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Michael Wartell: The Exit Interview

The retiring Chancellor of IPFW on his tenure at the institution, the expansion of the university, and higher education

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


At the beginning of our interview with Michael Wartell, the retiring chancellor of IPFW tells us that he’s not interested in talking about anything “controversial.”

And when we respond that we hadn’t planned on it, that we assumed the issues surrounding his retirement after 18 years as the Chancellor of IPFW were sort of “off limits,” he seems a little relieved not to have to issue another polite but firm refusal to comment, and instead focus on the many positive changes that have occurred during his time in the Chancellor’s office.

There’s certainly enough to talk about. During Wartell’s tenure at IPFW, the university has grown to become Indiana’s fifth largest university; expanded the physical facilities of the campus, including student housing; and increased the number of degree programs for undergraduate and graduate students offered. The endowment has grown tremendously, and the athletic teams have joined NCAA Division 1.

That’s the short list. Wartell is also credited with other changes that are harder to quantify — namely, a sense of IPFW as an integral part of the community, and perhaps proper recognition and respect for the quality of the institution.

“It’s always easy to do a commercial for this campus, because the attitude of the people who work on this campus is so positive that they do a great job for the students,” Wartell says. “The students feel that. I get notes all the time from students saying how helpful people are, how they feel cared for. And that’s because the folks who work on this campus feel cared for.”

He continues: “This campus has more of a shared vision, more of a collegial atmosphere, than any other campus I’ve ever been on, and I’ve been on a lot. So if you ask me what I’m proudest of on this campus, it’s that kind of feeling.”

Fort Wayne Reader and the Around Fort Wayne blog had a chance to sit down with Chancellor Wartell for an exit interview a few days before he officially left office, and talk about the changes at IPFW, future plans, and higher education in general.

Fort Wayne Reader: You were Chancellor at IPFW for 18 years, and during your tenure, the university has experienced tremendous growth, both physically and academically. It’s now the state’s fifth largest university. What was the impetus for this growth?

Mike Wartell: It took a while for the growth spurt to really occur. I was made chancellor in 1994, and I was vice chancellor for academic affairs the year before that. That year was really a very important year academically for IPFW, because none of the Purdue campuses had a general education curriculum, a core curriculum that everybody took. Actually, each of the majors had their own curriculum, and that’s not healthy for students. There needs to be a specific meaning to an undergraduate education, to a baccalaureate degree, and so a core curriculum is important. What we managed to do is get a core curriculum passed during that first year I was there. Actually, I think IPFW had been working on that for about 10 years, and just couldn’t get it through. And Purdue University in West Lafayette is just getting that through, so the kinds of changes that needed to be made began almost immediately.

But the physical changes on the campus… it was a little bit difficult to get those started, because you had to develop a set of relationships with legislators, with donors, and that takes a while. It takes a long time for people to trust you, it takes a long time for people to believe you’re going to stay, because if you look at this institution, chancellors came and went fairly quickly. There were some with two year tenures, five year tenures… it’s hard to get a lot done in five years, especially when people don’t know you.

So it took a while to get that started but the impetus was that this campus needed to be bigger, needed to experience some growth so that we could really become the high quality institution that the kind of faculty we had would indicate that we already were. And so, when you looked at the physical plant, it just wasn’t what it needed to be, and that had to do with basic teaching facilities.

It also wasn’t what it needed to be in terms of housing, because for years, IPFW had talked about getting housing, and it was difficult to convince either the legislature or the Indiana Commission of Higher Education or Purdue University or Indiana University that we ought to have housing on a regional campus. And actually, we were the first to get housing on a regional campus.

If you look at athletics… this is a very large institution, and for it not to be a Division 1 school — and it turned out Fort Wayne was the second largest city in the country after Bakersfield, California, that didn’t have a Division One program. So all of those things together kind of worked towards IPFW growing, toward us building what we needed to build at IPFW.

