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James H. Capshew poses with the bust

Author James H. Capshew poses with the bust of Herman B Wells in the Wells Library. Photo: Chris Meyer

From the Preface of Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University

Herman Wells possessed a holistic sense of the learning process and the academic enterprise. He came to see clearly the genius loci of Indiana University — the place-based dynamic of human activity and historical associations that inhere in the campus environment, both material and moral. Learning was its raison d’être, and it took place through the academic community’s pursuit of specialized curricula, educational programs, scholarship, and creative activity. For Wells, the university’s place, its people and its programs were interconnected systems and the cultivation of any one would have ramifications for the others. Literally, the “place” designated the Bloomington campus primarily — the flagship of IU — but it took on metaphorical meaning by referring to the constellation of IU-related institutions, organizations, and programs around the world.

His is a story of remarkable intelligence and drive, of financial acuity and fiduciary discernment, of tremendous social skill and grace, and of relentless devotion to a single cause – the greatness of Indiana University as a national, even international, educational institution. The life history of Wells is inextricably intertwined with the organizational saga of Indiana University as he came to be seen as the embodiment of its institutional values and the personification of its community. His brilliant career as an audacious agent for the commonwealth — whether the commonwealth of Indiana University, the state of Indiana, American higher education, or the international sisterhood of universities — demonstrates the integration of American and Midwestern values into the very heart of the definition of scholarly purpose and academic enterprise. Wells built an institution, and became one himself. Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University recounts a tale about cultivating the genius loci of Indiana by a devoted son, extraordinary servant, and faithful partner.

An excerpt from Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University

As the 1960s dawned, Herman Wells was having the time of his life. He had overseen a tremendous increase of academic quality at Indiana University that was based upon judicious investments in faculty, programs, and facilities over the past two decades. Indiana was on the move in the national rankings, and Wells had reached the status of a respected national spokesman for American higher education. Just 58 years old in 1960, his roly-poly physique disguised his great physical endurance. He had fashioned a method of working at capacity for over 30 years, and there was no question of slackening his vigorous pace now. With rare ability for interpersonal engagement, Wells helped to create a robust academic community with a vibrant culture on the Bloomington campus. Sure of the commodious boundaries of his executive position, he was secure enough to share power with the faculty and his administrative subordinates. He presided at meetings of the Bloomington Faculty Council, knowing that the faculty often came up with effective policies even if their deliberations were slow.

There was a downside to this comity between the leader and the led, however. The university community placed unmitigated trust in Wells’s vision and decision-making abilities. This simple, unquestioning faith was personally disturbing to Wells. He enjoyed the scope of action that being a chief executive gave him, but he worried that, in their responses to his judgments and opinions, the faculty and administration had let their critical faculties atrophy. His private discomfort about what he jokingly referred to as his “deification” was a major reason to step down. That process was on his mind when he told the trustees in advance about his desire to retire from the presidency in 1962, two years hence.

Commencement 1962

Wells at 1962 commencement

Wells addresses the class of 1962 at Commencement. Photo: IU Archives

Wells took special care preparing his commencement speech for 1962, his last year as president. Just a few days shy of his 60th birthday, Wells was feeling bittersweet about giving up the position that had become synonymous with his person. He had dedicated his whole being to the welfare of IU and in turn had received untold benefits, which redounded to everybody’s gain, thus starting the cycle of beneficence over again. Characteristically, Wells did not dwell on the past, however, but used it to provide a useful contrast to the present and the future.

The ceremony, held in the capacious old Memorial Stadium on Tenth Street, took place Monday, June 4.  The stage was set up on the field, with the four thousand graduates assembled in chairs in front, and the audience filling the horseshoe-shaped bleachers on the eastern side. The platform party included two giants of education, Wells and Notre Dame President Theodore Hesburgh; various administrators, including Graduate School Dean John W. Ashton; and some members of the IU Board of Trustees, among them Willis Hickam, their president. Hesburgh, slated to receive an honorary doctorate, was a good friend and close colleague of Wells. His decade of leadership, with an assist from a fabled football program, had guided Notre Dame to the front ranks of private liberal arts colleges.

Wells’s black cap and academic gown hid his bulky frame but not his animated face. He noted in his speech that, in his 25 years as president, he had presided over 36 commencement ceremonies, due to multiple ceremonies during and after the war. He cited a statistic that revealed the educational growth during his administration: in the last 25 years, the university had granted two and one third times as many degrees as it had during the entire previous 118 years of the university’s history. And, he said with pride, today’s university gives more advanced degrees each year than all degrees awarded 25 years ago, illustrating “not only the scholarly growth of our university but also the increasing need of our society for men and women with the highest degree of competence.”

