Luther Spoehr: Review of James H. Capshew's "Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University" (Indiana, 2012)


Luther Spoehr, an HNN book editor, teaches courses on the history of American higher education at Brown University.

The stereotypical Midwesterner: unpretentious, practical, hard-working, reliable, tough-minded, respectable, egalitarian, discreet. Positive adjectives, all of them -- at least at first glance. As we will see, however, discretion, at least, can be a mixed blessing, when practiced by both a subject and his biographer. 

James Capshew, a historian at Indiana University, portrays the long-lived Herman B Wells, president of Indiana University from 1937 to 1962 (and interim president in the late '60s) and chancellor until his death in 2000, as embodying all of these Midwestern characteristics.  These personal qualities, Capshew argues, made Wells a truly great university leader. He quotes higher education historian John Thelin, who described Wells as an exemplar of "an innovative style of presidential leadership ... central to the surge of the new American state university."

Capshew’s is an ambitious undertaking, highly successful in some ways, less so in others. At his best, he shows how Wells -- himself an Indiana native -- helped to transform a small provincial institution, drifting along in the backwaters of the Big Ten, into a highly visible research university with national and international reach. Drawing upon extensive primary research, secondary sources such as Thomas Clark’s four-volume history of the University and Mary Ann Wynkoop’s study of IU in the '60s, and his own memories of Wells (he first encountered Wells's "personal beneficence and institutional charisma" as an undergraduate in the late '70s, when he served as a "houseboy" in Wells's home), he paints a portrait of a man constantly in motion, who built, promoted, and protected the institution he loved as if it were a living thing. 

Throughout the book, Capshew's admiration for this "extraordinary human being" never wavers. Indeed, one of the most remarkable things about Wells is that he introduced so much dramatic change to IU while becoming ever more beloved not just for his professional acumen, but also for his decency and thoughtfulness. Another transformative leader, whose presidency almost exactly coincides with Wells's, was Brown University's Henry Wriston, of whom it was said that he "took Brown by the scruff of the neck and shook it into greatness." Wriston was able and charismatic in his way, but didn’t generate the broad and deep personal affection that Wells did. Nobody seems to have imagined Wells taking anybody or anything by the scruff of the neck.

That Wriston and other like him are largely absent from the narrative points up a larger contextual omission: the landscape of higher education was changing rapidly in this period, especially in public colleges and universities after World War II, but Capshew does not explain why Wells's particular combination of energy, vision, and personal charm succeeded as well as it did, or how his approach compared to his contemporaries. And he does not explore the national context, beyond the halls of academe, except for passing references to postwar prosperity and the Baby Boom and the like, to explain how it helped or hindered Wells in realizing his ambitions for IU.

Wells had an unlikely background for a college president. Born and reared in Indiana, he graduated from IU's School of Commerce and Finance in 1924, did some graduate work in economics at the University of Wisconsin, and served as home secretary for the Indiana Banking Association. He also joined the IU faculty and in 1935 became dean of the School of Business Administration. As Capshew makes clear, however, Wells enjoyed the social life of the university as much as the academic: as an undergrad, he was an enthusiastic member of Sigma Nu, business manager of the band, and was already a past master at what a future generation would call "networking." Still, he had less than a decade of experience behind him when in 1937 the university, hard pressed to find a leader to replace the venerable William Lowe Bryan, asked him to step in as interim president. A year later, with the search still stymied, they offered the rotund, mustachioed Wells the permanent job.

His university needed a jump start. The faculty, like the retiring president, was aging and the education they offered was not exactly cutting edge. The physics department’s chair, for instance, on the job since 1897, “tried to ignore the rise of nuclear physics and quantum mechanics. ... He was fond of boasting, 'There is not an electron in all Indiana!'"  Aided by persuasive pension plans, Wells replaced him with NYU’s Allen Mitchell and IU went on to build a cyclotron. Wells had an eye for talented faculty, who undoubtedly were drawn to a leader whose administrative philosophy was, in his own words, "to try to attract and hold the most talented faculty members, encourage them, support them, and then get out of their way to let them go wherever their talents and energy lead them." Stumping the state on behalf of the university, he attracted students, too: a student body of 5,000 in 1940 had almost doubled by 1946, and by 1948, thanks partly to the GI Bill, IU had the ninth-largest enrollment in the country.

