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IPFW talk of campus autonomy gets boost

– Gov. Mitch Daniels, the next president of Purdue University, said Tuesday he supports a public discussion about whether IPFW should become an independent state university.

“It’s a worthy subject for inquiry. The school has grown, become more complex and plays a big role in the life and economy of northeast Indiana,” he said. “So I don’t know if it’s the right answer, but I absolutely think it’s worth a look.”

His comments came as legislators prepare to analyze whether the current operating structure at IPFW is best for its future.

Sen. Jim Banks, R-Columbia City, authored the resolution that made the study possible this year. The meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sept. 4 in the Indiana House chambers.

Banks said the school’s enrollment of more than 14,000 students would qualify it as one of the largest public campuses in the state.

Despite fast recent growth, it is still behind five other public universities, according to 2011 enrollment figures.

Purdue University currently provides administrative oversight of the regional IPFW campus with students able to get degrees from both Indiana and Purdue depending on the program.

Local legislators for years have made a case that IPFW doesn’t get adequate funding and support from the main West Lafayette campus.

Banks isn’t sure what the right structure is for IPFW and northeast Indiana, just that everything should be on the table.

“I don’t know what it would look like. That’s the whole point of the discussion,” he said. “I know some people want a University of Fort Wayne. It could definitely stand on its own, and it is critically important to the future of northeast Indiana.”

Daniels, who will take over as president of Purdue in January, said he thinks the most important thing about the debate “is what people in the region would like to see, so I’m interested to know what the hearings reveal and who steps forward.”

Banks likened it to a similar situation at the University of Southern Indiana, which began as a regional branch of Indiana State University in 1965. After local leaders became unhappy with the level of support the branch campus received, a coordinated effort was made to establish the campus as a separate state university.

Independence was granted in 1985 when then-Gov. Robert Orr signed the school’s charter.

“(USI) become autonomous from Indiana State years ago and have flourished,” Banks said. “That is the best example of what we could look like.”

The topic will be discussed by the Select Commission on Education at one meeting, but Banks is hopeful that will be enough to reach a recommendation for possible action in the 2013 legislative session.

Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn, who chairs that committee, said he believed Purdue’s leaders concentrate on the university’s main campus in West Lafayette and treat IPFW as an afterthought even though it is in the state’s second-largest city.

“I think that is what people don’t like,” Kruse said. “It appears Purdue has not pushed for IPFW to get money when they are in front of lawmakers.”

Kruse said it makes sense for the Fort Wayne campus to control its own budget and planning, but that he isn’t advocating for IPFW to split from Purdue and Indiana.

Walter Branson, acting chancellor at IPFW, said he isn’t surprised by the study group’s focus.

“I think that it’s an understandable and predictable step in the maturing of our campus, ... and we really don’t have any idea of what the outcome of the study committee will be,” Branson said.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.