Herman B Wells Speeches to Incoming Freshmen, during World War II and Today

When I think back to starting my freshman year of college (in enemy territory at Purdue University), I remember one main feeling: overwhelmed! Even though it has been more than a decade since then, I get butterflies in my stomach when I recall orientation activities, my first meals in the dorms, and meeting classmates for the first time. Though Purdue had a ton of welcome activities for incoming freshmen, the Indiana University traditions of Freshman Convocation and the Freshman Induction Ceremony are utterly charming. This year, the Freshman Induction took place August 21 at Skjodt Assembly Hall. We’ve covered the history of the Freshman Induction Ceremony in the past, so in this post I would like to focus on some wise words spoken at Freshman Convocations over the years. Specifically, this post will highlight Herman B Wells’ resolute and poignant addresses over the World War II years. His advice should be relevant for all freshman coming to Bloomington now, in an uncertain and overwhelming time.

Black and white photograph of Freshman convocation - a large crowd of seated students surrounds a central stage.
Freshman Convocation, September 15, 1938. IU Archives image no. P0031218

It is well known that our beloved Herman B Wells was a fantastic orator, so it is no surprise that his remarks are still impactful many decades later. During his 1937 speech to incoming freshmen, Wells reminded students of precarious conditions in America and the world:

“It is true that the world is beset with problems of such gravity that they sometimes challenge hope for the future. On the front pages of the newspapers almost every day reference is made to some of these problems—war, assault upon the democracies of the world by the rise of dictatorships, charges that the capitalistic system and the democratic philosophy of government are incompatible—in a word, questions that attack the very foundation of the institutions under which we are living.”

Pretty heavy words for the opening of a Freshman Convocation speech. He continued on to describe the depletion of natural resources and perilous state of natural conservation. He ended this section by saying:

“Wars, rumors of war, political unrest, dissipation of the vitality of our physical and human resources—certainly these create a dismal outlook for the future.”

Though these statements are grave, we can see obvious connections with our contemporary situation. Wells then placed the impetus for changing this outlook on the incoming freshmen:

“You need not be discouraged by the number and seriousness of these problems. They can all be solved, and they will be solved by our people if we are guided by an intelligent and informed leadership…And society, through government and through the sacrifices of individual families, has supported higher education generously in this country largely because we as a people believe that college-trained men and women offer us our best source of social, political, and economic leadership.”

One of Wells’ most extraordinary skills was to turn insurmountable challenges into inspiring moments of change. Against the backdrop of the rise of fascism (the Luftwaffe bombing of Guernica occurred in April of that year), Wells acknowledged the frightening realities of IU freshmen while simultaneously encouraging them to lead the charge for change. I hope the incoming freshman class today can harness this same courage.

Black and white photograph of the Freshman Induction ceremony. Robed faculty and staff including President Wells stand on the front steps of the Student Building.
Freshman Induction (Herman B Wells can be seen just to the right of the microphone), September 19, 1940. IU Archives image no. P0033994

In September 1940, one year before the United States officially entered World War II, Wells emphasized the university’s role in defending democracy.  He outlined three types of defenses for democracy: physical, intellectual, and spiritual. After summarizing mobilization activities on campus such as Civilian Pilot Training at the Bloomington airstrip and IU’s R.O.T.C. unit, he spoke to intellectual and spiritual defenses:

“You cannot be intellectually lazy and be an effective citizen in democracy. There is no dictator to tell you what is socially desirable and undesirable. Questions of social policy must be thought through for yourself, and you must think with sufficient clarity and originality, if you aspire to be a leader, so that you can win your colleagues to your point of view.”

Although young people today often hear calls to independent thinking, Wells’ thoughtful consideration of how free thought fosters a democratic environment should be especially relevant today. As to spiritual defenses of democracy, Wells spoke these compassionate words:

“Democracy is a way of life in which we are responsible for each other, in which our human relations must be governed, in a very real and practical sense, by self-restraint and mutual respect for the rights of others.”

In an age of rapid-fire and divisive communications I think incoming IU students would do well to embody mutual respect and feel responsibility for one another. We can update Wells’ words to apply to fostering a democratic society online, too.

Black and white photograph of President Herman B Wells standing underneath the Service Flag. Uniformed male students stand in the foreground listening.
President Wells Speaking at Dedication of the Indiana University Service Flag, August 22, 1943. IU Archives image no. P0039468

As the United States officially entered the War, we see a shift in Wells’ tone for incoming freshmen. 1942 was a particularly devastating year—by September of that year mass extermination of Jews had begun at Auschwitz, Sobibór, Treblinka, and Belzec; thousands of lives were lost as Axis powers sunk Allied ships during Second Happy Time; and Executive Order 9066 authorized the United States military to incarcerate Japanese Americans in detention camps. Wells’ 1942 freshman address echoed an atmosphere of severity:

“We hear much just now about the necessity of maintaining morale on the home front. These are days of unusual stress and strain for all of us. Home front morale will depend in no small measure upon our courtesy to each other. Acceptable manners, both public and private, insure proper consideration for the convenience and rights of others. Therefore this subject of good manners, always timely, is of especial significance at the present.”

Even in a dark hour, we see that Wells highlighted freshmen’s responsibility to treat others with respect and dignity. And as we can see from his 1946 address to the incoming class, that attitude continued after World War II as well. That year he remarked:

“The nervous system of the human body is a complex mechanism consisting of millions of cells. Yet a single nerve cell can register pain or pleasure which is felt throughout the entire body. Each person in the campus body, from the youngest student to the oldest professor, has an essential role. Each is, as it were, a cell in the nervous system of the University community.”

