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. 

Montgomery Hall

This morning, I’m going on a little tour of Montgomery Hall with both thee Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission and representatives of University of North Dakota’s facilities department. The plan is to run another one-credit course on the history of this building, its place on our campus, and most interestingly for me, how the physical fabric preserves signs of adaptation and reuse.

Montgomery Hall on the UND campus is an example of the Tudor Revival architectural style The hall was designed by architect Joseph Bell DeRemer and built in 1911 to be the dining hall for students

The original building dates to 1911, and unlike most of the campus from the 1920s on, this building is in the Tudor Revival style. It stands set back from University avenue and represented a nice example of the first major wave of campus expansion under President Frank McVey. Originally, it served as the Commons for the university, but in 1929, it was adapted for use as the university library which had outgrown the contemporary Carnegie Library. It served as the library until the opening of the Chester Frtiz Library in the late 1950s. After that time, the building, presumably rechristened Montgomery Hall, served as faculty offices, classrooms, and in the 21st century, as the deanery first for the College of Arts and Sciences and then for the Graduate School.

Today, the building is mostly empty and ready for its ascent to the great campus plan in the sky. The University is planning to build the new business school on the lot to take advantage of the frontage onto University Avenue and the proximity to Gamble Hall which currently houses the College of Business and Public Affairs. As part of the mitigation efforts, the University is doing the equivalent of a HABS level-2 documentation on the building before it demolition (and I can’t say enough about the current administration’s willingness to take historical documentation seriously). I plan to work with a group of students to understand the traces of history left on the building’s fabric over time following a model that we developed with the Wesley College Documentation Project.  

The challenge for me, though, is to also think about how to make this project different from what we did with Wesley College. Recent work in the archaeology of the contemporary world has shaped my recent ways of thinking about how we document and understand campus buildings. The kind of archaeological documentation that I prefer (because I luv data) can subordinate our understanding of these buildings to the routine of our method and rob the experience of being in the spaces of vitality, foreclose a certain amount of creativity, and narrow our view of how buildings make meaning. 

Because these buildings are slated for destruction and no longer “living buildings” on campus, it seems like we have opportunities to do things that celebrate the liminal state of these structures: no long in use, but not yet destroyed. Rather than looking at all aspects of what is inside these buildings as evidence for the past, we can try to find ways of understanding these buildings as they exist in the contemporary. How are they changing? How are they producing meaning? Literally, what are these buildings doing

I know this sounds a bit slippery and elusive, but I hope that by asking these kinds of tricky questions and maybe even thinking about these buildings in different way and with different notions of time will open some productive possibilities. 

Dakota Datebook Launch Party!

The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota is excited to announce the launch of Dakota Datebook: North Dakota Stories from Prairie Public edited by David Haeselin. Developed in collaboration with the University of North Dakota’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing program and in cooperation with Prairie Public Broadcasting, Dakota Datebook brings to the printed page some of the most memorably, inspiring, and humorous stories from Prairie Public’s iconic Dakota Datebook radio program. Download a digital copy for free from the Digital Press webpage or pre-order your copy from Prairie Public today!

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On Saturday at 8 pm, The Digital Press and Prairie Public are hosting a launch part on board the Lewis and Clark Riverboat on the Missouri River in Bismarck. Various media personalities will be there, as will David Haeselin and some Dakota Datebook contributors. It should be a great time. To get tickets for the boat ride and to come and hang out with us go here.

For more on the boat, the book, and the party, check out Aaron Barth’s interview on Prairie Public’s Main Street on Monday.

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A few more things from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota.

1. Busy Year! This will be one of the busiest years yet for The Digital Press with as many as five titles queued up to hit the website over the next 8 to 12 months. Late this fall, we’ll see the arrival of Shawn Graham’s Failing Gloriously and Other Essays. Stay tuned for a sneak preview of this. A book of essays from last fall’s Digital Approaches to Teaching the Ancient Mediterranean conference at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at NYU and edited by Sebastian Heath should appear by year’s end as well.

In the spring, we’re looking forward to publishing Kyle Conway’s innovative edited volume, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust which juxtaposes the 1958 Williston Report with perspectives on the 21st century boom penned some 60 years later. It’s a fascinating read. There should also be volume 3 of our collaboration with the journal Epoiesen and maybe some previews from our 2020-2021 season.

