Finding a Common Purpose

If bad things happen in threes, IU is due for another catastrophe.

The University has already lost two prominent men in the year 2000, and neither experience has been pleasant or pretty.

The first catastrophe was the death of a man who meant much to IU — Herman B Wells. Wells defined IU. He built the University from an average state school to a world-class institution known around the world.

The second catastrophe, of course, was the firing of former coach Bob Knight. Knight defined IU to the rest of the world. Without him, it is likely IU would be a world-class school with the low profile of St. Olaf or Dartmouth, unknown outside the state.

Without either of these men, IU would be a vastly different place.

Wells, during his tenure at IU (starting in 1921), built up the University, setting a number of precedents that put IU at the forefront of higher education. As a strong supporter of the School of Music, Wells made a concerted effort to ensure IU had one of the best music schools in the world.

He also made IU a good campus, where students could live and study comfortably. For example, as University president he helped oversee the expansion of the Indiana Memorial Union. In 1957, under Wells’ leadership, the IMU remodeled the bowling alley and the Commons.

Wells also left a strong natural legacy by creating a beautiful campus. He consistently opposed cutting down trees in Dunn Woods and building over the Jordan River.

He made important strides in integrating the campus, putting African Americans and other minorities in the classrooms together with non-minority students. IU was the first University in the Big Ten to have African-American athletes because Wells thought it should be so. If we remember Wells for only one reason, it ought to be this one.

The linkage between Wells and Knight was the library. In five years, IU will no longer have the Main Library, but instead the Herman B Wells Library. It’s a fitting tribute to a man who requested money be donated to “The Herman B Wells Acquisition Fund” for the libraries instead of flowers for his memorial.

Bob Knight supported the libraries as well, making donations each year and by creating “The Bob Knight Library Endowment,” which has more than $1 million.

Ironically, Knight’s firing allowed IU to remove one more major racial barrier at IU. Mike Davis has become IU’s first black head men’s basketball coach. This is a significant step in the integration of the IU campus, and something of which Wells would be proud.

The loss of these two men was bad for the heart and soul of IU, whether you liked either one. One clearly represented the heart and soul of the University to those of us here, while the other represented the vibrant image of the University to the world. One was key in making IU a world-class institution, while the other made sure people all across the United States knew IU existed.

It is important for universities to have somebody or something to rally around or about. Everybody rallied around Wells — I remember telling my friends about the first time I was in the same room with him. Everybody rallied around Knight, debating whether he should be our basketball coach and whether he was good for the University.

To lose both of these prominent men in the same year is an unfortunate thing. It means we are left without our beloved University chancellor and an irascible general.

Right now it appears IU doesn’t really have anything to rally around. In a few months, once the furor over Knight has completely died down, we will have neither of these strong figures. We will be left looking for common ground.

It will be difficult to find: Myles Brand does not endear that same kind of support. Neither does the retiring Kenneth Gros Louis.

There doesn’t appear to be anybody who can fill the role both Knight and Wells performed so well. There are no burning issues for students on this campus to rally around or debate in a meaningful way. One can hardly call the campus parking problem, for example, a burning issue.

Until we can again find that unity in a prominent leader or on a particular issue, the IU community might be a bit aimless in its purpose and direction.

Without that sense of purpose, we are lost.

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