A new study’s conclusion that Indiana University - Purdue University Fort Wayne would be better off managed by IU than by Purdue continues a debate over governance that has gone on as nearly as long as the campus existed.

As early as 1973, less than a decade after the universities joined forces in Fort Wayne, a consultant suggested the local institution would be better off independent. But that, like the recommendation from the new study commissioned by the Northeast Indiana Regional Partnership, was just that – a suggestion.

“As we pointed out when we presented this, neither Bill, nor I nor our clients, the Regional Partnership, have any authority to do anything,” said John Stafford, who co-authored the study with William Sheldrake, president of Policy Analytics LLC. “It rests with the universities, with the Indiana Commission on Higher Education and the General Assembly. We just hope that they will give it serious consideration.”

A change in governance would require that a new agreement be hammered out by the boards of trustees of the two universities. And it would have to address a lot of details – such as employee pay and benefits, tenure, pensions and other management issues – that a transfer of authority would raise.

Changes in funding formulas, also among the recommendations in the partnership’s study, would be up to the ICHE and the state Legislature, which could expect some heavy lobbying from local business organizations.

“We would be a strong advocate, along with the Regional Partnership and the Regional Chamber, to achieve the study’s recommendations. Obviously, there’s a lot of work to be done,” said Mark Becker, CEO of Greater Fort Wayne Inc.

“I think the report has done a great job of positioning us as to what we need to work on. I think it’s up to us as business leaders to make something happen,” said John Sampson, CEO of the Regional Partnership. “There’s a lot we can do within our control, and with the entities we don’t control, but can influence by advocacy, by stating our minds about what’s important to our region.”

Purdue has managed IPFW, as its “fiscal agent,” for almost all of its 50 years. The governance agreement between the two universities typically was renewed each five years; but the last two years have produced just single-year renewals as the debate over governance intensified.

The Regional Partnership commissioned its study as part of its mission to make the area more attractive and responsive to employers and their work-force needs.

“It’s all about alignment and engagement and understanding between the largest higher education institution and the business community,” Sampson explained. “It’s not productive for a community that’s staking its long-term viability on the global marketplace to have institutions of education not aligned to the needs of employers. It all comes down to that. If we’re not aligned to the needs of employers in this region, then all we’re doing is training someone else’s workers.”

Stafford said he and Sheldrake looked at a number of governance options, including independence, but management by IU seemed to make the most sense. IU manages five regional campuses and IUPUI, which has the more autonomous designation of “metro campus,” in addition to Bloomington. Purdue manages just its campus in West Lafayette, IPFW and a newly combined operation in northwest Indiana.

“If you go back and look at how things have evolved, both in the management structure and the documents we’ve had to view, you see a little more of an IU perspective as a system than Purdue has traditionally shown,” Stafford said.

Not everyone agrees with the study’s governance conclusion, however. Businessman Larry Lee, of LeePoxy Plastics, is one of what he admits is a small minority in the business community who believe the campus should be independent.

“This was a perfect opportunity for a bold, transformational step forward. I think this was the time for IPFW to declare its independence or at least start on a five-year plan to achieve independence,” Lee said.

“I think we are taking a big risk. Even if IU Bloomington assumes the fiscal agent role, we’re just replacing one master with another and hoping that the results will be better,” added Lee, who like Sampson and Becker is a member of the IPFW Community Advisory Council.

One of IPFW’s problems with Purdue is its seeming hesitance to authorize new programs, in particular graduate degrees, that the campus and the community want.

“If IPFW has to wait while its request goes through the proper channels with any other governing body, we’re going to be on the sidelines while other universities in this area are more nimble … and I think that’s unfortunate,” Lee said.

“The privates, one of the things we in the publics envy about the Huntingtons and the Manchesters of the world is, if they see a need for a new program, if they can pull the resources, by golly, they can start it. And they can do it in about a year, maybe even less,” IPFW Chancellor Vicky Carwein noted in an interview prior to the study’s release.

“For us to do that same thing would take us four or five years. And so that’s the real frustration with the public sector,” she continued.

“For us to develop a program, we would have to do a needs assessment. We would have to justify it. We would have to demonstrate the resources. We would go through a review process within our own university here. If it’s a graduate program, it would go through a lengthy review process at Purdue University. Then it would go to the trustees. Then it would go to ICHE.”

The prevailing argument against independence that has been that degrees from IU or Purdue are more highly regarded than a degree from the “University of Fort Wayne” or any other name an independent campus might choose.

“I think that’s a delusion,” Lee said bluntly.

The vast majority of students from IPFW find their first jobs with employers in the region who are well aware that those IU and Purdue transcripts reflect schooling done in Fort Wayne. And with subsequent jobs, where a degree was earned becomes less important, he added.

“They either produce or they don’t produce and they will keep their job or lose their job based on performance, not on the labels or the pedigree of the educational institution that they graduated from,” he said.

The hot-button issue of governance has deflected attention from some of the other important issues raised by the partnership’s study. Key among them is that IPFW consistently ranks last, or nearly last, among 15 state college campuses in terms of per-capita student funding. Not only is its base funding level low, it performs badly in funding metrics that are calculated by the number of students graduating in the traditional four-year time span.

Many IPFW students work full-time while trying to advance their education; in fact, many use employer tuition reiumbursement for that purpose. It may take them five or six or seven years to get a degree. “We don’t think the regional campuses should be harmed because they have students working in a different sort of situation,” Sampson said.

“When you’re an 18-year-old in the dorm in West Lafayette and you’ve got parties on Friday night or you’re trying to balance taking 15 credits or 18 credits, that’s a different set of circumstances than the student here who is, ‘I work five nights a week or I work three nights a week. I’ve got a 4-year-old at home. I’m a single mother. Or I’ve got a mother who’s ill and I have to take care of her three nights a week,’” Carwein said.

Purdue responded to the study’s release Aug. 14 with a brief statement that it “favors whatever arrangement is best for the students on the IPFW campus and for the region it serves.”

“We believe, and have much confirmation from the IPFW community, that communication and collaboration around the system are much improved in the last year or so. But if the local community, the people of IPFW and the state’s public leadership conclude that a shift to administration by IU is advisable, we will cooperate fully in a swift transition,” the statement continued.

The full IPFW Roles and Governance Study can be found on the Regional Partnership website, www.neindiana.com.

Barry Rochford contributed to this story

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