FWR: You are credited with helping IPFW to become more integrated with the community, or maybe it’s vice versa. What do you think a university’s role in a community or region should be? Obviously to educate, but…

MW: Well, the primary mission is to educate folks and to provide workforce development. You know, most universities don’t like to think of it in that way because they look at that as training vs. education, and training doesn’t have as high a position on academic’s list as education does. But when you look at what IPFW needed to do for the Fort Wayne community, and actually for the entire region, was first provide education but second, we should be the center of cultural development; of societal interaction; and from my point of view athletic development, and be interactive with the community in any way that we possibly could.

We’re a great resource here. We’re a great intellectual resource, but we’re also a financial resource to a certain extent. In partnership with a lot folks in the community, we can command a great deal from foundations, from individual donors… you can look at almost everything we’ve done and it’s been a collaboration with a whole bunch of people. As far as I’m concerned, the future of this region and the future of IPFW are so intertwined that you just can’t separate them. So if we succeed, the community succeeds and vice-versa.

FWR: What is the one thing you think school districts should be doing to prepare students to enter university/college?

MW: You know, it’s funny, that’s a very tough question, because the populations of each of the school districts are so different — in fact, each of the schools within the districts are so different — it’s difficult to kind of find one size fits all for what students need. Let me go back to something I say to our orientation group of incoming freshmen. Very often, I’ll say to them “succeeding at the university is not a matter of intelligence; it’s a matter of commitment.” And that’s really true. Even if you come here without the proper background, without the proper preparation, if you work hard enough you can get a degree. The problem with the students that come here is partially with the way society is moving these days. There’s a sense of entitlement that students have, a sense of wanting to get through an education without working as hard as they might.

I think our public schools and our private schools try very hard to help students get ready for a post-secondary education, or for the job market if they want to do that. It’s very hard when you have a lot of first generation college students, when parents don’t understand the kind of support they need to give, students don’t understand the commitment that they have to give to the situation and the schools are just really challenged. They have an incredible range of students, incredible number of languages they have to deal with. And they’re getting cut, their financial situation is worsening. They have an incredible challenge and while we try to work with them, it’s hard for both of us to get together.

I don’t know if you realize that 39% of FWCS teachers have IPFW degrees. That’s an incredibly large number for a single school district. I was at Northwest Allen County Schools a few years back, and there were 20 of the top administrators sitting around a table having a discussion. The superintendent said “how many of you have IPFW degrees?” and 19 of the 20 raised their hands. So we have an incredible influence, and therefore we have an incredible responsibility, but the collaboration is not what I wish it would be.

The problem is that K – 12 has been under attack for the last 30 years. All you have to do is look back at the first Bush administration 20 years ago, and public schools were being attacked. You may remember, that was the first realization that we weren’t performing very well on the International Assessment of Educational progress — we’re behind this group or that group. And that’s been continuous for many years, and it’s hard for those school districts to see their way clear to collaborating with higher education when they have enough trouble with everyone attacking them from the outside. Now higher education is in the barrel because of the recession and our own cutbacks, and I think it’s going to be more and more difficult to make collaboration work.

FWR: We’ve heard a lot recently about college graduates having trouble finding a job in their chosen field after they’ve spent four years or more earning a degree in that field. Where do you think the problem lies?

MW: Well, the problem lies with our economy. There just aren’t as many jobs around. There are certain areas where you can always get jobs, and there are certain areas where, if you are place bound, if you are unwilling to move out of Fort Wayne, you have a great difficulty getting jobs.

An example, five years ago, all of the hospitals were saying we have an incredible nursing shortage. Now they’re not saying that. But if you go elsewhere in the country, you can find a very, very good job as a nurse. And that happens with one field after another. If you’re place bound and unwilling to move, yes it’s going to be difficult to find a job in certain areas. If you’re not (place bound)… you’ll find a job. A lot of the nurses that came through the nursing program are headed down to Indianapolis to get a job. It’s just not as easy if you stick right here. If you’re in the tech field, you can get a job around here fairly easily. If you’ve been trained in specific skills — fixing computers, working with an assortment of software — it’s much easier. You have to take a look at the skills needed in the geographical area if you want to stick in this area. So I don’t think it’s as hard to get jobs as people are saying.

