Herman B Wells

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Herman B Wells Plaza Indiana University

Herman B Wells (June 7, 1902 – March 18, 2000) was the 11th president of Indiana University. He served the university in a variety of capacities, most notably as president and as chancellor. He was pivotal in the development of Indiana University from a small locally oriented college into a world class institution of higher learning.[1]

Early life[edit]

Herman B Wells was born June 7, 1902 in Jamestown, Indiana. His middle name is just "B" not followed by a period, in tribute to the tradition on his mother's side of middle names beginning with the letter B. He was the only child of banker Joseph Granville Wells and his wife, Anna Bernice Harting Wells, a former teacher. During his time in Jamestown, he played alto horn in the Jamestown Boys' Band. During his sophomore year in high school, the family moved to Lebanon, Indiana. After school and on Saturdays, Wells would work in his father's bank. He graduated from high school in the top 10% of his class. Wells was also known to have a unique and lovable manner of articulation, that has often been compared to that of Magilla Gorilla.[2]

Wells initially attended the University of Illinois from 1920–1921, but later transferred to Indiana University in Bloomington, Indiana against his father's objections. In his book, "Being Lucky", Wells wrote "It was a simple place in those days, with not yet three thousand students, but it had great charm and appeal for me." He played in the band and frequently visited the Book Nook, a place Wells described as "a remarkably fertile cultural and political breeding place in the manner of the famous English coffee houses."[3]

He earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Business Administration in 1924. He then spent the next few years working as a bank cashier in Lebanon, Indiana. Following this he continued his education with graduate studies at Indiana University where he completed a Master of Arts degree in Economics in 1927. He then began doctoral studies at the Department of Economics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison from which he withdrew in 1928.[4]

Early career[edit]

After completing his graduate studies, Wells took employment as a field secretary for the Indiana Bankers Association where he worked from 1928 to 1931. As part of his work at the IBA, Wells travelled to all 92 counties in Indiana, working closely with bankers to conduct his research and organize bankers' lobbying and anti-crime groups. Wells' work for Indiana had a major impact on the rewriting of the state's banking laws. In 1931, Wells headed the research operations of the official Study Commission for Indiana Financial Institutions, which recommended far-reaching changes to Indiana's financial regulatory structures, many of which were adopted by the General Assembly in 1933. In 1933, Wells took leave from his recent appointment as an assistant professor at Indiana University to work as supervisor of the Division of Banks and Trust Companies and the Division of Research and Statistics in the newly created Indiana Department of Financial Institutions, an agency with origins in the Study Commission's recommendations.[4]

Academic career[edit]

Woodburn House in Bloomington, where Wells lived early in his IU presidency.

In 1930, Wells joined the faculty in economics at Indiana University in Bloomington. This led to a 1933 offer of an assistant professorship in economics at the university, which he accepted but from which he took a leave. In 1935, Wells became Dean of the School of Business Administration which later became the Indiana University Kelley School of Business. He was a protegee of the elderly president William Lowe Bryan, who wanted Wells to succeed him despite rumors that governor Paul McNutt, a former dean of the law school, had a lock on the position.[5]

In 1937, two years later, Wells was offered the position of acting president of the university after the retirement of Bryan. Wells accepted on condition that he not be considered for the permanent presidency of the university. He became interim president on July 1. With this posting, he became the youngest state university president in the nation. One year later, Wells agreed to become the university's 11th president, assuming the title on March 22, 1938. He held this post until 1962.[6]

Following World War II, Wells oversaw the largest increase in the student population in the history of the university, nearly tripling the student body from 11,000 students statewide in 1938 to 31,000 in 1962. Wells's tenure as president saw him regularly involved in student activities, with an active interest in their lives. His frequent walks around campus often found him engaged in lively conversations with students. Wells oversaw the desegregation of the university. Alfred Kinsey, a professor at Indiana University during Wells's tenure, came under heavy scrutiny and criticism for his studies in human sexuality. As a strong advocate of intellectual freedom, Wells supported Kinsey in a controversy that advanced academic freedom.

