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Being Lucky: Reminiscences and Reflections

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In this absorbing autobiography, Herman B Wells, the legendary former president of Indiana University, recalls his small-town boyhood, the strong influence of his parents, his pioneering work with Indiana banks during the Great Depression, and his connection with IU, which began as a student when the still provincial school had fewer than 3,000 students. At the end of his 25-year tenure as president, IU was a university with an international reputation and a student body that would soon exceed 30,000. Both lighthearted and serious, Wells’s reflections describe in welcome detail how he approached the job, his observations on administration, his thoughts on academic freedom and tenure, his approach to student and alumni relations, and his views on the role of the university as a cultural center. Being Lucky is a nourishing brew of the memories, advice, wit, and wisdom of a remarkable man.

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1. Growing Up in Jamestown and the County Seat

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I'M A fifth-generation Hoosier, a native of a small town. Jamestown, founded in 1832, was and still is a typical agricultural trading center located in Boone County about halfway between Indianapolis and Crawfordsville. Indiana at the time of my birth was mainly an agricultural state with Indianapolis its governmental, commercial, and financial hub.

Within two decades, however, Indianapolis became the national center of the automotive industry, its lead closely followed by the development of component-parts manufacturing plants in the whole of the central part of the state—in Kokomo, Anderson, Marion, Richmond, and elsewhere. Thus central Indiana grew highly industrialized and dependent upon the motor industry, symbolically celebrated in the gala week of the Indianapolis 500.

It was the thrust of the steel and refining industries that turned the northern part of the state into a great industrial complex in the first quarter of the century, while in southern Indiana, along the Ohio River, agriculture remained a major economic and social factor even though furniture manufacturing and shipbuilding brought national awareness of that part of the state.

 

2. Widening Horizons

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ONE OF my high school teachers had sold me on the idea of going to a business school. Business schools were in their first flush of popularity then; they were new. As the University of Illinois had the outstanding one in the Midwest at that time, I chose to go to Champaign. Other considerations such as fees and transportation did not loom large. Out-of-state fees were low enough to be of little comparative consequence in those days, and I could go by train to Champaign from either Crawfordsville or Jamestown.

The summer before I left for college I had traveled to Whites-town daily to run a little country bank that had been organized there in opposition to the established bank. My income was rather good for a teenager, and in four months I had saved quite a bit of money for college. Later, at the end of my sophomore year in college, the bank offered me a permanent job at two-hundred dollars a month, which to me seemed like so much money that I tried to persuade my father to let me leave college to accept the job. In those days even college graduates were not being paid as much as that on their first jobs. My father was unyielding.

 

3. What It was Really Like

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WHAT WAS INDIANA UNIVERSITY like in my college years? Through the mist of more than fifty years it is difficult for me to recall precisely the features of my own life as a student here. But of one thing I am certain: my collegiate experience profoundly changed my life.

The Bloomington campus in the 1920s had a colorful student body. Many highly individualistic characters were drawn to the university from other, less hospitable places and they contributed an effervescent quality to the student life. With companions like these life was never humdrum. Although the university had conventional rules and a strong tradition of in loco parentis, tolerant officers and faculty, if they chanced upon infractions, for the most part looked the other way.

We shared unquestioning pride in our university and a firm faith in its future. Student publications reflected this loyal stance, praising student activities when possible and, when not, revealing improvements in the offing. Unfortunate circumstances were the culprit when our teams lost, circumstances that were certain not to reoccur and hamper the teams next year. Such is my rosy recollection.

 

4. Country Bank Failures

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THE OFFICES OF the Indiana Bankers Association (IBA) were located in Indianapolis, and during my two years with the association I lived in Indianapolis although much of my time was of necessity spent in traveling throughout the state. I attended county and regional meetings of the members of the association and called on both members and nonmembers to stimulate their interest in the program of the association.1

I had left the University of Wisconsin with the understanding that I would return after one or two years with the IBA. Dr. Kiekhofer agreed with me that the experience in the IBA would give me an excellent opportunity to gather material for my dissertation, which was to be concerned with country bank management and prevention of bank failure. It was appropriate, therefore, that I keep him advised of my activities in Indianapolis.