Continuing to weave a story using numbers, Wells told the graduates that he had personally signed 62,621 diplomas in the last 25 years. He explained:

“This has given me a sense of direct identification with each graduate. Many of the names I have recognized, recalling pleasant contacts and mutual experiences during college days. In other cases the names have brought to mind fathers, mothers, or other relatives of my undergraduate era or earlier. But whether I recognized the name or not, in the act of signing I felt some individual participation in the joy and satisfaction of each graduate who had won his degree with conscientious work and application.”

Moreover, I wished to sign individually because in André Gide’s words, “Man is more interesting than men. God made him and not them in his image. Each one is more precious than all.”

And this is the attitude of our Alma Mater — each man, each student scholar, is precious in her eye. Each stands for a unique individuality and each represents a divine opportunity. These precious individuals carry with them the responsibility of the University’s future distinction, for it is by their performance the University is measured and by their dedication and devotion the University is nurtured.

Wells resisted the current pessimism about the state of the world, and harkened back to the age of discovery in the 15th and 16th centuries, predicting that the space age will bring new vistas to humankind. He counseled, “Make no small plans. They are too difficult to achieve and unworthy of your ability and your opportunity.”

At that point, Notre Dame President Hesburgh was slated to receive an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Indiana University, presented by his friend and colleague IU President Wells. After graciously accepting the honor, the smiling priest turned to go to his seat. Wells, in the process of returning to the speaker’s stand, was surprised as Dean Ashton and trustee president Hickam stepped forward quickly. Ashton wrested control over the microphone and announced, “There may be a bit of confusion at this point.” He directed Wells, with mock seriousness, to return to his seat and await further instructions. The portly president complied, wondering — as the audience did — just what was in store.

In the months before commencement, the IU Honorary Degree Committee had hatched a plan to award Wells an honorary doctorate for his service to the university, to be presented at the 1962 commencement ceremony, the last one which Wells was to preside over. But there was one problem: If President Wells would hear of this plan, he would surely quash it. So the plan was kept secret from all but a few of the principals, including Ashton, Hickam, and Hesburgh.  The assembled spectators murmured expectantly, and Wells wondered what was up.

Ashton, speaking on behalf of the faculty, recommended that Wells receive an honorary Doctor of Laws. He then read a beautiful tribute to Wells, starting with a quote from his inaugural speech in 1938: “Universities must be maintained as watch towers of human progress, from which men may gain a view of life in its entirety, and in which there will be maintained the calm and quiet necessary for objectivity and comprehension.” In the ensuing quarter-century, Ashton declared, Wells’s “leadership never wavered in its insistence on the necessity for the whole view, the far-ranging quest for ever fuller knowledge of man and the world — the universe — he lives in.” The dean admitted that the ideal of “calm and quiet” was replaced by “energy and excitement” as Wells “swept along those associated with him in the building of a great university.”

Ashton marveled at Wells’s close association and familiarity with “Hoosier life,” from birth onward, so “that his judgment has been sought in many phases of the educational, the economic, and the social problems of the state.” Wells was “one of those rare people who manage to maintain their identity with their home community, and yet at the same time become citizens of the world.”  Ashton illustrated this quality by juxtaposing his ability to “identify a succulent bit of ham from a Boone County hog” with gourmet accuracy and to offer sage advice to the U.S. State Department on developing a cultural exchange program between Germany and the United States.

Although Ashton took note of the immense physical growth of the campus — the campus had grown from 140 acres to over 1,800 — he emphasized the profound changes in educational opportunity and resources that the Wells administration brought, “carefully enlisting at every step the support of faculty and staff.” He lauded the president’s staunch defense of academic freedom, protecting the faculty from threats without or within. Ashton closed his encomium by addressing Hickam, board president, by conveying the faculty’s recommendation, “enthusiastically and affectionately (albeit without consulting him),” that Wells be presented with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, summa cum laude. The audience erupted with cheers and applause.

Hickam took the microphone to read the citation, which began:

“To you, Herman B Wells, educator, statesman, leader of men, devoted Hoosier, but also wise citizen of the world, who have been associated with this University for forty years and have engineered its growth and development as its President for the last twenty-five years, and who have distinguished yourself not only by your administrative wisdom, but also by your warm humanity, by your tolerance of all except evil and dullness and stupidity.”

Hickam conferred the degree — “with great affection” — and assisted Wells as he donned the ceremonial hood.

Wells was literally speechless. He understood the profound honor that the degree represented. The unprecedented signifier summa cum laude further embellished the honor. He had worked to the utmost of his abilities, and now his alma mater was expressing its formal appreciation. The audience waited patiently for Wells to conclude the ceremony. In a voice choking with emotion, he thanked the faculty and trustees. Recovering his wit, he shrugged, made a gesture of helplessness, and remarked, “This shows how quickly a lame-duck loses control of things!”

This is an excerpt from chapter 15, “Passing the Presidential Torch,” in Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University. The author, James H. Capshew, BA79, was a houseboy for Chancellor Wells, during his junior and senior years at IU. He is an associate professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at IUB.

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