Research and Creative Activity

Indiana University

Office of Research and the University Graduate School
Volume XVII, Number 1, April 1994

Memories of IU:

A Conversation between Walker and Wells

Herman B Wells, after 91 years, has a better memory than many people half his age. Although he believes that he inherited some part of this talent, he acknowledges that a good memory is "prepared" and driven by interest in the subject. It requires some effort: "Going into a group [where] I may be called upon to recognize people, I try to find out who is going to be in that group." Wells then often uses a time-honored technique: "I associate people with places. That makes it very easy to remember. For instance, I associate [a person] with [his or her] home town . . . or from the river country. I had a letter the other day from a friend who signed it, Your River Rat, because that is what I called him."

Though often confronted by a typical feature of human memory wherein our versions of the past frequently differ from the written record, Wells can repeat almost verbatim accounts of the pivotal moments in Indiana University's history. Those memories related to the creation of IU's research reputation include the struggles to support Alfred Kinsey and his institute in the face of media pressure, background work he did to recruit and retain Herman Muller (distinguished professor of zoology, 1945-64), the post-war effort to accommodate returning veterans, and launching building projects. Yet, Wells is not locked into the past; he still looks to the future of Indiana University, but with the perspective that his memories provide: "Throughout my life I have tended to think infrequently about the past, concentrating rather on the future."

Asked if there is anything the university might do to better inform people about the research versus teaching debate, he replied, "I don't think so. . . . For the most part, you work sacrificially. I think the point is that . . . you work much harder at the university than you do in business. It's a bunch of monkey business about industry being more efficient, because here our product is not profit." Wells recalled the story that he used to tell state legislators about walking his mother through campus at night. "She would say, 'Why are all those lights on?' And I would say, 'They are all up there in the laboratories working.'" When someone would complain about those who "go around campus working with strings, saying 'He's just goofing off,' I would explain the importance of research with mathematical theory." The topics of cost efficiency, and research versus teaching, are thus old ones, but Wells admits that today "there is a little more public participation in the discussion." He considers good teaching as one of the benefits of excellence in research and scholarship.

Reflecting on his memories of the past, Wells predicts that we will "continue to grow in research and special institutes . . . . We'll get over this malaise that we are in at the moment. We were in the same malaise when Sputnik hit us." There were other times when universities resisted change and growth, as in the flood of immigrants from post-World War II Europe. "This faculty, God bless them, didn't resist them, and so it was [during] that period that this campus became more or less a cosmopolitan faculty."

Wells commends IU's increasingly cosmopolitan outreach. The influx of scholar-refugees, the returning GIs, the growth of federally-funded research, and the development of schools and programs that attract students from all over the world, Wells credits to the institutional expansion inaugurated by his predecessor, William Lowe Bryan. He also recognizes Wendell L. Willkie (1940 presidential nominee who repudiated isolationism) as preparing him for the global vision he needed to secure IU's growth and excellence during and after the war. "Indiana is one of the big exporting states of the United States, and we need to have IU alumni all over the world. Now there is a realization that we live in one world and that we compete in one world. They [alumni] are at the other end of business. So it is easier to make the argument now that it is important to have international students." Wells has always been devoted to promoting area studies, such as the unique department of Central Eurasian studies, to enhance IU's scholarly offerings in ways that foster informed international contacts.

Wells' knowledge of the past gives him a unique perspective on viewing the present: "I think we have a good president now, and I'm sorry he is leaving. Fact of the matter, I think he has been one of the greatest presidents since [David Starr] Jordan's time [1885-91]."

Memories of Indiana University during the twentieth century will be of a time of indisputable success including expansion of global consciousness, good administration, and excellence in teaching and research. Herman Wells may be occasionally persuaded that his own role in this success story was one of "being lucky," or a gift that he inherited. His record will show the dedication and effort he used to forge a great research university.