The Crusader Newspaper Group

A Crusader conversation with Chancellor Ken Iwama

Chancellor Ken Iwama

By Carolyn McCrady for the Gary Crusader

Ken Iwama became the Chancellor of Indiana University Northwest two years ago.  Prior to coming to IUN, he served as founding Vice President for the Division of Economic Development Continuing Studies, and Government Relations for the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York.  He was able to secure $22 million for major facilities and infrastructure projects as well as academic initiatives supporting the Division of Humanities and Social Sciences, Division of Science and Technology, School of Health Sciences and the School of Business.  He also has an extensive background in education law and labor law.  Prior to working at the college, Chancellor Iwama was General Counsel for the State-Operated School District of Jersey City, and was part of the team that was ultimately successful in raising performance indicators and commencing the district’s return to local city control. Chancellor Iwama’s administration has identified specific goals and strategies to accomplish through the year 2026, specifically student recruitment and enrollment of new students, improving retention and graduation rates and closing the achievement gap, strengthening academic programs, increasing partnerships and engagement with the community, and advancing diversity, equity and inclusion.

The following is an interview conducted recently with Chancellor Iwama conducted by a reporter for the Gary Crusader.

IUN is currently a commuter-based campus in the middle of an urban, largely African American community. What factors do you believe make Indiana University Northwest an outstanding educational institution in the city of Gary?

I would like to begin with a short discussion of the bigger picture I see in regard to higher education.  One of the things that is a mission for me is to recapture a narrative that has been lost in our country about college.  I think we have ceded ground to other voices that view higher education institutions as not worth the investment. And I don’t think that people in higher education have been talking enough about the narrative the other way which concerns the social mobility aspects that are critical for us as human beings as well as the economic and social advancement of individuals.  Right now, I am discussing this with my higher education colleagues all across Northwest Indiana.  We need to start talking more about the core value of an education because parents are weighing the decision about their children’s education.  Some families may not perceive the true value of higher education now with post-pandemic proliferation of well-paying entry level jobs, and they may choose to forego college. Young people can begin with entry jobs, but after 5 years or so, where will they be?  From my perspective, they may be setting themselves back years because they do not have the degree that will allow them to excel and advance in their chosen field.

In terms of IU Northwest itself and what we have here, I would like to begin with the quality of what we offer on this campus. Because of our location which includes our great Northwest Indiana communities, Lake Michigan, as well as our close proximity to the economic hub of Chicago, we have incredible faculty who are drawn to that energy. In terms of scholarship and research and creative activities, we have some of the best faculty you will find across the state.  For example, we have the only School of the Arts in the region, and we have some of the best artists around because of our proximity to Chicago, a major cultural and artistic hub.  But then we also excel in our School of Education where we recently went through an accreditation evaluation process and our programs received a 100% score.  This is really unprecedented and speaks to the quality of what we offer, including our School of Business and Economics, health degrees, and our other academic programs.  So we have these high level quality programs that are affordable when you also consider financial aid and scholarships.  No one has to pay anywhere near $80,000 a year if they study at Indiana University Northwest. Then if our students continue onto graduate school, they are not saddled with a huge amount of debt, but they have also received an excellent education that will propel their career paths.  Additionally, we also offer high level graduate programs in our IU School of Medicine as well as numerous 2- year degree programs from Ivy Tech with whom we share facilities on campus.

We do not want to be the best kept secret around and I want everyone to know we are doing everything we can every day to have IU Northwest be rediscovered by our communities.

What do you consider to be IUN’s unique responsibilities and accomplishments in regard to the role it plays in the city of Gary?

You cannot disregard the historical value of a community as the foundation for moving forward.  I am a big believer in the history of an area, both in terms of the painful as well as the positive, and using both to leverage and propel change.

What are the painful parts in Gary’s history?

The economic decline and how that historically impacted the city and the Gary school system which has endured closed businesses and school buildings due to a declining population.

When I first came here, one of the things I prioritized was to meet with community leaders.  And I have done that from community groups, to city, state, and federal elected officials, and business groups like our local Chamber of Commerce. Gary can be a heartbeat of the region.  IUN can now play a role in bridging the gap created by historical racial, social, and economic inequities because we are and will be an active part of the community.

Do you believe that IUN’s engagement with the surrounding community and the city in general could be enhanced by providing jobs, business and economic development in the community?

