The Legacy of Herman B Wells

Celebrating the Publication of Professor James Capshew’s
Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University
Wells Library
Indiana University Bloomington
Bloomington, Indiana
April 18, 2012


Thank you, Dean Johnson.

I am delighted to be here this afternoon to say a few words about the extraordinary legacy of Herman B Wells and to celebrate the publication of Professor Jim Capshew’s authoritative and compelling biography of Indiana University’s legendary eighth president.

Integrity, Leadership, and a Love for IU: The Wells Legacy

Herman Wells’ affiliation with Indiana University began in 1921, when he transferred to IU from the University of Illinois.

He quickly distinguished himself as a student leader, as an entrepreneur, and later as a bank commissioner, professor, and dean.

At 35, Wells became the youngest president of a state university, and he served as IU’s president for a quarter of a century.

During his tenure as president, he implemented a vision of such power that he was able to transform a small Midwestern college into a major research university of international stature.

Wells knew that the success of any university depends on the excellence of its faculty, so he hired scholars and researchers of international renown. These included prize-winning scientists and internationally acclaimed artists and scholars.

He led the university toward the global future, developing new international alliances, and dramatically expanding IU’s foreign languages curricula. IU now offers more than 70 world languages—perhaps the largest number in the United States—because of Herman Wells.

He established a world-class music school and created facilities to house the arts. He championed the cause of educational opportunity for all, regardless of race or gender.

With his guidance, Indiana University broke the race barrier in Big Ten sports and was the first conference school to have African-American athletes on its basketball, baseball, and golf teams.

He was a great champion of academic freedom, most famously in his support of Professor Alfred Kinsey and his controversial studies in human sexual behavior, but also in his promotion of internationalism, even during the Cold War, when this outlook was politically risky.

Throughout his life, he repeatedly showed how deeply he felt for this university, its faculty, and its students. 

Over the course of his presidency, Wells personally read and signed every one of the nearly 63,000 diplomas granted by the university. He knew students personally and called them by name, drawing on his extraordinary memory. And years after those students graduated, he would recognize them on an airplane, in a restaurant, or on campus and would, again, call them by name. 

He was a man of great charm and great integrity and one of Indiana University’s giants. 

For more than three decades, we have all read and re-read Wells’ endearing autobiography, Being Lucky.

Now, we are very fortunate to have this much-anticipated, definitive biography of Herman Wells, written by Professor Jim Capshew. This superb book gives us new detail about Wells’ life and it gives us insight into how he was able to achieve so many remarkable accomplishments.

Introduction of Professor James Capshew

Jim Capshew attended IU as an undergraduate in the 1970s, majoring in psychology. During that time he worked for Chancellor Wells as a houseboy, tasked with household duties and often joining Wells for meals and outings.

He left Bloomington to pursue his Ph.D. in history and sociology of science from the University of Pennsylvania, and returned to IU to join the faculty of the Department of the History and Philosophy of Science. 

Although his primary area of research is the history of psychology, Professor Capshew has also become a preeminent scholar of the history of Indiana University, teaching courses about the university and authoring a number of publications about the campus and its people. 

Please join me in welcoming the author of Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University, Professor Jim Capshew.