UND has a new President: Writing the History of the Recent Past

Yesterday, the state board of higher education announced a new president for the University of North Dakota. After a session of deliberation, a few white puffs of smoke ascended from the Chancellor’s inner chamber and a herald of the board solemnly announced “Habemus Presidentum.” Andrew Armacost will become UND’s 13th president and the chant of “Armacost virumque cano” was heard across campus.

I sometimes imagine that the new president would come to me and ask my sage advice about how to thrive on our campus. Needless to say, this will not happen, in part, because few people on campus know or care what I think and, in part, because I’m an idiot. That being said, I still found it intriguing to speculate on what the president should know about UND’s campus before his term formally begins in June.

I would undoubtedly urge him to become familiar with the history of the state and the university. Read Elwyn Robinson’s magisterial history of the state of North Dakota, and Kim Porter’s recent update. Read Louis Geiger’s institutional history of the University of North Dakota published in 1958. Read (if I may be so bold) my series of blog posts on the clash between Orin G. Libby and Thomas Kane, the 5th president of UND. Read Robinson’s article on UND’s 7th president, George Starcher and Starcher’s musings on the future of the university from North Dakota Quarterly in 1956. Read Dan Rice’s history of the Clifford Years at UND. Read David Haeselin’s edited volume on 1997 Red River flood and its impact on the community.

These books will give our new president a basic understanding of the history of the university and the state which will put him at an advantage of over many less informed members of the faculty and the community who will nevertheless dredge up some half-remembered historical precedent to justify their feeling of outrage and entitlement. At the same time, these works will give Armacost a good sense for the community’s historical imaginary. Robinson’s memorable “Themes of North Dakota History” continue to be evoked in the public media and used to justify all kinds of political and institutional positions. The high esteem that many hold for Tom Clifford not only explains why he is the only UND president to have a book length treatment of his term, but also why funding has been set aside for a monumental chryselephantine statue in his honor that always rotates to face the sun.

The most challenging aspect of understanding the history of the university is that so far, no one has taken on the challenge of writing a history of the “Three K Era: Kupchella, Kelley, and Kennedy” on our campus. I have to admit that I’m pretty tempted. 

It’s interesting to trace a trajectory from Starcher, who I see as responsible for creating the institutional structure, expectations, and character of the University of North Dakota throughout the late-20th century and Kelley and, to a lesser extent, Kennedy who worked to transform the institution into its 21st century form. I could imagine a little volume that focuses on a series of significant events and structural changes.

1. High Water Mark for the University. There’s little doubt that UND experienced its high water mark in terms of enrollments during Robert Kelley’s presidency and tuition dollars and stable state appropriations allowed the university to grow and start to anticipate changes to higher education taking place around the U.S. The relatively insulation of North Dakota and UND from the “Great Recession” may have created a false sense of calm on campus and the Bakken Oil boom encouraged faculty and administrators to think big.

2. Research. While Starcher should perhaps be credited with imagining UND as a research university, under Kelley and against the backdrop of Bakken boom, it seems like UND started to believe that it could achieve a R1 Carnegie classification. While the rhetoric of this being an aspirational goal for campus certainly accelerated under Kennedy’s presidency, the investment in the Medical School (including its new building) and in STEM fields crucial to generating the kind of grant funded research necessary advance UND through the Carnegie ranks.

3. The Kupchella Faculty. When I first arrived on campus, faculty hired under Tom Clifford and Kendall Baker held many of the informal leadership positions on campus. In many ways, they represented institutional memory and set the expectations for both faculty and campus life more broadly. They also set the terms of campus debates. As we approach the third decade of the 21st century, the Kupchella faculty will emerge as senior figures on campus. This is all the more significant because of the declining number of tenure track hires in the later years of Kelley’s and Kennedy’s presidency. In other words, the Kupchella faculty may well represent the last group of tenured faculty on campus.

4. The Arrival of Austerity. Part of the challenge of writing about Kelley, in particular, is that the last years of his presidency were overshadowed by a series of serious budget cuts which began in 2016. While much of the hard, bloody work of cutting the budget took place during Ed Schafer’s term as acting president in 2016 and under Mark Kennedy, the cuts themselves served as a referendum on Kelley’s vision of the university. Efforts in 2014 to implement a prioritization program and a strategic planning initiative that would create a sense of a direction for the campus gave way to across the board cuts to both academic and support divisions. The emergence of an incentive based model for funding seemingly indicated the planning and prioritization might best be left to “a market” defined by student enrollments, faculty research, and a certain amount of administrative vision. It goes without saying that the confusing set of statements made both through policy and decisions particularly under Kennedy’s presidency shook the campus to its core. Some of this must reflect on the indecisiveness of Kelley’s final years at UND as well as the hamfisted nature of Kennedy’s public statements.

5. Logos, Marketing, and Sports. For many alumni and community members, the most significant event in the institution’s history was the retirement of the Fighting Sioux mascot in 2012 and the rebranding of UND Athletics as the Fighting Hawks in 2015 both alienated a certain number of UND supporters and inspired a new wave of campus marketing looking to take the introduction of the new logo as a chance to begin a comprehensive rebrand of the tired campus graphic identity. 

The new logo was probably less important, historically, then the move in 2008 to Division 1 in all sports. This led to both upgrades to UND facilities (including the opening of the Betty Engelstad Center in 2008) and the UND Athletics High Performance center in 2017. The canceling of baseball, swimming, and, more controversially, women’s hockey in 2016 revealed that the move the Division 1 athletics was not without casualties.     

6. Campus Construction. The presidencies of the 3 Ks has certainly shaped UND’s campus in fundamental ways. The opening of the Ralph Engelstad arena in 2001, Clifford Hall and various structures on the western edge of campus, and major upgrades to the Law School, the College of Education, the Medical School and the College of Engineering and Mines reshaped many parts of campus. The new building for the UND Alumni Association and Foundation and new dormitories have likewise suggested a new, more contemporary design language on campus. Today, major expansions to the College of Business and Public Affairs, a new Student Union buildings, and a renovated library continue the work to bring campus up to standards. This is all driven by a new campus plan and, sadly, the removal of several of the early 20th century buildings on campus. 

7. Student Life. This is an area where my understanding of what goes on across campus falls the most short. I recognize that important social events – like riotous Springfest – have been suppressed by the city and the UND administration. I also know that there have been efforts to cultivate a greater sense of school spirit over the last five years, but I’m not sure how successful this work has been. The influence of Greek life, the changing landscape of student housing, and the smaller, but generally better prepared student body would form key parts to any narrative on the last 20 years of UND history.

8. Digital Futures. Finally, over the last 15 years, the prospects of a more digitally savvy, more online, and more innovative campus have lingered in the air and taken various administrative forms. This represents both an effort of UND to develop new revenue streams (with new, often private partners) and to reach students raised as “digital natives.” I suspect that this will have a major impact on the university of the future. 

In any event, I’m unlikely to find the time, funding, or energy to write this volume, but it is fun to imagine and it seems like naming of a new president offers an opportune time to reflect in a historically informed way. At the same time, there seems to be a bit of a renaissance in scholarship on higher education and this would form a useful backdrop to any recent history of an institution. I might even imagine a book like this generating a little buzz on campus and in the community particularly if I started it with a series of public fora and conversations designed to understand what the larger community saw as key moments over the last 30 years. More than that, this would be fun. 

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