In terms of economic development, one of the purposes of my former position at the College of Staten Island in New York was to bring together economic development groups, government relations, and the University. What I have learned is that we can have these invisible walls that keep us from having synergy with the community.  How do you have job growth, program growth if you don’t have connections with the businesses and not for profits, with the school systems? As an example, when I was at Staten Island College we initiated the first technology incubator program because we saw an opportunity to bring this concept to the other boroughs outside of Manhattan.  Incubators and innovation centers can be the spark for development in any community.  At the time we did not have a real connection with the economic development groups, that could advance the idea that “a rising tide lifts all boats.”  It is that model that I want to emulate here in Gary and the region in general. In fact, I have been meeting with a number of groups to discuss ideas about innovation centers that would involve local corporations and high schools with STEM curricula to spur entrepreneurial and business development. I am really excited about the possibilities because based on prior experience I know it can work if the right kinds of relationships are built.

Additionally, at Staten Island I helped oversee the transition from a commuter campus to a 450-bed dormitory system. We began to attract students from other parts of New York City, a lot of students from the Bronx, students who just wanted to get away and get a residential college experience.  I am not saying that what happened in New York could or should be duplicated here, but I am saying that the same principles of collaboration and community engagement will be applied here at IUN as we move forward.

We are unique here in many ways, and I want to hear what people are saying.  I want to know what they want and need and base my work on those conversations.  I will say that I am hearing more and more about these innovation centers across Northwest Indiana because they can become centers for growth in the ways we have already discussed.

Once local control of the Gary Community School Corporation is reestablished, would you like to see a relationship built between those students and the university, and particularly the medical school?

I am an attorney by profession, but my role as an attorney has always been in the area of education law.  I worked for the Jersey City public school system.  And interestingly enough, I see many similarities between that city and Gary.  Jersey City was the first in the country to be taken over by state government and so I was part of the transitioning back to local control of public schools in the district.

Because of my history there, none of what is happening here today in Gary is new or a surprise to me.   I understand that both Jersey City’s as well as Gary’s future is connected to the children of K-12. In Jersey City, we developed a program called 30,000 degrees that identified the low numbers of bachelor degree attainment as a problem.  And so we partnered in an unprecedented fashion with a small private college and another university in the borough to engage with public schools to collaborate on curriculum for students, many of whom were 1st generation and students of color to develop what we called “college-mindedness.” So we created a program with a high school partner, involving our technology incubator, to create one of the first “4 plus 2” programs in the borough that would help students complete high school in addition to a 2-year degree associate’s degree program.  All of this worked to create a new profile of higher education surrounded by technology.

I believe that in Gary career paths are already organically here in areas such as medicine, transportation logistics, urban farming, performing arts, IT and construction/manufacturing technology, among others.  We have a medical school, hospitals, an airport, urban farms, a vibrant performing arts community and career centers.  These are certainly connecting pathways for our young people to pursue.

I don’t have all the answers, but I want to listen and I want to advance our mission. And when missions integrate, when the university is engaged with the community, we will see change.  The question is “What we can do for all of us?” Both the community and the university have interests and those interests are intertwined.

In regard to retention and graduation rates, are you satisfied with those rates, particularly as regards African American males?

Absolutely not.  We are working in several crucial areas to address the retention and graduation rates of African American males. First of all I believe that the Group Scholars program, which will bring its first class to IUN’s campus this fall, will be absolutely critical to future graduation rates. The Group Scholars Program was instituted 50 years ago on the Bloomington campus for 1st generation and diverse students to become successful in college.  So far the response has been great.  Students in this program will commit to attending IUN, and we will follow them through to graduation. We are also in the planning stages for potentially reinstating Kids College through a new pilot program which will bring younger students to campus in the summer.  And we are partnering with the Urban League on future college fairs. And finally, IUN has a strong student success initiative which has a focus on retention and graduation success.

As many know, we have a teacher shortage in Indiana and through collaboration led by the Dean of the School of Education Mark Sperling, we have established a licensing program to recruit teachers who will commit to staying in the area, and become fully certified in a shorter period of time. Started in collaboration with the Gary schools, we have expanded the program to East Chicago, Hammond and others because of the need.  Teaching is the future. We can create so many career opportunities through this campus.  The energy is here to do that.

These programs are all part of our plan for community engagement and to hold ourselves accountable to the students of the city of Gary and the Region.

