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Larry MacIntyre
University Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, September 8, 2009

President Emeritus John Ryan receives University Medal, IU's highest nonacademic award

Sept. 8, 2009

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- John W. Ryan, whose 16-year presidency of Indiana University was distinguished by growth and stability, the expansion of international programs and the development of campuses across the state, has been awarded the University Medal, IU's highest nonacademic award.

IU President Michael A. McRobbie presented the medal to Ryan, IU President Emeritus and a professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs. The presentation took place Friday (Sept. 4) at the third annual Dinner to Celebrate Academic Excellence, hosted by McRobbie to recognize IU faculty members who are members of major academies or who have won prestigious awards.

"John Ryan had a remarkable vision of how Indiana University should grow and develop, along with the leadership qualities to make that vision a reality," McRobbie said. "He understood clearly that the university needed to engage with all the regions of the state of Indiana -- and also that its reach and reputation should be not only national but global. No one is more deserving of this award."

The University Medal honors individuals for singular or noteworthy contributions, including service to the university and achievement in arts, letters, science and law. It is the only medal that requires approval by the IU Board of Trustees.

The presentation was a particularly special occasion, because it was Ryan who, as president, created the University Medal in 1982, bestowing it first on Thomas T. Solley, director of the IU Art Museum. Ryan is only the 10th person to receive the medal.

Ryan, whose association with IU spans more than half a century, was the university's 14th president, serving from 1971 to 1987. Only three presidents, Andrew Wylie, William Lowe Bryan and Herman B Wells, served longer. Prior to becoming president, Ryan was IU vice president for regional campuses and a political science professor and administrator at the University of Wisconsin, the University of Massachusetts and Arizona State University.

His tenure as president saw the establishment of IU East in Richmond and IU Southeast in New Albany, the creation of the schools of Public and Environmental Affairs, Journalism, Optometry and Continuing Studies, and the formation of several Bloomington campus cultural centers.

Ryan was born in Chicago and graduated from high school in Mankato, Minn. A Navy veteran, he earned a B.A. degree in social and behavioral science from the University of Utah and an M.A. and Ph.D. in government from Indiana University.

Colleagues describe him as both a strategic leader and a savvy and decisive administrator, someone who enjoyed good relationships with university colleagues, alumni and state government officials.

Gerald Bepko, who was chancellor of Indiana University-Purdue University from 1986 to 2002, said Ryan's leadership was instrumental in strengthening the IUPUI urban campus and the IU network of regional campuses.

"John Ryan and Herman Wells were the leaders of IU's development of the multi-campus university, and John's work in establishing and strengthening it was fundamental to what IU is today," Bepko said. "He also advanced the unique potential of the Bloomington/Indianapolis corridor and laid a foundation for interconnections between the core campuses and the creation of a research corridor that has produced critically important developments, particularly in the life sciences and information technology."

Bepko said Ryan understood early the role that IU's regional campuses could play in meeting the educational needs of their communities -- for example, by providing pathways to higher education for returning students and women who had opted to start families rather than go to college.

"I think he, more than anyone else, understood the vision for what these campuses could be," said Bepko, who is now Trustee Professor at the IU School of Law-Indianapolis. "He understood that, if we were to achieve a very significant increase in the number of people in Indiana who earn postsecondary credentials, we couldn't do it without having educational programs right in the community."

Charles Bonser, founding dean of the IU School of Public and Environmental Affairs, recalled that Ryan became president at a time when relations were rocky between the IU administration and faculty and between the university and state government.

"John took over at a very tough time, and he was a great president for over 16 years," Bonser said. "He won the respect of the legislature, the alumni and the state. He proved to be a great choice."

Bonser, an emeritus professor in SPEA and the Kelley School of Business, said Ryan was a smart manager who put together a highly competent team of administrators.

"John's a visionary," he said. "He could see possibilities that very few other people could see. He's also a very down-to-earth, fun kind of person. He has a great sense of humor -- the old Irish blarney. Those of us who worked for him admired him greatly."

Patrick O'Meara, IU vice president for international affairs, said Ryan followed in the footsteps of Herman B Wells in extending the global reach of the university. Ryan formalized the university's Office for International Activities and, during his presidency, IU developed important programs and relationships in Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.

As a young graduate student in the 1950s, Ryan was one of dozens of IU academics who spent time working and studying at Thammasat University in Bangkok, Thailand. "He did his dissertation in Thailand, then he played a substantial role in the evolution and development of NIDA (the National Institute for Development Administration), which has become one of the major universities in Thailand," O'Meara said.

Upon his retirement as IU president, Ryan devoted himself full-time to the Campaign for Indiana, a comprehensive campaign on behalf of all the campuses that raised $316.1 million by 1989.

Ryan remained active in higher education administration, serving as interim president of Florida Atlantic University and the University of Maryland at Baltimore. From 1996 to 2000, he was interim chancellor and then chancellor of the State University of New York system, one of the largest institutions of higher education in the U.S. He and his wife, Patricia, moved back to Bloomington after retirement in 2002.

About the award

The University Medal was created in 1982. The medallion is made of 18-karat gold and bears on its face the university seal. It is reserved not only for individuals of unique accomplishment, but also for those who are ineligible to receive an honorary degree or a DASA (Distinguished Alumni Service Award). The award can only be made by the authority and action of the Board of Trustees on the recommendation of the president of the university.

For a full chronological list of the University Medal recipients, see medal list.shtml.