2. Subscriptions? So far, The Digital Press hasn’t done much to connect personally with our readers. We’d like to change that some. I’ve been tempted to offer a subscription service of sorts through an email list that will distribute our newest publications and occasional news direct to your inbox (as the kids say). I’d run it through MailChimp or some other service that would make it easy enough to unsubscribe or to opt out. I wouldn’t share your emails with anyone (although I might be tempted to use it to plug for my other little publishing venture, North Dakota Quarterly).

3. Promoting Open Access. I’ve been thinking a good bit about the larger mission to promote open access publishing in academia. One thing that I would love to do this year is to pay more attention to open access publishing in general (whether from mainstream academic presses or from more specialized open access publishing houses). I’d love to do an “Open Access Book of the Week” that highlights some of the high quality open access work appearing these days.

I’d also like to start to build another project. It’s called Cite Open Access. It would promote citing open access scholarship across all forms of scholarly publishing. My fantasy idea involves getting various artists to design simply, legible posters that say Cite Open Access on them (and I’d urge folks to use open access fonts and it would go without saying that the posters would be free downloads). Ideally, I could get libraries, open access publishers, “fellow travelers,” and other supporters of open access scholarly work to co-sponsor various posters. I’d then distribute digital copies of these posters and encourage folks to display them prominently on their campuses. Who’s in?

4. Internet Archive. Finally, I’ve uploaded almost all the content from The Digital Press to the Internet Archive this weekend. One of the many great things about the Internet Archive is that it automatically converts our PDFs into multiple formats. The automated system isn’t perfect, but it works well enough to make our content available for text mining or ebook readers!

Sneak Peek: The Dakota Datebook Project

For the last six months, David Haeselin, his students, the folks at Prairie Public Broadcasting, and the folks at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota have been working on creating a book version of the popular Prairie Public radio program, Dakota Datebook.

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The students in David Haeselin’s Writing, Editing, and Publishing class identified and copy edited the 365 of over 3000 potential essays available to include in the book-length version of Dakota Datebook. They copy-edited these texts, standardized the language, and made sure that the book version reflected the diversity of the radio program. The Digital Press did layout and design and worked with local artist Jessie Thorson for cover art. 

The book is finally done and we really want to share it with everyone. In fact, we’re so excited about the release of this book and the collaboration that produced it, we’re inviting everyone to a book release party aboard the Lewis and Clark Riverboat in Bismarck on August 24th at 8 pm. Register to attend the book launch or preorder the book from this website. For more on the book go here.

If you want a sneak peek of the book, click here, but don’t tell anyone because the book doesn’t drop officially until late August!

A Book by its Cover

Over the last week or so, I’ve been working to finish the layout and design of a partnership with Prairie Public, our local public media and broadcasting outfit here in North Dakota and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. The book is based on their popular radio program, Dakota Datebook, which has had over 3000 episodes over the past decade. 

My collaborator, David Haeselin, produced the book in collaboration with his second year writing, editing, and publishing class. (Here’s a bit more on this project.) The cover is done.

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I cover art is by local artist Jessie Thorson which we arranged in a calendar grid set into the outlines of the state of North Dakota. The blue is the color of Prairie Public and the yellow is from the state flag of North Dakota. 

The book will appear before August 24th when we will have an official launch party abroad the Lewis and Clark Riverboat on the Missouri River in Bismarck. More on the launch and the book in the coming weeks!

Rivers, Floods, and Trash

The Red River and and Red Lake River literally define Grand Forks. The founders of the settlement situated it at the confluence of these two rivers anticipating that it would become a profitable regional depot for riverboat traffic moving north and south along the Red River. The Red River valley snakes its way across the now-vanished bed of the glacial Lake Agassiz forming a shallow valley through one of the flattest landscapes on earth.  

As much as the river has defined the geography of the town of Grand Forks, it has also defined its history. A series of devastating floods in the 19th and 20th century, including the massive and highly destructive flood of 1997, have shaped the character of the community and many in Grand Forks reckon recent time by before and after the flood. Each spring, the town turns its eyes to the rising flood waters and the newly constructed flood walls. This spring, the flood hit 48 feet, but this remained well below the top of our 60 foot flood walls.

One of my favorite things is to walk along the edge of the receding flood waters. It forms a temporary beach wrack where debris pools and is stranded by the receding water.

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The retreating waters leave behind lines of debris on tiny ridges marking the maximum extent of the flood.

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Like the coast wrack in Norway described by Þóra Pétursdóttir in her 2017 article in Archaeological Dialogues, “Climate change? Archaeology and Anthropocene” (24, 175-205), the waters of the Red River leave behind of their journey along the Minnesota and North Dakota border. Some of the debris redistributed is clearly local like the blue bags filled with dog shit that people use to keep the trails tidy.

