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Autonomy push bears close watch


Unhappy with the level of support they received from the main campus, an influential group of southern Indiana residents began pushing for Indiana State University-Evansville’s independence in the late 1960s.

They quickly met resistance not only from Sen. Eldon Lundquist, head of the Senate Education Committee, but also from Indiana and Purdue universities.

“The state universities were concerned that ISUE’s independence would set a precedent for other small branch campuses around the state – they didn’t want that to happen,” recalled Rolland Eckels, then-director of Southern Indiana higher education, for a 1995 article in the Evansville Courier.

It was 1984 when Gov. Bob Orr, an Evansville native, finally convinced the General Assembly to pass legislation establishing the University of Southern Indiana.

Nearly 30 years later, the issue of independence for another regional campus is before the legislature – this time led by the head of the Senate Education Committee.

“Has the day come for (IPFW to become independent)?” asked Sen. Dennis Kruse, R-Auburn. “Fort Wayne is the second-biggest city in the state – the question should be raised again.”

But the resistance Evansville residents faced from IU and Purdue is more likely to be heard from IPFW students, alumni and faculty as Kruse and the Select Commission on Education hear testimony on the subject Tuesday from legislators, IPFW officials and Purdue and IU representatives.

Until a strong financial case can be made that the regional campus should become independent, there’s a strong sentiment that IPFW enjoys the best of both worlds: The prestige of its affiliation with two strong research universities and mostly laissez-faire management by the Purdue University board of trustees.

Intervention by the trustees prompted the legislative committee discussion – specifically, the board’s curious decision to enforce an oft-ignored mandatory retirement policy when Chancellor Michael Wartell turned 65. That decision seems to have had more to do with top-level changes in West Lafayette than with Wartell’s performance because the flagship campus has mostly allowed IPFW to manage its own affairs in recent years.

That’s been frustrating for some, especially the northeast Indiana lawmakers who – to their credit – are strong advocates for the university’s interests and have had to fight for more equitable funding and capital projects.

IPFW made great strides in developing its own identity during Wartell’s tenure, but there’s no discounting the value of its association with both Purdue and IU. Students and alumni are proud Mastodons, but they also are proud of their Purdue and IU diplomas.

Evansville’s push for independence had the support not only of the campus community, but also a sitting governor, local elected officials, the Metropolitan Evansville Chamber of Commerce, labor unions, two daily newspapers, parent-teacher groups and more.

Until the clamor for IPFW’s separation grows stronger, a thorough discussion of the issue should focus more on ways to expand local authority under the existing management agreement with Purdue.

But here’s betting that Purdue and IU officials are listening closely, lest any more of the regional campuses grow restless.