Lester Wolfson: An Early Leader

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Lester Wolfson with Herman B Wells (seated). Wolfson was Director and Assistant Dean then Chancellor of IU South Bend from 1964 to 1987. Wells was President of Indiana University from 1938 to 1962, then Chancellor from 1962 to 2000.

"The appointment of Les Wolfson as director in 1964 proved to be a fortuitous, harmonic convergence of a barely visible, unhistoried, evening campus with a forty-year-old professor of English embarking on a career in university administration...[T]he new South Bend-Mishawaka campus of Indiana University had no degree programs, no alumni, no regional identity, and, in the sports-shadow of Notre Dame football, almost no prospect of gaining the region's attention through an athletics program. But the path to recognition through sports programs did not interest Wolfson; in 1964 he said that he had 'no sympathy with the disproportionate attention given to intercollegiate athletics.'...What Wolfson brought to the little campus, which area residents continued to call 'the extension' years after it developed and administered its own degree programs with campus-specific requirements, was his abiding love of the academy--of the humanities, the sciences, professional programs, art, music, and theatre." (Tom Vander Ven, A Campus Becoming, pp. 48-49)

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News stories of secret U.S. B-52 bombings of targets in neutral Cambodia where North Vietnam's military had established base sanctuaries intensified anti-Vietnam War protest across the U.S., and on May 4, 1970, National Guard troops killed four students during a protest at Kent State University. The following day, Chancellor Wolfson sent a letter of protest to President Nixon, who replied on June 24. The bombings continued until Congress voted to terminate them on August 14, 1973.

Letter from Chancellor Wolfson to President Nixon.jpg

May 5, 1970

The Honorable Richard M. Nixon
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C.

Dear President Nixon:

I write to express my deep dismay at the extension of the war to Cambodia, and urge you to re-consider immediately both the need for, and the dire consequences of, such an action.

I grieve too at the deaths of the students at Kent State University. While the causes of violence are many and complex, certainly one cause over which you can exercise considerable control is the inflammatory language used by high public officials in their comments on the crises of our time. 

Respectfully yours, 

[signed LMW Lester M. Wolfson]

Lester M. Wolfson 

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June 24, 1970

Dear Dr. Wolfson:

Your recent message expresses the deep concern which all of us must feel toward the challenges facing our country. The recent deaths at Kent State University and elsewhere have gravely saddened the nation. No violence is justifiable, and I am determined that we will find methods of dealing with violence which would not endanger the lives of innocent people. 

Contrary to an impression many have received, the Cambodia mission does not represent an expansion of the war in Vietnam. I made the decision to undertake this action for the very reasons that the dissidents are demonstrating: to end the war sooner. The protests concern me because I know how deeply these young people feel, but I know also that what I have done will accomplish the goals they want. 

In my May 8 press conference, I commented that it is advisable when the action is hot to keep the rhetoric cool. This is not to say that dissent should be stifled. I have for years defended the right of dissent, but I have always opposed the use of violence. On university campuses the rule of reason should prevail over the rule of force and I hope that in the weeks and months ahead we can develop better lines of communication to the student generation and also to school administrators.

With my best wishes,


[signed Richard Nixon]


On May 6, 1970, Lester Wolfson breaks ground for an addition to Northside Hall with anti-Vietnam War demonstrators in the background. South Bend Mayor Lloyd Allen stands at left. Wolfson sent his letter to Nixon the day before the groundbreaking.


"[T]ruly educated people cannot be proud, brutal, indifferent, or neglectful. We will survive only through learning to live humanely in a precarious world. Though many of you will disagree, in my view the college and university will play a larger part in guaranteeing that survival than will be played by any other institution. If there is no necessary correlation between character and intellect, I am sure that there is a high positive correlation and that the rational orderings we discover and transmit as university people will translate themselves into the personal and social orderings that mark a warm and generous society.

The great university, in its perfection, is a model for that warm and generous society. Since the end of World War II, Indiana University has grown in distinction until it is beyond question one of the most eminent universities in our country. The South Bend Campus is an integral and inseparable part of Indiana University. Given the obvious differences in scope, everything that is wished for and expected of our biggest campus is wished for an expected of our South Bend Campus." ("A Hope for the South Bend Campus," delivered at a faculty meeting, September 19, 1964)

"If we and other nations survive the Vietnam War, and if we avoid the ultimate polarizations which are caused by all those who refuse to recognize how deep we are bound in our common humanity, there will be means, and time, and desire, and strength for us and other emerging universities to make major contributions to these good ends of human harmony. As the democratic ideal is at last fully realized in our school and colleges, the things done there, not only in keenness of mind, but also in amplitude of heart and elevation of spirit, will be the true wonders of our earth." (Remarks to the faculty, September 21, 1968)

Wolfson discusses his contributions to the university in a 1978 interview.

"Wherever education fails, it fails most when it ignores civility, and rests content in producing trained functionaries or quick-tongued disputants who are fortified in their native arrogance. It is fashionable in some quarters these days to think that rudeness is a mark of honesty and blunt plain-speaking, while politeness is a mask for privilege or an insidious co-opting grace. To think in this manner, by failing to see the similarity between gross acts of overt violence and less direct ways of eroding effective self-assurance is to contribute to an atmosphere in which no man or nation can truly flourish.

...Clearly we need trained intelligence and we need political skill, but far more than either we need a reaffirming of our basic faith in, and love for, our common humanity, not as an abstract principle, or used in bludgeoning confrontation, but expressed by each of us in the living witness of the individual encounters of our works and days. Whatever our private hope of heaven, mindful of how fragile and transient human life is, we know, with Sir Thomas Browne, that 'it cannot be long before we lie down in the darkness, and have our light in ashes.'" (Remarks at third annual Commencement exercises, Northside Hall Auditorium, June 4, 1969)

[E]ven as we continue to respond to market need in program development, and rightly contribute our expertise to the general economic development of our community, hark back to the ineluctable idea of what must always be at the center of our concern -- that as a university we deal centrally and always with things in their intellectual and aesthetic formulation. As antitheses, consider first the IBM radio ad in which an uneducated but subliminally erotic female voice informs us that there is no fun like the fun to be had in fooling around with computers. Clearly, all that has a great deal to do with sales but nothing at all to do with an understanding of binary mathematics or the properties of electricity which make computer science possible and intelligible. In contrast, [IU South Bend Business Manager] Otis Romine a short time back told an IU golf outing that as a necessary antidote to the excesses of talk about high tech and bottom lines, we should think more about low tech and top lines. Robert Frost, I think it was, who said with similar metaphoric meaning that we should be more concerned with insight than sight, essence than sense, metaphysics than physics. 

The top line for IU as a system, for our IUSB, and for all good colleges and universities is how to keep alive those indispensable disciplines which are the witness of our essential humanity. In the matter of internal reallocation, do we bend totally to what is immediately wanted, or do we muster all the strength we have to say that philosophy must be supported, literature, music, art, drama, true scientific inquiry -- all those things which may not be currently popular as measured by numbers but -- hucksterish Salvationists and commercialists to the contrary -- offer the best chance for humankind not only to survive but to flourish." ("Like Grim Death," delivered at the fall faculty meeting, September 2, 1983)

1964-1987: Framing the Campus
Lester Wolfson: An Early Leader