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The river excavates and shifts subtly objects dropped on the golf course that stretches along the wet side of the flood wall.

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The river also returned our love of plastic water bottles, aluminum soda and beer cans, and styrofoam and plastic cups.

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It also reminds us how much we use styrofoam forms, extruded polystyrene, and other plastic objects – like PVC pipe – that float along on the river’s current until it drops this unintended cargo at random ports.

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Over the last few years, I’ve been working along the banks of the Inachos River in the Western Argolid. Unlike the Red, the Mediterranean Inachos River is primarily a seasonal torrent that cuts deeply through the rocky landscape.

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Like the Red River, the Inachos also carries trash during its seasonal romps through the Argive countryside. In fact, the force of the Inachos is enough to serve as garbage chute for communities along its path who discard trash into its bed which is carried away each winter with the rains.

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If I had a bit more energy and imagination, there is a nice little comparative paper thinking about modern trash in the two riverine landscapes and two situations. 

 

Lyon’s Garage and the End of Past Futures

Grand Forks is a pretty interesting little town if you pay attention to what’s going on. This past week, the long simmering news became pubic that Lyon’s Garage, a Tudor Revival style building built in 1929. It will be replaced by a predictably bland, brick-clad, steel and glass “mixed use” building with commercial or retail space on the ground floor and modern apartments above.

1280px Lyons Garage 214 218 North 4th Street Grand Forks ND

What has drawn my to the story of Lyon’s Garage is that it is the last operating business from the old automobile district in downtown Grand Forks. According the National Register nomination and a quick scan of the Sanborn Maps showed that as early as 1916, the northern part of downtown Grand Forks had become home to a number of garages and auto repair businesses. Their location at the edge of the commercial district downtown was convenient because it provided access to travelers on the Meridean Highway and the U.S. Route 2. Travelers stopping in Grand Forks could get their vehicles serviced or park their cars over in one of the several garages in the area. Grand Forks residents could purchase their vehicles in this neighborhood as well, and Lyon’s Garage sold some rather more obscure brands – including the humorously named Hupmobile – across the street from the Oldsmobile dealer. To the northeast of Lyon’s stood the Norther Pacific passenger depot and to the southwest was the Great Northern railway siding in town. In other words, Lyon’s Garage stood amid a network of roads and rail connection linking Grand Forks to the rest of the nation.

The decision to tear down Lyon’s Garage speaks a bit to how we current view the history of Grand Forks. There is no doubt that a light industrial outfit like Lyon’s fits awkwardly within the developing plans for the city. The emphasis on making downtown Grand Forks a walkable city with street level shopping and higher density residential space makes the rather single-story buildings with generous set backs rather less efficient uses of space. In fact, most efforts to promote new urbanism frown on the inefficient use of space associated with downtown car dealerships, even though they were a regular feature in mid-20th century communities (See for example, the efforts to move Select Ford from downtown Williston, North Dakota.) The effort to reimagine downtowns remain steadfastly nostalgic, however, even as they overwrite part of the urban past in the name of new urbanism. The loss of Lyon’s Garage – and the closing of Odin’s Service Station on Belmont – mark two of the older, and continuously functioning, monuments to Grand Forks automotive past. The automobile and Grand Forks developed more or less simultaneously and even today single family homes and tidy neighborhoods extend north and south along the thoroughfares that follow the line of the old Meridian highway. In effect, Grand Forks was designed for sprawl and suburbanization. The disappearance of Lyon’s Garage (and possibly Odin’s!) erases some of the historical monuments that defined the early-20th century character of Grand Forks. 

It’s interesting to think of places like Lyon’s Garage as an expression of the tension between Grand Forks as a “logistics city” that supported the regional and national flow of material through its borders and Grand Forks as a central place that privileges residents over participation in the global supply chain. The auto district of Grand Forks, served the movement of people and goods through our community (as well as residents).

More than that, it embedded the mechanics of Grand Forks as a logistics city in its urban fabric. The rail lines, auto district, warehouses, and boarding houses that characterized the northern and western parts of downtown created opportunities for genuine mixed use development. Over the past decade, however, many of the older light industrial sites in Grand Forks have moved further outside the city, in part to take advantage more, cheaper space and better connections to rail and the interstate. This shift to industrial activity outside the city itself, however, impacts downtown as it transforms the diverse environment supported by genuine mixed use urbanism into a more homogenized space of commercial, retail, and residential. In fact, the absence of light industrial activities in the urban core may well mitigate against a certain amount of economic diversity as these installations likely syncopated the spread of higher rent and high cost development that would ensure both space for less well-heeled operations and moderated the expense of downtown living. The risk of a downtown built on higher cost residential, white collar commercial, and retail and service is that the folks who work in those street level retail outlets and in the service industry can’t live downtown. As a result, they have to drive to work in the walkable urban core.  