On March 13, 1929, I wrote in a letter to him:

My work has been very absorbing. Our Association has undertaken a campaign of self-improvement for the banks in the state of Indiana that is unique in the history of cooperative bank endeavor. Our Better-Banking Practices platform includes fifteen planks such as universal service charges, establishment of a credit bureau for the dissemination of credit information on duplicate borrowers in every county, secondary reserves, limitation of amount of money to be loaned to any one borrower, etc. It is being pushed by three key men in every county, with whom I attempt to keep in touch in order to keep them working and informed. I speak on different phases of this program of Better Banking as best suits the occasion, before county and group meetings of our membership frequently. At certain periods I speak several times per week.

 

5. Reopening, Reconstruction, and Reform

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TWO VERY BUSY YEARS followed my appointment in 1933 as secretary of the Commission for Financial Institutions and head of two divisions in the Department of Financial Institutions. The pace was terrific, from about nine o'clock in the morning frequently to about midnight, seven days a week, with most meals taken at the desk or conference table. In our dealings with bank officers and directors, my staff and I were guided by the conviction that, with the return of prosperity, assets that appeared to be worthless would again be valuable. Time proved this assumption to be correct as we lessened the economic impact of the bank and building and loan closings in many Indiana communities, and I made a host of lasting friends.

The case of each closed institution had to be studied. Its assets and liabilities, the strength of its leadership, the need for it in the community, and its prospects for success if reopened—all had to be analyzed. Since depositors' funds were frozen, rapid decisions were desirable, but the labor involved was enormous. We worked under intense pressure. Believing that reform could come after recovery with less social cost, we took the position that our mission was to help speed recovery rather than to achieve immediate reform by liquidation of marginal units. In some departments in other states and among some federal bureaucrats, the attitude was almost the reverse. Reflecting the national anger against the banks and disillusion with all financial institutions, they took a punitive point of view and were eager to find ways to liquidate rather than to reopen banks.

 

6. Apprenticeship in Academic Administration

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I WAS appointed dean of the Indiana University School of Business Administration in a meeting of the Board of Trustees on May 18, 1935. Previously, Assistant Dean James R. Hawkinson of Northwestern's business school had been offered the position at $5,250. Although there is no record of his response, he apparently refused the offer. I was appointed at a salary of $5,000, a rather handsome figure compared to the offer made to him as he had greater experience and standing in the field. I like to think that the amount of my offer reflected a rather favorable opinion of me by the president and the Board of Trustees, which was responsible for the cooperation I subsequently received from them during my term as dean.

My predecessor, William A. Rawles, class of 1884 and a member of the university faculty for forty-one years, was a remarkable man with a traditional and austere training in history and economics. Had his graduate work been in applied fields, say, at Wharton, he would have been less effective in defending Indiana University's School of Commerce and Finance—as the business school was originally named—against the attacks of those members of the university faculty who thought that vocational or applied courses did not belong in a university. The orthodoxy of his background and the breadth of his previous experience in a variety of administrative and organizational capacities in the university made him the ideal man to serve as the first dean of the School of Commerce and Finance. I had studied corporation finance with him. He was an excellent teacher, sound, thorough, and demanding.

 

7. The Fate of a Noncandidate

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THOMAS D. CLARK, in the second volume of his history, Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer, states that whereas I may have borne the title “acting president” I never really cast myself in that role. He went on to say, “Clearly, he acted like a president from the start.” While Dr. Clark was writing this volume he made similar remarks to me. At the time they seemed farfetched, almost preposterous. I remembered little of what took place from July 1, 1937, to June 30, 1938. Throughout my life I have tended to think infrequently about the past, concentrating rather on the future. I have that habit even now. The story of an incident that occurred long ago might illustrate the point.

At the death of Val Nolan, a trustee of the university, it was of course the sad duty of the trustees and officers of the university to attend the funeral. The transportation from Bloomington to Evansville was organized by Ward Biddle, the university comptroller. President Emeritus Bryan was to take his Buick, driven by his old chauffeur, Rocky, and Mr. Biddle assigned Trustee Paul Feltus and me to go with him. Feltus approached Ward Biddle privately, I heard later, and objected to his assignment, saying, “Can't you put me in another car? I don't want to ride 120 miles to Evansville and 120 miles back with two men who don't smoke and don't even know they live in the present. Bryan talks only about the past and Wells is somewhere off in the future.”

