Regents interview first UNI presidential finalist

Wartell says he hopes to rebuild trust between UNI, community

Diane Heldt
Published: February 7 2013 | 8:30 am - Updated: 28 March 2014 | 11:07 am in

University of Northern Iowa presidential finalist Michael Wartell told state regents Thursday morning that of his many accomplishments while leading Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, he is most proud of the "uncommon collegiality" on that campus, the feeling among faculty and staff that there was a common vision and everyone bought into it.

Wartell said he thinks that leadership experience and his approach to doing things would be a great support in helping solve some of the problems that have plagued the UNI campus in the past year and a half, and to help rebuild some of the trust.

"When you can do that, I think that's much more of a legacy than a building or a program," he said. "University of Northern Iowa is really a gem, it's a place that should be a national model."

Wartell was the first of two UNI candidates interviewed Thursday by the state Board of Regents. Each candidate will make about 30 minutes of introductory comments in open session, followed by a one-hour closed interview with the board.

Later Thursday morning, the board will interview second finalist William Ruud, president of Shippensburg University of Pennsylvania.

The regents plan to deliberate Thursday afternoon in closed session, then vote in open session to choose the new president at about 2 p.m.  A public reception for the chosen president will be held at about 4:30 p.m. today, at the Sheraton in West Des Moines.

Wartell, 66, is chancellor emeritus and professor of chemistry at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW).

When he was appointed chancellor at IPFW in July 1994, Wartell said it was a commuter school, and he set about making changes that he says left the institution better. Under his leadership, the school constructed about $250 million in new buildings, raised more than $100 million at a university that had not raised money previously, moved from Division II to Division I in athletics, brought student housing, child care and a medical clinic to campus and instituted a technology-based incubator on campus.

At James Madison University, where Wartell was dean of the College of Letters and Sciences and professor of chemistry from 1979 to 1984, he created an honors program that is still used as a national model. At Humboldt State University, where he was provost and vice president for academic affairs from 1984 to 1989, Wartell said he helped build declining enrollment back up, from about 7,000 to about 9,000, helping to "re-establish the health of that university."

"Through my entire academic career ... in every case I believe I left those institutions better than when I started out," he said.

Regent David Miles said comments from Wartell's UNI campus visit described him as candid, blunt, frank, and even one who listed rude. Miles asked Wartell to describe his leadership style.

"I'm very open, very interactive," Wartell said, noting he prefers in-person and telephone discussions to email. "I believe that communication is very nuanced and there's incredible room for misunderstanding if you don't do that. And we spend a lot of time making sure that everybody on the campus feels that they're important."

Wartell added he doesn't "suffer fools gladly," and he doesn't see the point in meetings that are "continuous talk and little action."

"With a lot of consultation, I'm willing to come to conclusions very quickly," he said.

Regent Bob Downer asked Wartell why he wants to take on a new challenge at age 66, a time when many people are winding down their careers.

"I'm healthy, I feel as energetic as I ever did and I truly enjoy what I'm doing," Wartell said. "Building a university is really heady stuff and when you're able to do it well, people really appreciate it."

Wartell received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from the University of New Mexico and master's and doctoral degrees in physical chemistry from Yale University.

A third finalist for the UNI presidency, Avijit Ghosh, withdrew his candidacy this week after a campus visit.

The new president will succeed Ben Allen, who is retiring after serving as UNI president since 2006.

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