Vibrant post-IPFW campus urged

March 20th, 2017

By Sherry Slater | The Journal Gazette

Northeast Indiana’s economic success depends on maintaining a strong public university, representatives of the local business community said Friday in a news conference on the IPFW campus.

About 100 faculty, students and media representatives attended the presentation in the Helmke Library.

Twenty to 30 business leaders and elected officials have collaborated on a list of eight items they believe are critical to success after ­IPFW’s parent universities separate their administrative offices and academic programs in three years, Ron Turpin said. He is chairman of Greater Fort Wayne Inc., the economic development organization.

Among the group’s priorities are keeping strong a Indiana University presence and a strong Purdue University presence on the Coliseum Boulevard campus.

The leaders also favor creating one local, independent foundation to attract funding for both institutions; having a northeast Indiana representative on both universities’ board of trustees; seeking “significant new funding” for the local campus; and maintaining a Division I athletics program at Purdue University-Fort Wayne.

It’s unclear, however, how much influence the local business community has on the universities’ decision-makers.

Chuck Surack, founder of Sweetwater Sound, said the universities’ trustees are smart people who will see wisdom in the local group’s perspective.

“If IU and Purdue can’t listen to the business community, it’s just crazy,” he said, adding that local business leaders care deeply about the community.

Mac Parker, chairman of the Downtown Improvement Trust, said dangling donations in front of the boards might be an effective carrot.

Not every business or philanthropic organization has supported the university as much as it could, Parker said. That might change, he said, if university officials adopt the local business community’s agenda.

Parker strongly rejected the suggestion that donors might withhold contributions if the group’s priorities aren’t honored, however.

Turpin agreed that local business leaders haven’t strongly engaged with the local campus over the years.

“I see one of the reasons why we’re at where we are today is the business community has neglected IPFW,” he said.

Surack outlined ways the business community could do more to support the campus, including attending more basketball games, creating more internships, hiring more graduates and donating more.

Past political donors might hold some sway with Purdue President Mitch Daniels, Irene Walters said. She retired in 2014 as IPFW’s executive director of university relations and communications.

Walters said some local business leaders were generous supporters of Daniels’ two gubernatorial campaigns. She believes Daniels will remember and listen to them.

Turpin, who is also Fort Wayne market president for Gibson insurance, believes the two universities have an opportunity to develop unique programs, based on local talent and demand. 

The local business community doesn’t want “pre-packaged programs” replicated from the West Lafayette campus, he said.

“We want to innovate here,” he said. “We’re all for big and bold.”

That could include a program focusing on music technology that works closely with Sweetwater, the music instrument and audio equipment retailer.

Turpin expects more discussions involving more participants in the months to come. Those could include, he said, community forums to solicit ideas.

Surack said boiling down the business community’s priorities allows leaders to present a unified message to university officials and state lawmakers, who play a role in deciding funding for the local campus.

Parker believes having a local major university is critical for the region’s economic development.

“Look what Ball State does for Muncie,” he said. “Even more importantly, look what Notre Dame does for South Bend.”

Walters, an active member of various nonprofit boards, was disappointed when IU and Purdue officials announced plans to end the collaboration that created IPFW. But, Walters said Friday, she’s past the grief and anger she felt.

Like the other business leaders present, Walters believes the separate institutions need to create specialized programs and conduct unique research to become nationally recognized.

And keep moving ahead.

“Perseverance,” she said, “is everything.”