Not that Indiana was always entirely hospitable to the academic life. The famous research on Sexual Behavior in the Human Male and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female carried out by Alfred Kinsey was controversial, to say the least, but Wells found ways to insulate and protect both the University and the professor. Nor was the state known for its racial tolerance. In the 1920s, it was virtually dominated by the Ku Klux Klan, and its segregationist habits while not as legally blatant as those in the Deep South, were no less real. In his non-confrontational way, Wells "looked for unobtrusive, inventive ways to combat discrimination," whether by inviting African American singer Marian Anderson to perform, or simply ordering the signs saying "reserved," which had designated African American seating areas in the Commons, to be removed, or by recognizing the Negro Student Council as an official university organization.

Capshew doesn’t really explain, however, just how and why Wells's "unobtrusive, inventive" tactics succeeded. Did nobody notice the changes wrought by the disappearance of the "reserved" signs? They would have in Mississippi! And when he says simply that Wells and basketball coach Branch McCracken "were laying plans to recruit Bill Garrett, a star African American basketball player," he glides by a lot of the pulling and hauling that Wells had to do -- not least with McCracken, according to the detailed account in Tom Graham and Rachel Graham Cody’s Getting Open. It’s easy to believe that "Wells, in his effort for racial integration and to foster controversial research had withstood much," but Capshew provides few specific examples or measures of the resistance he encountered.

It’s not clear why Wells chose to leave the presidency in 1962. Certainly his legacy was secure: during his time at IU, "the university had granted two and one third times as many degrees as it had during the entire previous 118 years of the university’s history"; programs, including the renowned music school, and the campus itself had grown commensurately. Capshew refers to Wells's "private discomfort about what he jokingly referred to as his 'deification,'" but he was only sixty years old, and, except for some rocky moments when he served briefly as interim president in the tumultuous late '60s, the "deification" continued during his long term as chancellor. One wonders if he would have retired had he known he would live another thirty-eight years.

Capshew remains determinedly uncurious about Wells's responsibility for or reaction to some on-campus difficulties. For example, "a couple of weeks after Wells announced his plans to retire, [the NCAA] suspended IU, barring postseason play in any intercollegiate sport for four years" because of violations by the football program.  Capshew describes Wells as "deeply upset at this breach in ethical behavior, but he thought the penalties were too severe" because they punished unoffending sports. But the reader (this reader, at least) wonders how the football program had gotten so out of control.

When campus protest arrived in full force during Wells’ second interim presidency, "students were rightfully concerned about secret police, as there were FBI undercover informants who were infiltrating campus groups. Wells might not have had direct knowledge," but, Capshew says, quoting Wynkoop, "'it was unlikely that he was unaware of the FBI’s interest in Bloomington’s New Left Leaders.'" Unlikely unawareness is not the most precise possible delineation of what Wells did know. If no further information is available, Capshew should say so.

Interestingly, Capshew does seem to have pursued the question of whether Wells, who never married, was gay. "Wells’s sphinxlike silence on personal topics was a product of his upbringing in small-town Indiana, but it occasioned rumors and speculation about his psychosexual orientation and preferences throughout his adulthood. Yet, to my knowledge, he never told anyone about erotic or romantic longings." Capshew considers the possible lingering aftereffects of a "bout of childhood orchitis" and various psychological theories, but concludes, quite reasonably, "The riddle of his sexual orientation remains an open question, assuming it is relevant at all."

Ironically, the largest missing piece in the Wells puzzle is a precise representation of the man’s personality. It’s one thing to ascribe his success to genial charm; it’s another to show just what it was and how it worked. In 1938, Time magazine "profiled the 'roly-poly' "Hermie" Wells ... the youngest president of a State university. The brief story mentioned his work drafting new state banking legislation but claimed 'the campus knows him best as a jolly, convivial gourmet, and a Rabelaisian storyteller.'" But while Capshew mentions Wells's taste for antiques and fine art, there is precious little of the "Rabelaisian storyteller" in these pages. Aside from occasional jokes he would make about his presence "adding weight" to an occasion -- surely a standard line -- we don’t hear his voice very often.

Nor do we get a thorough sense of him as an administrative strategist. John Gallman, editorial director of the Indiana University Press (established, naturally, by Wells), sensed the need for this when he approached Wells about writing his autobiography. "Trying to provide a model, Gallman gave him a copy of Machiavelli’s The Prince…and suggested, 'Pretend you are Machiavelli telling the University world how you did it.'" "I was like that," Wells admitted. "But I can’t write that kind of book." The book he did write, self-effacingly titled Being Lucky (1980), was pleasant but characteristically unrevealing. Wells was "inhibited by his personal injunction to always be nice."

In the end, Capshew concludes ruefully, "no one can know Wells’s interior life." To be sure, this in no way lessens his own reverential regard for this extraordinary man. So readers will have to settle for this thorough account of what Wells did; they will have to wait for -- and, indeed, may never get -- a full explanation of just how he did it.

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