Though it’s very interesting. I read an article the other day about lawyers getting jobs, and even in the best law schools, they’re having placement problems. We’re seeing numbers like only 70% of the graduates of some of the top law schools are getting jobs, so that’s an interesting statistic. Although many people think we have too many lawyers anyway, so… (laughs)

FWR: Several years ago, we heard a lot about the “brain drain” in Indiana in general and in our part of the state specifically. Some of that has to do with what young people want in a community, some of it has to do with employment opportunities. Did IPFW have to address that discussion?

MW: I think there are a lot of issues and a lot of variables that fed into the brain drain discussion. The first one is that when you look at our student body, 90% of them are from this region, from the 11 county area, and they’re going to want to stay in this region, so we’re not contributing in that way to what they call the “brain drain.” If you go down to West Lafayette or Bloomington, 30% or more of their students are from out-of-state. They’re thinking about getting an education here and then going home, wherever home is. So the idea that those people are a part of a brain drain… I think is a little bit awkward at best. So that’s the first issue. You can complain about the number of out-of-state students that come here and then leave, but the answer to that is “what did you expect?”

The second issue, and the way that folks have tried to solve the problem, is you bring really attractive jobs to the region. Now, if you look at technical jobs in the Fort Wayne area, and you look at defense contractors or engineering jobs, or the wire industry — which is not as robust as it used to be, but it’s still there — or financial services, those kinds of things, there are good jobs available here, and folks stay.

But on the far end of this discussion is what young people want these days. And that’s a number of things. We can’t provide beaches, we can’t provide mountains, and the other thing that’s hard for us to provide — and it’s nobody’s fault — is that a lot of those kinds of start-up companies that are common to, for example, Silicon Valley or Connecticut or New York, simply aren’t as common here. So the potential for advancement, the potential for becoming an integral part of the company on the ground floor, the potential for stock options, that sort of thing, is not as great among companies in the Fort Wayne area, so that’s going to contribute a little bit to young people wanting to get out.

On the other hand, raising a family in California in many areas, is not a very attractive proposition, and you find that the companies here — and if you talk to them, they’ll tell you this — they can attract folks back here in mid-career because this is where they want to raise a family. So those kinds of things work counter to the brain drain idea. And to get to the bottom line of your question, I don’t think there’s a lot the universities can do about the question of brain drain. It’s more how attractive the region is, how attractive the jobs in the region are. If we had, for example, only manufacturing jobs in the region, we’d have a major intellectual drain. But we’ve got a good mixture of jobs, and I think the broad range of people you see in this area is an indication of that.

FWR: If you had had another, say, four years as Chancellor of IPFW, what items of unfinished business would you have liked to see accomplished?

MW: Well, I only wanted two, because that’s our 50th anniversary. But we already have the first part of the money for a third bridge, and that will go across Coliseum over to Ivy Tech. If we can pull that off, that will be a stunning bridge. It’s modeled on a bridge in Taipei that reaches out with the supporting member, starting on the IPFW side, and then has cables that hold on to the rest of it. It’s an unbelievable bridge.

We’re just about to sign the contract for a retail area that’s right by housing. That’ll consist of a major brand drug/variety store, a medical clinic we hope the community as well as the students can use, and then two fast food restaurants.

We’re going to bring a temporary building that Ivy Tech had on their North campus back over here. They have no use for it anymore, and it’s a very nice classroom building, and we really need the space. We’re bringing ELS to campus — English as a Second Language — so we can bring more international students to campus. Those things are things I would have liked to have completed.

In terms of programs, we’d like to bring doctoral degrees to campus. Not PHDs, but applied doctorates — doctorate of Nursing practice, doctorate of education, possibly science and engineering. But those are things that need to be in the academic future of the campus.

For more of our interview with Michael Wartell, check out the Around Fort Wayne blog at aroundfortwayne.com/blog

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