The Journal Gazette
Wednesday, December 02, 2015 10:45 am

Local push fueled exit of Wartell

Sherry Slater The Journal Gazette

While then-IPFW Chancellor Michael Wartell was battling Purdue University leaders to remain in his job through the school’s 50th anniversary, some local business leaders were secretly lobbying for a new campus leader.

The chairmen of Steel Dynamics Inc. and Rea Magnet Wire Co., the retired chairman of Lincoln National Corp. and a Fort Wayne business owner met with then-Purdue President France Córdova on June 29, 2011, via teleconference to ask her not to grant Wartell’s request for an exemption to the university’s mandatory retirement age.

The four men followed that meeting with letters to Córdova, including one clearly marked "confidential." The correspondence was released Friday to The Journal Gazette by Purdue officials in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The letters described Wartell as having poor working relationships with his staff, leaders of other local colleges and the local business community. They also questioned his integrity.

Mark Ulmschneider, a local attorney who represents Wartell, takes a dim view of how Keith Busse, Jim Vann, Ian Rolland and Larry Lee expressed their opinions.

"It was underhanded," he said. "It was done in secret, and they mischaracterized the facts."

As a result of the secret nature of the correspondence, Wartell didn’t have the opportunity to respond to the allegations against him, Ulmschneider said. 

"It’s a violation of due process, basically," he added. "It was a group character assassination, that’s what it was."

It’s unclear whether the letters influenced Purdue’s trustees, who made the decision to reject Wartell’s bid for an extension after 18 years as IPFW’s chancellor. He was forced to retire in July 2012.

Irene Walters, who has since retired as IPFW’s executive director of university relations and communications, rallied support for Wartell in 2011, when it still seemed possible that he could be allowed to stay on for an additional two years. She gathered more than two dozen letters of support from influential people on campus and off.

"I kind of mounted my own little campaign and sent those letters to Purdue and never heard anything," Walters said.

None of those letters was included in the documents released to The Journal Gazette, so it’s unclear whether Purdue trustees ever saw them.

But the documents did include copies of emails sent by Lee. 

In one, dated Jan. 24, 2011, Lee discussed his disappointment that his $1 million donation to IPFW wouldn’t result in the campus’s new track facility being named for him. The email was in response to one sent to Lee by Richard Miller, IPFW’s director of athletic development.

"Rich, I am not too proud to admit I would love to have my name associated with the new track-and-field building," Lee wrote. "It breaks my heart to visit campus, view this magnificent structure that elevates us to a whole rarified level – and recognize I could have had my name associated with the indoor track portion."

In that same email, sent six months before Lee bashed Wartell to Purdue officials, he said that with the new track facility and the soccer fields, IPFW would "soon boast two of the grandest on-campus college athletic venues in the country." 

"You know who deserves the credit for that? Mike Wartell. I may have had a disagreement or two with Mike re my donor intent on past gifts, but he may not have been responsible for any of those issues. I understand that now," Lee wrote. "The man wants what is best for the university, and he is a visionary. No one can dispute that."

The local businessman had a dramatic change of heart six months later.

In June 2011, Lee wrote to Córdova, "In the last four years, it has become increasingly more difficult to work with Mike on university-community issues. The main reason relates to his word not always serving as his bond. Too often, with persons in a variety of capacities in a variety of situations, he has broken faith."

Emails that Lee sent to Busse, Vann and Rolland appear to show Lee organizing the troops as they considered strategy for when and how to voice their concerns to Purdue. In one message, Lee addresses them as "Worthy Brothers."

Vann, of Rea Magnet Wire, rejected any suggestion that his involvement in trying to have Wartell’s extension request denied was tied in any way to backing up a vendetta being nursed by Lee.

"There was certainly no ulterior motives to go get Mike," he said.

Several local business leaders had one-on-one conversations about their desire to see Wartell retire and make room for new leadership, Vann said by phone Saturday. The group of four who talked to Córdova via Skype and wrote letters weren’t the only ones who had concerns about Wartell, he said.

"Mike hadn’t done a bad job," Vann said, adding that he simply thought someone else could do a better job. "I still feel that way."

In his email to Córdova, Vann said, "I believe that a high-profile, energetic and business-oriented chancellor could play a much stronger leadership role here and substantially benefit the region and IPFW."

Vann, 87, didn’t recall Wartell’s request for a retirement reprieve being limited to two extra years, which would have allowed him to celebrate the school’s 50th anniversary. Vann thought an extension would be unlimited.

"I was just saying I think it would be better if they didn’t make that exception" to the mandatory retirement policy, he said. "I felt that I had the right to share that opinion."

Busse and Rolland could not be reached for comment Saturday.

Wartell has sued Lee, alleging defamation based on statements in the letter to Córdova.

Reached by phone Saturday, Lee said he has been ordered by his attorneys not to comment to the media.

"As much as I would like to speak my mind, I think it would definitely be inappropriate" while the lawsuit remains unresolved, Lee said.

Although Walters disagrees with Wartell’s critics, she doesn’t think they should be silenced. And she doesn’t think Wartell is perfect.

"I think everybody has a right to express his or her own opinion. That’s freedom of speech," she said, adding that she believes it would have been more fair if the men had taken their concerns directly to Wartell.

"He wasn’t always tactful. He was passionate," Walters said of Wartell. "I’m sure he alienated or offended people in that pursuit."

The bottom line, in her mind, is that Wartell was a tireless and effective advocate for IPFW.


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