The Curious Case of Herman B Wells

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Herman B Wells, born in 1902 into a modestly prosperous banking family in the farming hamlet of Jamestown, Indiana, population 600, became president of Indiana University in 1938, after serving for a year as interim president. An IU alum and Sigma Nu fraternity member, Wells had risen to prominence as an institutional economist who administered the reform of Indiana’s banking

Herman B Wells

system during the New Deal, and he became something of an FDR figure in the history of Indiana University. He oversaw a dramatic rise in the university’s size and stature, transforming it from a typical public university into an internationally recognized research institution by the time of his retirement, in 1962. Wells was subsequently appointed “chancellor for life,” a position created specifically for him by the Board of Trustees, and he exerted an active influence over university affairs until his death, at 97, in 2000.

Wells' Accomplishments as President of Indiana University

During his tenure as president, Wells was responsible for massive campus building projects, including the monumental IU Auditorium and Ballantine Hall, that provided local employment for stonecutters working in Southern Indiana’s renowned limestone quarries. An opera buff, he helped make the Jacobs School of Music one of the finest programs in the world, on par with Julliard and Berklee. A fan of modern art, he developed a university art museum that rivaled the best public museums in the country. A committed Keynesian macroeconomist, it was on his watch that the Kelly School of Business became renowned for its MBA program. Wells recruited a diverse faculty across the disciplines, including eminent European scientists and intellectuals fleeing Nazism, some of whom were Jews. After World War II, Wells implemented G.I. Bill programs that expanded educational opportunities for veterans, and he racially desegregated the campus. As a New Deal Democrat actively involved in educational and financial reform, Wells was invited to participate in the conference to charter the United Nations, and he spent time abroad, in Africa and Europe, promoting economic redevelopment. Wells served briefly as President Truman’s cultural affairs liaison in Berlin, where he oversaw the restructuring of the German university system under the Marshall Plan. In the 1960s and 70s, although retired, Wells helped promote a sense of vigorous, informed, open-minded debate about the war in Viet Nam, women's rights, and gay issues that made IU one of the more liberal campuses in a turbulent era of student unrest.

A Resolute Silence About Sexual Orientation

Herman B Wells, the left-leaning art lover and opera afficianado, never married. He lived with his mother until her death. He recruited handsome, intelligent young undergraduate men to work in his home as “houseboys.” He hired faculty members known to be homosexual and bisexual—and he socialized with them. When sex researcher Alfred Kinsey brought notoriety to Indiana University with the publication of his paradigm-shifting books Sexual Behavior in the Human Male in 1947 and Sexual Behavior in the Human Female in 1953, which claimed on the basis of the largest empirical survey of sex practices ever undertaken that nearly 40 percent American men and 15 percent of American women had had at least one homosexual experience, Wells remained an unflappable champion of academic freedom. For all these reasons, decades of IU insiders have speculated about Wells’ personal sexuality, about which he was resolutely silent.

Wells’ biographer, James Capshew, who himself served as a houseboy in Wells’ home during the 1970s, insists he has found no evidence whatsoever that Wells was ever involved in a romantic or sexual relationship with anyone, of any gender. Perhaps Wells was a consummately discreet, sexually active gay man. Perhaps, his affable and outgoing manner notwithstanding, he lived a tortured inner life of denial and self-abnegation, in fear for his career. Perhaps he joyously gave himself to a life of institutional service the way a nun can give herself to the church. In the end, it seems enough to take a perverse pleasure in the thought that the rich and welcoming aspects of Bloomington’s cultural and intellectual life, and the hospitable attitude it can manifest toward LGBT members of its community, owes something to a life-long queer love-affair between Herman B Wells and his alma mater.

James Capshew, as told to Jeremy Shere, “Herman B Wells, The Man Who Shaped Our World,” Bloom (Feb/Mar 2009), pp. 72-80.

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