Fewer people stumble over their words these days when they greet Ron Elsenbaumer as the chancellor of Purdue Fort Wayne, not IPFW.
The transition to PFW went smoother than expected, Elsenbaumer said. When he started a year ago, the school had a good plan of what needed to happen, and the campus responded “extremely well” amid complex changes. The community, as reflected in fewer name gaffes, quickly adapted, he said.
With IPFW behind him, Elsenbaumer has his eyes on the future: more faculty, a new academic building, more business partnerships and even more student housing. Historically under-occupied, more housing will be needed for an enrollment that Elsenbaumer expects to grow through expanded recruitment.
“You look around our community, look around our campus – I don't think there is any question in anybody's mind about who we are,” Elsenbaumer, 67, said in a recent interview. “And that was a tremendous accomplishment.”
Purdue and Indiana University ended their agreement to jointly run IPFW on June 30. IU now handles all health science programs on campus and PFW manages all others. The split ended a 54-year partnership.
The so-called realignment “was a bad idea that was done pretty well,” under Elsenbaumer, said Andrew Downs, a political scientist at PFW. “In other words, he has helped lead us through a bad decision, and while things have not gone perfectly, we've managed to miss some of the major pitfalls.”
Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics, voted against the realignment as a member of a working group formed as part of a state legislative mandate to evaluate the role and governance of IPFW.
Declining enrollment was a concern raised in the group's report, released in January 2016. Elsenbaumer notes that among new students this fall, enrollment is up 17 percent for undergraduates and 20 percent for graduates compared to the 2016-2017 academic year. Overall enrollment is up 1.6 percent to 10,578.
“The fact that new students are coming and recognizing who we are in such a positive way – and people vote with their feet,” he said. “And they did in this case. They responded very, very favorably to the messaging that we're putting out.”
He credits the school's rebranding and student recruiting that went beyond northeast Indiana.
The school's admissions office has five full-time student recruiters, each with a geographical region, said Jerry Lewis, vice chancellor for communications and marketing. They attend college fairs with school materials, answer questions and encourage campus tours.
“So, it's something we're going to be doing more of,” he said.
As students outside the region enroll, the issue will be housing, Elsenbaumer said. Campus housing includes 1,140 beds in 13 buildings. A clubhouse is also on the Waterfield housing campus, bordered by Crescent Avenue and Hobson and Trier roads.
Filling beds has been a challenge since the last of the buildings opened in 2010, school officials have said. Nearly a quarter of beds typically remained vacant. A rule change last school year requires students who get housing money with their scholarship to live on campus. That was expected to bring occupancy up to 80 percent.
But when student housing reached overcapacity this fall, officials had to provide temporary rooms at the Holiday Inn off Coliseum Boulevard near campus. Six to eight students remain at the hotel from about 33 housed there at the beginning of the school year.
Elsenbaumer traces the housing boom to when he arrived at IPFW and heard about unfilled jobs in the area. Surprised, he figured recruiting farther out would bring people to the region, where they would get acquainted with the community, make friends “and then ultimately seek employment and career opportunities here,” he said.
So, more student housing will be needed, he said.
Caleb Wakeman, the PFW Student Government Association's vice president of legislation, said the idea of more housing is “really exciting, that we're becoming a more traditional campus. I mean, it's the first year, but they're really optimistic about it.”
Elsenbaumer often interacts with students, said Wakeman, a sophomore.
“Everything has been positive as far as I've seen,” he said of Elsenbaumer. “I mean I think he really went kind of through the wringer at the protest, but that was an exception to the rule.”
This month, some students protested word changes on PFW diplomas that would have emphasized the campus name rather than Purdue University. Elsenbaumer met with students more than an hour – sympathizing with those who started as IPFW students and expected a Purdue degree – before Purdue trustees tabled the changes.
Elsenbaumer, one of four finalists for the post after former Chancellor Vicky Carwein announced her retirement, was the interim provost and vice president for academic affairs at the University of Texas at Arlington. He said he has yet to settle into the area, since his wife, Linda, is still selling their house and finalizing affairs in Texas.
For Elsenbaumer, an immediate goal is hiring 15 faculty members, five each for three areas: materials, biomaterials and bioengineering; data science, applied statistics and computer information systems; and strategic and risk management, financial services and financial information systems. That would require a $2 million recurring annual investment.
Those positions align with regional and state workforce needs, according to the school. The regional economic impact, based on salaries of graduates in those disciplines, is estimated at $72 million annually.
With some faculty taking early retirement and a couple leaving because of concerns about the school's direction, PFW likely would be hiring anyway, Downs said. But improved enrollment is making it possible, and Elsenbaumer is being more strategic in hiring than has been seen for a while, Downs added.
A $45 million building to house the recently formed School of Polytechnic is also among the university's priorities. It would allow expansion in the materials science and information systems areas.
Elsenbaumer said other priorities are improving student retention, expanding the school's career center and more involvement with the community. The partnership with Sweetwater, using the company's headquarters as home to PFW's music technology program, is the “tip of the iceberg,” he said. The school will explore other public-private partnerships.
Preserving the IPFW legacy is also important, he said.
“In fact I'm looking at how I'm going to capture that history and memorialize it, in oral history and even written documentation. It's an important part of the evolution of this campus. So, we never want to lose that.”
The community views PFW favorably, said Elsenbaumer, who begins his second year as chancellor Thursday. One measure is when someone calls him the Purdue Fort Wayne chancellor.
“Automatically now this seems to be rolling off of people's tongues,” he said. “And that to me is incredible, that in just a short period of time our name recognition has been very strong.”
At a glance
Purdue Fort Wayne's “Urgent Priorities”
• Invest in programs that spur job creation and workforce development
• Re-engage with business and industry to boost the regional and state economy
• Revamp Career Services to successfully connect students with employers through internships and jobs
• Maintain formula funding from the state of Indiana.
• Build support for three new schools: polytechnic, music and education
• Pursue public-private partnerships modeled after the PFW Sweetwater music center
• Leverage the prestigious Purdue University brand
Source: Purdue University Fort Wayne