Wells was pivotal in expanding the horizons of the university to a more worldwide base, including the attraction of significant academicians from countries overrun by Nazi Germany such as Nobel Prize winning geneticist Hermann J. Muller. Wells travelled in excess of 33,000 miles (53,000 km) to attract bright, young, as well as established faculty to the university.

Numerous buildings were constructed on campus during Wells's term as president to accommodate the vast increase in size of the university. More than 1700 acres (6.9 km²) of property were added to the Bloomington campus, greatly expanding the physical size of the university to be much of what it is today. Despite rapid expansion and increasing demands for space and physical plant requirements, Wells remained a staunch proponent of the environment. He strongly advocated the retaining of tree and green space throughout the campus. He once said, "To cut a tree unnecessarily has long been an act of treason against our heritage and the loyalty, love, and effort of our predecessors who have preserved it for us." As a direct result of these efforts, the Indiana University campus is often considered one of the top five most beautiful campuses in the nation.

During his tenure as president of the university, Wells personally read and signed every diploma issued by the university, a total of 62,621 diplomas, frequently adding personal notes.

Wells retired as president of the university in 1962, accepting a lifetime appointment as chancellor of the university. This post was created for him by the university's board of trustees. He never accepted a salary for this position. He held this post until his death in 2000. In 1962, Wells purchased a home very close to the campus which he promptly gave to the university with the condition that he be allowed to live out his life in the home.

Wells died late on the evening of March 18, 2000. His funeral was held four days later, on March 22. This was the 62nd anniversary of his ascension to the presidency of the university. In June 2005 Indiana University renamed its Main Library the Herman B Wells Library; the university had to wait five years after Wells' death in order to name the library in his honor due to a policy Wells himself put in place requiring sufficient time to pass before the naming of a building to determine the name would endure.


Graduate diplomas

Wells signed every one of the 62,621 diplomas awarded in his years as president. He explained during his 1962 commencement address:

During the past 25 years I personally signed the diplomas of all graduates. Neither printing press nor mechanical device of any type has been used to multiply my signature. Each diploma has been read as well as signed, one at a time. This has given me a sense of direct identification with each graduate. Many of the names I have recognized, recalling pleasant contacts and mutual experiences during college days. In other cases the names have brought to mind fathers, mothers, or other relatives of my undergraduate era or earlier. But whether I recognized the name or not, in the act of signing I felt some individual participation in the joy and satisfaction of each graduate who had won his degree with conscientious work and application.

— Alma Pater: Herman B Wells and the Rise of Indiana University; James H. Capshew

Within his efforts to desegregate Indiana University in the late 1950s, Wells went to several extremes to make his point known that racism would no longer be welcome in Bloomington, Indiana. One extreme was evident and very necessary. During the turmoil of the civil rights movement, no white barbers allowed black students to have their hair cut in their off-campus shops. In order to resolve this, Wells simply told the barbers that if black students could not find service in their shops, then no Indiana University student would be able to, and that students would only be allowed to go to the on-campus barber shop. This changed the minds of the white barbers fairly quickly, and they soon allowed black students to have their hair cut as well.

German painting

According to IU officials, Wells purchased, in 1967, a late 15th-century painting depicting the Flagellation of Christ from a London art gallery in good faith. In fact, the work had been looted by Russian and British soldiers from a Berlin museum during the summer of 1945. In 2004, the Foundation for Prussian Palaces and Gardens informed the IU Art Museum; in 2006, the IU Art Museum agreed to return the painting to Berlin.

Positions, appointments and awards[edit]

The main library of Indiana University Bloomington has been named after Herman B Wells since 2005

Wells held the following positions while with Indiana University:

  • Instructor of Economics, 1930–1933
  • Assistant Professor, Department of Economics, 1933–1935
  • Dean, School of Business Administration, 1935–1937
  • Professor of Administration, School of Business Administration, 1935–1937
  • Acting President, 1937–1938
  • President, 1938–1962
  • University Chancellor, 1962–2000
  • University Chancellor and Interim President, 1968
  • Chairman, Indiana University Foundation Board, 1969–1972
  • Chairman of the Executive Committee, Indiana University Foundation, 1972–1975
  • Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Executive Committee, Indiana University Foundation, 1975–1988
  • Vice Chairman, Indiana University Foundation, 1988–1995
  • First Vice Chairman, Indiana University Foundation, 1988–1995
  • Professor Emeritus of Business Administration, 1972–2000

