Robinson, UND, and the History of North Dakota

I agreed to write a short piece for North Dakota Quarterly about the institutional context for Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota. This is part of a series of short essays and reviews of the work to celebrate the book’s 50th anniversary. 

I’m not entirely satisfied with what I have now, but it’s a start. Read below:

Orin G. Libby picked Elwyn and Eva Robinson up at the bus station in Grand Forks on September 5, 1935. Libby was 77 and the longtime chair of the schismatic, American History department at the University of North Dakota. He was cantankerous, inflexible, and more respected than liked. He was the first professional historian to teach at the University of North Dakota, had worked to develop the state archives and the State Historical Society, and had produced as fine a crop of graduate students as the history department had ever seen. He had also clashed so fiercely with UND’s President Thomas Kane, that he found himself isolated a Department of American History which saw a revolving door of faculty members who rarely stayed more than a few years.

Elwyn and Eva had married just a few days earlier and had traveled 1,085 miles from Chagrin Falls, Ohio. Elywn graduated from Oberlin College before heading to Western Research University in Cleveland for his graduate work in history. In 1935, when Libby began to search for a replacement after John Pritchett decamped to Vassar College, Elwyn had not finished his dissertation, but Libby had hired him anyway based on a recommendation from Robinson’s advisor Arthur C. Cole. Cole edited the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and knew Libby through his work with that association. As with many of Libby’s hires, there was no formal interview outside of some correspondence and the first time the two men met was at the Grand Forks bus station. Such was the practice at the University of North Dakota and across the country.

Robinson’s first years at UND were profoundly shaped by his relationship with Libby. While Libby introduced the history seminar to the university in the early years of the 20th century, by the 1930s, Robinson considered his teaching style antiquated and ineffective. This pushed Robinson to innovate by introducing new textbooks, he placed on reserve at the library readings in primary and secondary sources, and adopted a new, less formal teaching style. He spent particular effort to learning students’ names and addressing them when he saw them on campus, breaking away from more traditional modes of engagement common on campus. Robinson set himself up as the opposite of Libby’s stern demeanor quipping: “I may be mistaken, but I don’t believe he had any gift for encouraging or stimulating his students except as fear was a stimulus.”

In 1945 Libby retired and this opened the door for Robinson to begin to consider seriously writing a history of North Dakota. Apparently, Libby’s wife had intimated that he was working on such a book when Robinson had first come to Grand Forks in 1935. Robinson had not heard Libby talk about this work at all during their time together and after Libby’s retirement, he concluded that the field was open for him to work on a new book length history of the state. The writing The History of North Dakota would occupy the next 20 years of Robinson’s academic life.

The Department of History and the University of North Dakota provided a dynamic context for the writing of The History of North Dakota. The University of North Dakota grew quickly in the 1950s and 1960s, saw the departure of many of the stalwart faculty of the pre-war period, and faculty ranks professionalized steadily under the leadership of George Stacher. In many ways, Robinson’s publication of The History of North Dakota anticipated the new professional expectations for faculty at UND that were to mature in the 1970s and 1980s. At the same time, Robinson and many of his colleagues chaffed under the supervision of Felix Vondracek who served as department head from 1945-1962. Libby hired both Vondracek and Robinson in the interwar period (Vondracek in 1929 and Robinson in 1935), but they represented a study in contrasts. Vondracek exuded a stentorian confidence and photographic memory, although he struggled to complete his dissertation at Columbia. Robinson was quiet, retiring, and diligent. Vondracek was imperious in his leadership of the department, substituted bluster for hard work, and leveraged his seniority to advance his salary. Robinson led by example and sought advancement through his teaching and scholarship.

Vondracek’s style of leadership led to significant anxiety in the department and Robinson blamed him for pushing several scholars to leave the university. The rapid growth of higher education during the post-war decades, of course, provided opportunities for mobility among the faculty ranks and accomplished or ambitious scholars like Louis Geiger, John Parker, and George Lemmer left UND after clashing with Vondracek. The failure of UND to manage these departures demonstrates the persistent power of pre-war faculty and hints at skepticism among the administration and long term faculty to professionalization. Robinson felt the departures of colleagues and friends intensely and rued the reluctance of the deans and administrators to tame Vondracek’s authority.

The instability of the department compounded Robinson’s deep concern with both his salary and expenses. His memoirs are rife with minute financial details that reveals both personal anxiety an instinct for stretching ever last dollar to its fullest. In 1935, Robinson was hired for the princely sum of $1400 per year. At his promotion to associate professor in 1948, he earned $4229 and $5000 per year at his promotion to full in 1950. In terms of buying power his salary nearly doubled over his first 15 years at the university, but his family grew as well as did his expenses. He regularly complained, however, that others, particular Vondracek earned more than he did or appropriated lucrative summer teaching contracts unfairly. Even as his salary approached five figures in the mid-1960s, Robinson continued to live paycheck to paycheck. His publication of The History of North Dakota, led to him being named a University Professor in 1967 and a $20,000 raise. This seems to have relieved some financial pressure.

Against this personal and institutional backdrop, Robinson’s History of North Dakota stands as a transitional work that emerged across the changing character of the University of North Dakota. From Libby’s

One Comment

  1. I don’t recall ever taking a course from Robinson. Do you have a photo of him in the mid “50s? FYA: I don’t know how much they may have collaborated but Dr Wilkins was also very knowledgeable about ND, and from his accent I assume that he was from the area. I remember taking a course from him in Canadian history. He was a very fine and warm person.

    Reply

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