Letter to the Editor: Wesley College Buildings at UND

I don’t usually write letters to the editor, but I do appreciate the venerable format, and often find myself reading through the letters in my hometown broadsheet, the Grand Forks Herald.

This past week the Herald has produced two pieces on the destruction of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s campus. One was a news article by Andrew Hafner and the other an op-ed by Mike Jacobs. Just to add to the din, I penned a quick letter to the editor this morning. I’m never convinced that my letters will appear (my letter demanding that North Dakotan be made the official language of the state was never run), so I’ll post it here too:

Dear Editors,

I appreciate the recent coverage of the demolition of the Wesley College buildings on UND’s Campus.

University campuses are strange and often magical places. On the one hand, their traditions and monumentality represent a sense of place, scale, and history. On the other hand, the modern university is a progressive, forward-looking institution that look to the future of their students, communities, and society. At its best, the experience of a university campus embodies the former, and the research and teaching missions of the university embodies the latter.

This past spring ten students and friends helped me start to document the four buildings on UND’s campus associated with Wesley College. We learned about folks like Harold Holden Sayre, Frank Lynch, John Milton Hancock, and Edward Robertson who sought to create a transformative college in Grand Forks that partnered with UND to offer instruction in religion, music, and expression. In their day, the Wesley College buildings were eminently modern, using the novel Beaux Arts style with its modular dimensions and sophisticated material. They also drew upon Classical influences with their Greek key strong courses and striking Mediterranean rooflines rendered in red ceramic roof tile.

Today the manifest a failed dream. After the war, Wesley College faltered and UND, the College’s longtime partner and neighbor purchased the campus and eclipsed the College’s mission. This month UND will raze the last physical reminders of this experiment. Without a doubt, this is a sad thing, but like every college campus, UND’s campus is always undergoing renewal and transformation. The tension between the pull of tradition and the push of progress is what gives each campus their unique feeling and character.

In some ways, President Mark Kennedy’s vision for UND is no different that Edward Robertson’s vision for Wesley College over 100 years ago. Both looked to create a modern campus that embodies certain values, priorities, and a sense of place. For Robertson, the demolition of the buildings that bear his name and marks the end of his vision and dream. For Kennedy, this is just the beginning of his efforts to transform the campus. It will be left to future generations to judge whether Kennedy’s efforts will contribute to UND tradition or represent another failed vision for the North Dakota prairie. Either way, it’s unnerving and exciting to watch it play out. After all, we can always reclaim traditions, but the future will be forever beyond our grasp.

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