFW this month. She said the regional campus has “a long history of fussing with Purdue.”

“It’s reflected as we search for a new chancellor,” said Blauvelt, who witnessed firsthand much of the debate involving the parent campus as secretary for the Senate for 20 years. “It has always been a struggle. They had some real battles with Steve Beering and with (former vice president for academic affairs) Robert Ringel.”

Blauvelt said it appeared, at times, that Purdue officials didn’t want IPFW to grow. She pointed to a chancellor who served in the late 1980s who was pushed out after just two years because he personally lobbied lawmakers in defiance of Purdue’s direction.

That’s where Wartell’s approach seemed to benefit IPFW.

“Dr. Wartell was very effective in teaching West Lafayette about us and how they needed to allow us to grow,” said Art Friedel, who joined the faculty in 1967 and continues to teach chemistry. “We are in a large city here in Fort Wayne. Purdue is very different because they dominate West Lafayette. Wartell was very effective in making them understand why certain things had to be done here.”

Friedel said IPFW has grown into the community over the years and, in turn, the community has come to value the university.

“One thing Mike Wartell did was increase our visibility. The community was not very pro-public education – they thought their taxes should not support higher education. What he did was make them understand that if IPFW doesn’t thrive, the community doesn’t thrive – this is your university. That’s a critical thing. We’ve become Fort Wayne’s university.”

Academic integrity

Blauvelt, who remembers when IPFW was derided as a second-rate university, credits early faculty and administration for setting a sound foundation, but acknowledges that Wartell has been supportive of students and faculty and that any differences with the university Senate were inevitable in a faculty/administrator relationship.

Hannah said she arrived on campus “at a time of great turmoil and turnover.”

“Mike hired me to really focus on the academic quality of the institution,” she said. “He gets a lot of commendation for (IPFW’s move to Division I athletics) and housing, but I strongly believe some of his greatest contributions really dealt with the academic core of the university.”

Hannah said it was IPFW’s academic progress that earned the confidence of both IU and Purdue to make tenure and promotion decisions. While both flagship institutions have the final say, they generally defer to the regional campus.

She described the relationship as “sort of a coming-of-age theme.” Purdue, in particular, was protective of its authority in approving changes in curriculum.

“We were able to convince them we could make sound decisions,” Hannah said. “I’m very proud of that.”

Another point of pride comes from a difficult incident, but it’s one that Wartell himself points to as a turning point: The “Corpus Christi” controversy.

A student production, about a Christ-like figure and his 12 homosexual friends, roiled the campus and community for months in early 2001. Six Republican state senators complained about it in a letter to the editor and implied that state financial support might be affected. Wartell defended the students and theater department, arguing that they were protected by the freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic expression.

“I think (Wartell) has done irreparable harm – not only in the eyes of the community, but in the eyes of the legislators,” Sen. Thomas Wyss said at the time.

Some faculty members opposed the production, as well, but the decision to stand up for academic expression seemed to prevail.

“They saw the importance of the core mission of the university and what was expected of them,” Wartell recalled. “It really brought people together in a way that nothing else could have.”

It also passed with no lasting harm. Even Wyss, who continues to criticize the decision to stage “Corpus Christi” on a taxpayer-supported campus, praises Wartell’s skill in advocating for IPFW.

“He got a lot of things done that (Purdue) did not support,” Wyss said. “I think it’s going to be a tough thing for anyone to develop the relationships he had – he used to drive us nuts talking about IPFW’s needs!”

Next chapter

When Wartell leaves office at the end of this month he’s likely to move to a well-paid faculty position. The new chancellor won’t take office until Sept. 1, so Walt Branson, vice chancellor for financial affairs, will cover as an interim appointment.

Branson said he expected a quiet summer, but there is the matter of the legislative education panel. The summer study was approved after an earlier attempt to change Purdue’s retirement policy died. The bill would have prohibited state universities from applying a mandatory retirement policy to administrators in high policymaking positions. It passed the Senate but died in the House, reportedly at the behest of Purdue officials who – as it happens – were searching for a new president at the Statehouse.

Sen. Kruse, who added the retirement policy language to a bill, said the IPFW discussion would be the sole topic of one of the Select Commission’s nine meetings, probably in August or September.

“I think funding is the major consideration we want to talk about,” he said, noting that the 14,000-plus enrollment represents the state’s fifth-largest public university. “Secondly is governance. We think maybe the time has come to look at some sort of local board of trustees under the Purdue board of trustees.”

He suggested the local board could be granted more spending authority and that IPFW could hire its own finance and personnel staff and reduce the $1.8 million it now pays to Purdue by as much as $1 million.

The issues involving the chancellor appointment are another reason for the discussion, Kruse said.

“Has the day come for (IPFW to become independent)? Fort Wayne is the second biggest city in the state – the question should be raised again.”

Gov. Mitch Daniels’ appointment as Purdue president won’t be a factor, said the Auburn Republican and IPFW graduate, although Kruse said that it would have been preferable to allow the new West Lafayette leader to select a Fort Wayne chancellor.

Stan Davis, who serves as speaker for the IU faculty on the university senate, said he didn’t believe his colleagues were looking to sever management ties with Purdue or its academic ties with Purdue and IU.

“We truly have the best of two worlds here in a lot of ways,” said the chairman of the accounting and finance department. “I personally like the system in the sense that we are different from all of the other regional campuses. We have the ability to stand on our own. In fact, sometimes I wish they wouldn’t pay as much attention to us as they do.”

IPFW’s ability to stand on its own wasn’t always the case. More than anything else, Wartell’s success in building the university’s academic stature seems to have cultivated a pride and confidence that will serve IPFW well, regardless of political pressures elsewhere.

Karen Francisco has been an Indiana journalist since 1982 and an editorial writer at The Journal Gazette since 2000. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by email,