 

8. A Few Observations on Collegial Administration

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UNIVERSITIES tend to be structural enigmas to the general public and, surprisingly, to a not inconsiderable number of faculty members, students, and staff. Beyond the primary units of departments and schools, lines and areas of authority are familiar to junior and senior administrators, whose business it is to know them, but for others the locations of decision making are often unclear, and the organizational relationships among faculty, administration and governing board are obscure and without parallel in their experience. Since the nature of what is being administered is an essential background for understanding its administration, some comments on the anatomy of a university may be in order.

A university or college has a structural order all its own. That it is typically incorporated by legal charter in a given state does not mean that it has the structure of the typical business corporation. Quite the contrary is the case. A university is an association of professional scholars and learners; its organization and administration would be more nearly analogous to that of the professional association found in a large law firm or in a medical group practice than in the business corporation. For reasons founded in long experience and tradition, the right to hire and fire in a university is quite limited and circumscribed, subject to the direction of the professional staff and to the implementation, if approved, by the trustees. A university does not exist to make profit but rather to teach and to enhance scholarship and learning. A university, of course, is expected in this modern day to make the expertise of its faculty—when needed and when possible to do so—available to solve immediate, emerging problems of society, but problem solving for society is not the first priority of its existence. The university is therefore an organization designed to take the resources made available to it and, rather than hoard them, use them as effectively as possible for achieving its central purpose.

 

9. How to Succeed without Really Trying

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DURING MY PERIOD in the university presidency, the National Association of State Universities (NASU) was a very active and useful organization. The members of the group had developed through the years a considerable camaraderie and a confidence in each other that enabled them to exchange important information freely and confidentially. So their meetings were held in high regard by the presidents. The final session of the spring meeting in New York City, the most important each year, was usually in a lighthearted vein and consisted of a dinner at the University Club followed by the valedictory of one of NASU'S members. Since college presidents spend their lives making and listening to speeches, the task of speaking to such a jaded group under any circumstance is not easy. To speak to them after they have had cocktails and an excellent four- or five-course dinner with two wines is a challenge indeed.

Some time after I announced that I would be stepping out of the Indiana University presidency on July I, I was asked by the president of the association, Ray Olpin, to be the speaker for the spring meeting on May 7, 1962. Knowing the hazards, I found it difficult to dream up a format, much less the content, for my talk, but, as I related in the speech, I eventually jotted down some notes that served for the occasion. The notes took the form of “Maxims for a Young College President, or How to Succeed without Really Trying,” paraphrasing the title of a popular show on Broadway at that time, How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying. My remarks were recorded even though they had been conceived, not as a speech, but rather as a bit of entertainment to mark my last dinner with the group. However, the maxims were then published in the Transactions and Proceedings of NASU, discovered by others, and republished from time to time, including a much more sedate version in the prestigious Educational Record of the American Council on Education. Since that time there have been many requests for copies of the transcription, and some of the maxims have been used by others with or without attribution. Because of this continuing interest, I looked at the text to judge whether or not the maxims still held in light of all that has happened since 1962. If so, they might bear repeating. The comments had represented a wholly personal point of view, intended only as a semiserious rule-of-thumb. Seen from my present vantage point, a few of the maxims seem to need additional comments. These follow the text of the transcript.

 

10. Money, Money, Never Enough

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FOR THE past 150 years faculties, students, and administrators of Indiana University have repeatedly lamented the inadequacy of the state's support for higher education generally and Indiana University in particular. Their complaints have had merit because there seems never to have been a time throughout the life of the university when the money made available to it from taxes and other revenues has been equal to its opportunity for effective use of resources on behalf of the citizens of the state.1 The fact of the matter is that the opportunities available to a university for teaching, research, and public service are, for all practical purposes, limitless; as a consequence, it is improbable that sufficient money will ever be made available for an institution to realize all its capabilities in any given period.

From one standpoint this fact is not as remarkable as is the fact that the public supports higher education with tax dollars as generously as it does. Narrowly speaking, higher education directly benefits only those who have the opportunity to attend a college or university and receive training, and they constitute a relatively small percentage of the total population. Furthermore, there are always other highly desirable social goals dependent upon public support that compete for the tax dollar—highways, hospitals, and, in modern times, a vast number of social services in the areas of welfare, pensions, mental health, prisons, and the like. Although those of us who have spent our lives in the work of higher education are acutely aware of the inadequacy of the public support we have received, we remind ourselves of the fact that in most respects our governmental bodies make greater provision for higher education than do the governments in any other country in the world. A larger proportion of the college-age group is enrolled in college in this country than is true for any other country in the world, and a larger proportion goes on to advanced training here. There may be a few minor exceptions, but this is in general the case. So it does seem to me that the remarkable fact is not how little we receive but, in view of all of this, how much.

