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Swikar Patel | The Journal Gazette
Today marks Michael Wartell’s first day of forced retirement after 18 years as chancellor of IPFW.

In private, Wartell irked at ouster

Papers show battle between Purdue, outgoing chancellor

– Outgoing IPFW Chancellor Michael Wartell has worked hard to put forth an accepting – if disappointed – face on his forced departure from the college campus he has led for 18 years.

That’s in public.

But documents obtained by The Journal Gazette show that privately, he has been anything but accepting of his ouster, and his involuntary removal appears destined to be decided in the courts.

“Purdue has misled the community into believing it has a policy that required them to do what they did. But it’s not a policy, because they’ve only used it on one person – and it was the one person they shouldn’t have done it to because he was doing his job too well,” said Wartell’s attorney, Mark Ulmschneider.

Wartell hasn’t complained publicly, Ulmschneider said, because, “Mike has chosen to take the high road and be the punching bag here.”

The policy in question is a Purdue University rule that requires administrators in high policy-making positions to retire at the end of the fiscal year they turn 65 – making today Wartell’s first day out of office. Age discrimination has been illegal for decades, but the law contains exemptions for top executives.

But Ulmschneider said Purdue’s policy isn’t policy at all – because while Purdue has granted exceptions at least seven times in the 20 years the rule has existed, it has been enforced only once: against Wartell.

Documented battle

While Wartell hasn’t complained publicly about his forced retirement, he has complained. He declined to discuss the issue, even when asked about it directly, but according to documents obtained by The Journal Gazette, Wartell filed a formal discrimination and harassment complaint with the university Sept. 12. Less than two weeks later, the Purdue University Board of Trustees announced a search committee to find his replacement.

According to Purdue’s policies, a university investigator would normally be appointed to examine the allegations of discrimination and harassment. That person makes a report that would be used to make a decision.

But because Wartell was alleging violations by then-University President France Córdova, he argued a university investigator was inappropriate, documents show. So on Sept. 20, Purdue offered to hire an independent investigator.

Eight days later, Wartell complained again, saying the process already seemed biased against him. In an email to Purdue, Wartell alleged that Board Vice Chairman Tom Spurgeon had called the presiding officer of the faculty senate at IPFW on the morning of Sept. 26, the day the senate was considering a resolution urging Purdue to grant Wartell a two-year extension. Spurgeon’s message was clear, Wartell wrote: Regardless of how the senate voted, the Purdue board was unanimous in its stance not to extend Wartell’s retirement. The email was included in Wartell’s later complaint to the Indiana Public Access Counselor.

In addition, documents show, the grievance process Purdue was offering to Wartell, including the independent investigator, required Wartell to sign a waiver giving up all rights and claims against the university, a requirement Wartell would not accept.

Issuing a news release naming a search committee to replace him, attempting to influence the vote at IPFW and requiring him to give up all rights outside the process Purdue was offering were retaliation for filing the complaint in the first place, Wartell wrote.

But the fight was just beginning.

A secret report

The independent investigator Purdue hired to examine Wartell’s complaint of harassment and discrimination was John C. Trimble, an Indianapolis attorney. Under the process proposed by Purdue and agreed to by Wartell, Trimble would present a report on his investigation to a three-member panel of the 10-member board of trustees.

The panel’s decision has not been made public, but sources with knowledge of the situation say it decided in February that no violation of university discrimination policy occurred. But Trimble’s report was not made public, either – not even to Wartell. Wartell says in documents that Trimble, when he interviewed him during the investigation, said his report would be subject to state and federal disclosure laws.

On March 22, Wartell filed a request with Purdue, asking to see Trimble’s report. On April 5, documents show, Purdue denied Wartell’s request, saying Trimble was acting as Purdue’s attorney, making his work exempt from disclosure under state open records law due to attorney-client privilege. Wartell then filed a complaint with the Indiana public access counselor, saying the report was not attorney work product, because Trimble was not hired as Purdue’s attorney, he was hired as an independent investigator.

Public Access Counselor Joseph Hoage, in a May 10 opinion, said that if Trimble was an investigator, his report would indeed be subject to disclosure, but if he was acting as Purdue’s attorney it was not. But since the public access counselor is not a finder of fact, Hoage wrote, the courts will have to decide the matter.

On May 25, in Tippecanoe Circuit Court, Wartell asked the court to do just that: He filed suit against Purdue, demanding Trimble’s report and attorneys’ fees and court costs. A hearing is set for July 30.

But the document war didn’t end there, either.

Independent or not?

On May 18, Wartell tried to find a way around Purdue’s stance by filing a request for documentation of the relationship between Trimble and the university. Purdue responded by giving him a document in which the services Trimble was to perform were redacted.

Once again, Wartell filed a complaint with the public access counselor, and once again, Purdue claimed attorney-client privilege, documents show. In a June 6 opinion, Hoage again deferred to the courts, saying that by citing the exemption, Purdue had met its obligation under state disclosure laws, but that if it goes to court, the burden of proving Trimble was Purdue’s attorney would then be on the university.

Ulmschneider said Purdue’s stance proves it has mistreated Wartell.

“You can’t claim he was your attorney if he was an independent investigator,” Ulmschneider said. “We wouldn’t have participated in a process where Mike’s complaint was investigated by the university’s own attorney. Mike’s a little too smart for that.”

If Trimble was hired as Purdue’s attorney, Ulmschneider said, then Wartell was denied due process on his complaint because Purdue’s investigation was patently unfair and biased against him. If Trimble was an independent investigator, as the university claimed he would be, then Purdue cannot hide his report from the public.

Trimble, an attorney in Indianapolis, was out of the office all week and could not be reached for comment.

Purdue University spokesman Chris Sigurdson said that in employee matters and pending litigation, the university does not comment.

Looking to future

So what’s next?

On the legal front, Ulmschneider said he’s not yet ready to discuss whether Wartell will pursue his discrimination complaint further, but in the meantime will concentrate on getting Trimble’s report.

Wartell’s not sure what’s next, either, though there are several possibilities. He is tenured and has a degree from Yale, meaning he could stay at IPFW and teach chemistry or math – and earn 80 percent of his chancellor’s salary.

“I can’t say I feel old enough to retire, though there’s a certain attraction to being a beach bum,” Wartell said. “I can stay here and teach, or I can stay here and help the university. And I’ll probably look for other options.”

Wartell said he is most proud of how the IPFW campus has developed under his leadership.

“The faculty and staff like being here, it’s a great place to work,” he said. “We’ve become much more of a traditional university, as well as being able to serve non-traditional students.”

And what does he hope his legacy is?

He cites a statement by Andy Downs, head of the director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at IPFW, who told a group recently that Wartell’s influence has been so great in IPFW’s development that he has to be viewed as one of the founding fathers of the university.

“Remember, I didn’t say that,” Wartell said, “but it is a really neat feeling to hear that.”

dstockman@jg.net

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