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The Interview Issue: Robert Manuel

September 26, 2015
manuel-2-092815-15col.jpg (IBJ Photo/ Eric Learned)

The view of the city skyline from picture windows in the University of Indianapolis’ new 160,000-square-foot health pavilion is a fitting vision for what President Robert Manuel, 47, sees for the liberal arts college’s future. His goal is to reinforce the school, which is nestled in the University Heights neighborhood, as an “anchor” for the south side.

Now, the university is breaking ground on buildings and setting enrollment records, with more than 3,300 full-time undergraduate students on campus this fall for the first time. Two dozen new faculty members have also arrived. Manuel says this is just the beginning of a new era.


How can the University of Indianapolis be a catalyst to improve the neighborhood?

It seemed like neighbors were all pinning some hope on the university. I see huge potential, and I see the university as an anchor to that potential.

We are the biggest organization around. We finally realized that’s a pretty important community anchor and we have responsibilities, as a result, to train and educate and expose. We need to become a stable stepping-stone to the city by shoring up our basics of health care and wellness and education and by drawing the amenities closer to us.

We said, “We want to be partners with you, not just doing business next to you.” This has spurred development. Joy’s House [adult day care service] has opened up a shop just behind here. The Indianapolis Neighborhood Housing Partnership, a bank that allows people from below poverty levels to access credit to buy homes, is setting up shop on the south side. The Excel Center [adult charter school] just rented space.

You recently chose the word “momentum” to sum up the last year at University of Indianapolis. Why’d you choose that?

We’ve grown the real estate, the faculty and the reach of our programs. It’s all cylinders firing at the same time. You can’t step on campus without feeling a sense of motion.

What aspect of the university’s new strategy excites you the most?

How big the thinking was. This health pavilion is kind of a physical representation. As beautiful as the building is, the stuff that’s happening within it is far more beautiful.

What part of your personality informs your decision-making?

I’m a bit of a data-head. I believe in the power of numbers informed by the qualitative story. I believe the environment dictates the pace we move. I have a pretty high expectation that we don’t just discuss the problem, but solve the problem.

What is the biggest challenge facing higher education?

They’re feeling sincere pressure to be judged by someone else’s yardstick. Someone’s got to be brave enough to say, “That is not what we’re about.” Or, “We’re going to invest in this even though it’s not the du jour thing to do.”

How is the University of Indianapolis bucking recent higher education trends?

We’re investing in more full-time faculty and lowering our faculty-student ratio, and we are investing in our community in ways other universities don’t see as an advantage to them. We’re giving faculty and staff $5,000 to move into the neighborhood. It’s a draw. It’s a way to keep the community kept up. There’s a lot of nice homes back here that are arts-and-crafts style. The university would love to have our people living in our community. If $5,000 helps them and it doesn’t go to some absentee landlord, we all win.•

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