 

11. The Private Sector: Indiana University Foundation

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AT THE TIME of Indiana University's centennial in 1920, a fund-raising effort was planned to provide for three badly needed structures that would also serve as a memorial to the sons and daughters of Indiana University who had lost their lives in World War I and commemorate those who had served in earlier wars. A centennial is a logical time for fund raising. The goals selected were for a Student Union Building, a stadium, and a building for women's housing and activities.

In August, 1921, William A. Alexander, an alumnus who had been serving as dean of men at Swarthmore, was brought back to Indiana to head the Memorial Fund campaign and was named university librarian to dignify his leadership of fund-raising activities. Under his direction a mighty campaign was organized. A team that included President and Mrs. Bryan and several student leaders journeyed with Alexander to Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, and Cleveland, speaking to alumni groups on behalf of the campaign.1

 

12. Academic Freedom and Tenure

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EARLY IN my career as president of Indiana University, I was invited to speak at a forum sponsored by the Senate Avenue YMCA in Indianapolis on education in a democracy. It was in 1939, just prior to the issuance of the classic statement on academic freedom and tenure by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and I began by proposing that the principle of academic freedom is basic to education in a democracy. I pointed out that

through all this more than a century, the university has actively worked for the preservation and advancement of American democracy by the method that is peculiarly the university's own, namely, fearless inquiry into every subject in search of the truth—fearless inquiry, not only in the “safe” realm of the physical sciences, but in the social sciences as well, even though they deal with the stuff of which human emotions and passions are made.

It must be remembered that democratic principles and individual freedoms were at that time once again threatened as they had been in World War I. With more and more foreboding we read of the horrors and conquests of Hitler's Nazi Germany, and many of America's educational leaders began to fear a recurrence of the violation of the academic sphere that accompanied World War I. The AAUP statement came in 1940. By the fall of 1943 it was felt advisable that Indiana University's consistent but unwritten policy on academic freedom be given formal expression, and on September II, 1943, the Board of Trustees adopted the following statement, the first of its kind in the university's history:

 

13. To Make Room for the Future

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IN JULY, 1937, when I assumed the presidency, almost the whole of the Bloomington campus of Indiana University lay between Jordan Avenue and Indiana Avenue on the east and west, Tenth Street and Third Street on the north and south. All the academic buildings (except the Home Economics Practice House), the administration building, the library, the original Memorial Union Building, the President's House, a meeting and concert hall, all the sport and physical education facilities, the four residence halls, University School, the printing plant, the power plant, and two machine shops were situated in this quadrangle. Not all of the land within belonged to the university. Half of the sororities and fraternities had houses within these boundaries (many others were just across the street), and there were a number of private residences, particularly in the northwest section. Part was just open field belonging to the university and important in its planning.

Even though there was neither an east-west nor a north-south traffic artery through the campus, cars could travel east on Seventh Street to the Fieldhouse (now Wildermuth Intramural Center) or over a winding road that entered the campus at Fifth (Kirkwood) Street and exited down Sorority Alley (now a walk alongside Ballantine and Jordan halls) to Third Street.

 

14. Student and Alumni Relationships

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I HAVE LONG greeted freshman students with, “So you are a freshman. Great! Freshmen are very important people. Without freshmen there soon would be no seniors or, in fact, a university, and I like it here.”

With rare exceptions I had happy relationships with the students during my days in the president's office. I saved time for contact with them; I tried to accept their invitations even though in some instances it was not particularly convenient to do so. I recognized the fact that they invited me to their many functions in the best spirit, evidencing their interest in Indiana University and their friendliness toward me. Many times student dinners are a bit stiff and awkward, but the youngsters are learning the art of entertaining, a useful part of their whole learning experience. By keeping close to students, one is reminded that they are a major reason for the existence of the university and certainly the major reason why the state supports the institution. In the quality and spirit of these youngsters is to be found the future of the state and nation. They and their parents are making sacrifices in order to realize an individual and family dream, seeking the mobility and self-fulfillment that can come with a collegiate and professional education.