Recently, an alumna of IUN called into a local radio show to talk about the transformational aspect of her education at IUN.  She spoke about taking a course in African American Studies and how learning about African history and enslavement in detail for the first time was eye opening for both her as an African American woman and for other white students in the class.  Are there any plans to expand this kind of curricula in the departments of Minority and Women’s Studies? Are there plans to increase the numbers of full time tenured African American and Hispanic faculty members which can contribute to improving the climate on campus?

Yes, that is the plan. We understand that if IUN is to be a welcoming university, we must offer not only resources and financial help to students but increase the number of faculty of color. IUN is now considered a Hispanic Serving Institution, a designation which provides dollars and resources to help solve economic and social problems students of color encounter.  These are dollars for action items.  Also, through the $30 million IU Diversification of Faculty program, we were able to appoint 3 tenure-track, full-time positions in the English, Business and Computer Information Systems departments. We expect one or more positions to be filled in other departments soon also by a faculty of color.  Two of these faculty positions are designed to support curriculum development in minority studies.

These are not temporary positions, but will be part of ongoing line items in the budget and thus sustainable.

We have also appointed a faculty diversity liaison to advance, among other outcomes, a better sense of belonging for diverse faculty.

Given the alarming climate of racist violence in the country today, what do you believe the role of a university is in combating hatred? Are there specific programs, curricula, courses, requirements intended to reduce hatred? Are there plans to increase these efforts?

The key to diversity, equity and inclusion is that everyone has to buy in, not just a chancellors’ edict.  It has to be embedded in every course a student takes, across the curriculum.

What does the future hold for the medical school?  Would you like to see residences built so that the school could attract students from around the country?

I have regular meetings with the associate dean of the medical school who is very interested in opening up the doors of the medical school to the community. We are fortunate to have within the city’s boundaries our medical school and health care facilities like Methodist Hospital so that connecting the dots collaboratively in the future looks promising. Discussions around this kind of collaboration are already taking place.  In this regard, the associate dean is working to include students who have ties to Northwest Indiana so that we can get “home grown” students to study and then stay here and practice medicine.  She understands that one of the keys to growth at the school is housing. We are looking at what developers are thinking on this issue.  I don’t have an answer to that as yet but we are working on it.

Because of your background in economic development at the College of Staten Island, you are probably aware that a growing number of colleges and universities are now using community benefits agreements as tools to create economic opportunities in the cities where they are located.  Is this something IUN would use to provide such opportunities in Gary?

I have seen the trials and tribulations of when developers come in and the community does not benefit.  Although I don’t have direct experience with these, I am open to the ideas, thoughts and principles behind such agreements.  I saw this happen in Jersey City when developers arrived and many promises were made but the enthusiasm dissipated.  I could see that how these types of agreements between parties could promote accountability.

In that regard, we take local procurement seriously and are looking at expanding our outreach to local businesses.

 Is there anything we can look forward to especially in terms of the University Park project and its economic impact on the city?  What other opportunities for engagement have you identified?

I am not aware of any current plans to move the University Park project forward, but the theme is still alive and well in terms of development around the perimeter.

In regard to the sale of the Gleason Golf Course which is located right next to IUN, I understand development plans were already in motion by the time I arrived on campus. But I have had a lot of discussions with Mayor Prince about the role the university can play.  If there is an opportunity to develop, we will certainly consider it.  Right now there are no specific plans, but we continue to buy parcels around the perimeter of the campus as they become available. The discussion around development could center on student housing or an athletic field, or as we talked about earlier, innovation centers. IUN research faculty are currently assisting Lake County by conducting a study of properties that continually move through tax sales without being purchased and find solutions in order to spur business and other development by those who want to invest in Gary and Lake County.  A component of the project is to map out these properties by location and type.  But it looks like there is plenty of opportunity for future growth.

Where would you like to see the IUN campus in the next 5-10 years? 

I hope that IUN will become an economic catalyst for growth.  We are putting things in place for that to happen. Sometimes when I go to an event, people are surprised and appreciative of my presence. I believe you have to be present to discover opportunities to plan and collaborate.  What we need now is leadership that collaborates; our faculty, staff and students want to engage because this is our future.  The new Strategic Plan that faculty and administration generated shows what can happen when people are motivated to grow and change. It is truly time for people to work together for each other’s mutual benefit.

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