Black and white photograph of President Herman Wells greeting students with suitcases in hand at the entrance to Bryan Hall.
Herman B Wells welcoming World War II veterans who lived in the board room / conference room of the Administration Building during the postwar housing shortage, October 1946. IU Archives image no. P0023889

Cooperation and mutual respect were truly central to how Wells envisioned a democratic society. As the IU Class of 2023 settles in, I hope we all can exemplify Wells’ ideals to each other on and off campus. Most all of us were overwhelmed and frightened freshmen at one point. If Wells could set an example of strength against the backdrop of World War II, we should be able to pass these virtues on to the Class of 2023.

To see more transcripts of Herman B Wells’ speeches, check out the finding aid for Collection C137 or contact an archivist.

History of the Freshman Induction Ceremony

With the start of a new academic year, it seemed appropriate to review one of IU’s older, still existing traditions – the Freshman Induction Ceremony.

When did it start: The first Freshman Induction Ceremony was held in 1933 and was organized by George Ezra Shaeffer, a member of the IU Department of Physical Education (later part of HPER). The event continued to be held annually through 1969. For the next eleven years from 1970 to 1980, Freshman Induction ceremonies were not convened. The event reappeared in 1981 and is still a prominent feature of Freshman Orientation events.

Where was it held? The first Freshman Induction ceremony was held in front of what was then called the Men’s Gymnasium (now called Wildermuth Intramural Center). Here is a brief description of that ceremony from the IDS of Sept. 9, 1933: “Orientation will be climaxed Monday night by a formal induction of freshmen into the ranks of the student body beginning at 6:55 pm in front of the Men’s Gymnasium. The procession will go from there to the Sun Dial and to the Gymnasium terrace to take part in the welcoming ceremony in honor of new students at 7:15 pm.” In 1934 the event was moved to the area in front of the Student Building. This remained the site until 1948 when the event was transferred to the Auditorium, where it continues to be held.

The Spirit of Indiana. Behind her stands President Herman B Wells and President Emeritus William Lowe Bryan.

What occurs at this event? What is its meaning? From 1933 until 1969 the Freshman Induction ceremony followed the same basic script. The ceremony began with music, followed by the processional of faculty and the platform group, and the playing of the National Anthem. The first person first to speak was a female IU student dressed in a white robe as the “Spirit of Indiana,” who represented the University’s search for truth and knowledge. The Spirit’s speech is too long to reproduce here, but here are some excerpts:

“The spirit that greets you here is the rich heritage of a glorious past made possible by students, who like yourselves entering the university, feel strangely far from home and intimate friends, but who soon adapted to their new environment. The university covets for each of you a like experience…Make the most of the opportunities while here, acquaint yourself with the best traditions of the university, leave them richer in tradition than when you entered it. Such is the Law of Progress. All that has been and all that is of the spirit of Indiana University welcomes you unreservedly.”

The next speaker was the IU President who read the Charge to the students:

“I am for those who see our University as it is, with all its strengths and yet with all its needs, and who therefore know it is at its best—its resolute integrity, its allegiance to the whole truth, its long service in bringing the young people of this State toward the fullness of the life of the mind, its passion for a clean and just democracy. I am for those who see through the superficialities to the University’s basic purpose: the intellectual development of her sons and daughters. It is in their growth that she exults, for by their excellence they will judge her. Across the earth, these sons and daughters join you in the pledge of the Psalmist of old: ‘If I forget thee, let my right hand forget her cunning. Let my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth, if I remember thee not.’”

Upon finishing the Charge the IU President asked the students to repeat the Pledge to the University adopted from an oath delivered by Athenian youth pledging to dutifully meet their civic, military and religious duties.

“I will not disgrace the University for which I have received my education, nor will I abandon the comrade who stands by my side.”
“I will fight for its best interests, whether I stand alone or have the support of others.”
“I will revere and preserve its ideals and traditions, and will incite like reverence in others”
“I will strive always to quicken among my fellows the sense of social and civic duty.”
“I will cherish the sacred institutions of my country.”
“In all these ways I will strive to transmit this, our heritage, not less, but greater and better than it was transmitted unto us.”

With the conclusion of the Pledge, the IU President offered some personal remarks and then declared the freshmen to be official members of the IU student body. At the end of the President’s statement, the Dean of Music led the audience in the singing of “Hail to Old I.U,” after which the Grand Marshal led the recessional off the stage.

When the Freshman Induction Ceremony was resurrected in 1981 three major changes occurred in the script. A painting entitled the “Spirit of Indiana” replaced the IU student dressed in a white robe, and the President of the IU Student Association (in 1981 this was Bloomington’s present mayor Mark Kruzan) now delivered the “Spirit of Indiana” speech. In addition, the Pledge to the University was eliminated from the ceremony. However, the induction of freshman as official members of the student body remained as a central feature of the ceremony.

In recent times much about the ceremony has changed. The “Spirit of Indiana” symbolism and speech are gone, as are the traditional Charge. The Pledge has been reinstated, but it has been shortened and modernized and renamed the “Indiana Promise.” In this statement students promise that:

“I will be ethical in my academic work.
I will take personal responsibility for what I say and what I do.
I will respect the dignity of others, treating them with civility and understanding.”

Even though the Freshman Induction Ceremony has changed over the years, it still serves the same purposes: to provide a celebration of student’s academic aspirations and to officially welcome the freshman into the IU student community.