 

15. Culture to the Crossroads

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THE INDIANA UNIVERSITY system of main and regional campuses grew from an early and continuing policy of its administrations to take education to the people if the people could not come to the institution. At first, two or three faculty members traveled to the cities from which requests had come for classes in certain courses. Subsequently extension centers were established when the demand and favorable circumstances warranted. Ultimately there developed the vigorous regional campus system that, with the Bloomington and Indianapolis campuses, constitutes Indiana University as we know it today. Robert E. Cavanaugh has written a detailed history of this development.1

Why did the development take that form rather than that of a public junior college system, a two-year extension of high school, in the state? One reason was the failure of several junior colleges that were begun. Another, more telling reason was, I believe, a realization of the clear advantages to be gained from association with an established university. The benefits of full integration with a parent institution such as sharing its administrative and library resources, prestige, and academic maturity while forming its own individuality as a smaller, more locally oriented educational center undoubtedly were persuasive elements in the decision of a civic group to seek establishment of a branch of Indiana University in its community rather than found an independent junior college. The efficiency and economy that result are advantageous both to the state and to the student. The viability of the branching system is one evidence of the remarkable variety, diversity, and flexibility of higher education in America.

 

16. The University Looks Abroad

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FROM 1945 ON, American universities were increasingly engaged in technical-assistance programs for developing countries funded both by the major foundations, especially Ford, and also by the federal government. Indiana University was deeply involved in this effort for several reasons.

First, we recognized that in the early years of its development Indiana University along with other American universities had been greatly assisted by the older, European universities, particularly the German and French. Even as late as my undergraduate days there were men on our faculty who had won their Ph.D.'s abroad prior to the time when most American universities were equipped to offer the doctorate. So the American university, now among the strongest anywhere, had an obligation to repay its debt to the world of scholarship through extending assistance to the new universities in the developing lands.

Second, we realized that by our taking an active part in these international projects the benefits would be two-way: while lending whatever help we could to institutions abroad, we would be greatly enriching the store of experience, knowledge, and professional competence of our faculty participants in the assistance programs, who, upon their return, would bring to the campus a comparative view that would stimulate the atmosphere of learning in the university.

 

17. Academic Ferment

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IN HIS history of Indiana University, Tom Clark told of the agony of the era. I remember more vividly the ecstasy of 1937–62.

Personal agony there was aplenty—the agony of shattering crises, of fourteen-hour days, of grinding drudgery with every minute scheduled and utilized and rarely a vacation, of disappointingly unrealized ambitions, of weariness beyond description. But these are dwarfed by the achievements of my talented, dedicated, and determined colleagues through nearly superhuman effort.

The years from 1937 to 1962 were filled with strenuous effort. Problems that almost defied solution had to be solved in order to make the adjustments required by the dislocations of World War II, the flood of returning veterans, the booms and recessions, and the military effort of the Korean War. The struggle to secure the necessary funds for operations and to expand the plant and facilities to meet what seemed to be inexhaustible needs was constant.

In addition during this period I undertook to be a good citizen by doing my share of civic activity at home and abroad from Bloomington to Bangkok, all of which demanded incessant travel around Indiana and from coast to coast in the United States, and innumerable crossings of the Atlantic and Pacific for meetings and missions in Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Nevertheless, administration had first claim upon my time as we attempted to take full advantage of all the opportunities opening up. Administrative activity per se, however, was not the most exciting aspect of the era.

 

18. A Trip and a New Awareness

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PRIOR TO 1941 the only foreign countries I had visited were Mexico and Canada. My first opportunity for extensive travel abroad came when I was invited by Hubert Herring, the executive director of the Committee on Cultural Relations with Latin America, Incorporated, to participate in the Institute on Inter-American Affairs, which traveled throughout Latin America from late July through mid-September, 1941. The trip was organized so well that I gained an amazing amount of information about Latin America in a relatively short period, but, more importantly, the experience enlarged my perspective in a way that was to have a profound influence on my view of Indiana University's province. All at once I became conscious of the world scene.

People were beginning vaguely to perceive Latin America at this time as of much more significance to the United States than had previously been recognized. Rumors of the Nazi infiltration in Latin America were rife, and suddenly, because of the war pressures, we began to realize the importance of Latin American raw materials such as rubber to our own economic health. As a result, attention focused on Brazil, which was in the process of developing rubber plantations.

 

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