Appointments throughout Wells' career include:

  • Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching
  • American Council on Education
  • Association of Land Grant Colleges and Universities
  • National Association of State Universities
  • Special adviser on liberated areas for the U.S. Department of State and a minister of the Allied missions
  • U.S. delegate to the 12th General Assembly of the United Nations
  • Head of the U.S. delegation to Bangkok for the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization Preparatory Commission on University Problems
  • Adviser to the Ministry of Pakistan, 1959
  • Vice chairman, National Commission on Humanities, 1964–1965
  • Member, President's Committee on U.S.-Soviet Trade Relations, 1965
  • Director, Indiana Judicial Study Commission 1965-1968
  • Member, President's Special Committee on Overseas Voluntary Activities
  • Board of Directors, Federal Home Loan Bank of Indianapolis, 1936-1971 (Chairman, 1940-1971)[7]
  • Board of Directors, Lilly Endowment, 1972–2000

Awards throughout Wells' career include:

  • One of "America's Ten Outstanding Young Men of 1939"
  • Gold Medal Award, International Benjamin Franklin Society, 1959
  • Commander's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1960
  • Thailand Government Award of Commander of the Most Exalted Order of the White Elephant in 1962
  • Thailand Knight Commander (Second Class) of the Most Noble Order of the Crown in 1968
  • B'nai B'rith Great American Traditions Award
  • The first Excellence in Education Lifetime Achievement Award from the Sons of the American Revolution
  • Lifetime Achievement Award of the Greater Bloomington Chamber of Commerce
  • Six time recipient of Sagamore of the Wabash designations
  • Indiana University's "Man of the Century"
  • Named a "Hoosier Millennium Treasure" by Indiana Governor Frank O'Bannon in 1998
  • Named an Indiana Living Legend by the Indiana Historical Society in 1999[8]
  • Kappa Kappa Psi, National Honorary Band Fraternity Distinguished Service to Music Medal for Alumni Achievement.
  • Received 26 honorary degrees


  • Wells, Herman B (1980). Being Lucky: Reminiscences and Reflections. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0253006134. 
  • Wells, Herman B (1992). Herman Wells Stories: As Told by His Friends on His 90th Birthday. Indiana University Press. ISBN 978-0253207531. 


  1. ^ James H. Capshew, “Encounters with Genius Loci: Herman Wells at/and/of Indiana University,” Perspectives on the History of Higher Education 28 (2011), 161–91.
  2. ^ James H. Capshew. "In Honor of Herman B Wells". Retrieved 2010-07-30. 
  3. ^ Herman B Wells (2012). Being Lucky: Reminiscences and Reflections. p. 33. ISBN 0253006163. 
  4. ^ a b Wells (2012-04-25). Being Lucky. p. 447. ISBN 0253006163. 
  5. ^ Thomas D. Clark, Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer, Vol 2: In Mid-Pasage (1973)
  6. ^ Clark, Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer, Vol 2: In Mid-Pasage (1973)
  7. ^ http://webapp1.dlib.indiana.edu/findingaids/view?doc.view=entire_text&docId=InU-Ar-VAB8162
  8. ^ "Living Legends". Indiana Historical Society. Retrieved 2012-10-12. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Capshew, James H. Herman B Wells: The Promise of the American University (Indiana University Press, 2012) 460 pp excerpt and text search
  • Capshew, James H. “Encounters with Genius Loci: Herman Wells at/and/of Indiana University,” Perspectives on the History of Higher Education 28 (2011), 161–91.
  • Capshew, James H. "Making Herman B Wells," Indiana Magazine of History (2011) 107#4 pp 361–376. online
  • Clark, Thomas D. Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer, Vol 2: In Mid-Pasage (1973)
  • Clark, Thomas D. Indiana University: Midwestern Pioneer: Volume III/ Years of Fulfillment (1977) covers 1938-68 with emphasis on Wells.

External links[edit]

Academic offices
Preceded by
William Lowe Bryan
President of Indiana University
Succeeded by
Elvis Jacob Stahr Jr.