As a brief coda to an admitted rambling post, I was struck by the rise of new businesses in town that have adopted the formal character of the garage. Sickie’s Garage for example, is a burger place that initial built a garage-like building well outside of downtown before moving into a restaurant space in East Grand Forks that they have decorated to look a bit like a garage. Vinyl Taco, another new eatery – uses garage doors to open their restaurant to the outdoors during the three or four weeks a year which this is desirable. While, I’d be loath to suggest that a place like Lyon’s Garage or Odins become local “bar ’n’ grills,” but they stand as nice example of our nostalgia for these kinds of light industrial landscapes. The visible presence of brewing equipment in both of the downtown breweries similarly evokes and tempers urban industrial landscapes making them safe for upscale retail and service. All this both reminds us of a more dynamic urban past while keeping the smells, working class people, and noise of real industrial work at a distance. It’s a local version of the famed Meat-Packing and Garment districts of New York City.

All this is to say that it will be a bit sad to see Lyon’s Garage disappear. It’s not that it was such a remarkable building or that I even patronized the business (I did, however, got to Odin’s regularly), but I do appreciate what that kind of business stood for in a town like Grand Forks and wonder whether our walkable future would do a bit better to preserve the working class landscape of our city’s automobile past. 

A New Memorial Union at UND

I was pretty interested in the recent vote to fund the construction of a new Memorial Union on the campus of the University of North Dakota. By a fairly narrow margin, students agreed to fund a new union through a $14 per credit fee that increased 2% per year between 2020 and 2059. The new union, it’s been said, will cost about $80 million and the incentive to do this now is that the existing union, aside from being dated in style and design as well as increasingly inadequate as a center for student life, has about $40 million in “deferred maintenance.” Traditionally, students have carried part of the funding for the union and its maintenance through various fees and had a fair amount of control over how the union worked and funding priorities.

The fee increase has to go through the state legislature and the state board of higher education, and there is some concern that a fee increase to fund the new union will make it more difficult to increase fees for other needs on campus should they arise over the next 40 years (gulp!!). As a result, some legislators with ties to UND have asked around a bit to get a sense whether this is a good priority for UND and whether it should see backing in the legislature.

Because I’ve been thinking a bit about how university budgets work in the age of shifting priorities, I chimed in and my response to a social media post has been banging around in my head for a week or so now. So, I thought I would share a revised version of it here.

First, the more that I thought about it, the more that I’ve come to think that the $40 million in deferred maintenance is a bit of a McGuffin. From what I understand, the formulas used to calculate deferred maintenance are not as simple as saying there are $40 million worth of things needing to be fixed in the existing union. These figures include depreciation and replacement costs that accumulate over time, and, generally, represent the amount of money that needs to be available to accommodate repair and replacement of the physical plant of the building. A new roof, for example, will start to generate deferred maintenance expenses from the moment it is installed as well an HVAC unit or a light bulb. Ideally, the university would start to save money to replace the roof from the moment that the roof is installed, but this is neither realistic or practical.

Of course, if UND spent $40 million, it would reset the deferred maintenance “clock” to zero in the same way that replacing the oil in your car every morning would reset part of your car’s deferred maintenance bill. But this isn’t necessary a rational decision. One of the Wesley College buildings, Sayre Hall, still had the original wood-framed windows from the early 20th century. These would have been racking up deferred maintenances expenses for nearly a century (if we assume a window is designed to last 20 years), but they were never replaced. It stands to reason that, in general, larger, more complex, and more expensive buildings generate deferred maintenance costs more quickly than small ones. I also suspect that the rate of increased for deferred maintenance trails off as buildings get older. In other words, building a new union will only defer (heh heh) the rate of increase for deferred maintenance for a little while before it begins too accumulate again and every bit as quickly (and perhaps even MORE quickly in some nightmarish scenarios) as the old union does.

More than that, if the issue is that the university doesn’t have sufficient saved funds to cover future maintenance on campus, then building a new building will neither make this better or worse. Eliminating deferred maintenance expenses on the two old Wesley College buildings didn’t “save” the university money, it just eliminated potential future expenses. But more to the point, he entire system of budgets on campus create deferred maintenance expenses because saved money is frequently seen by both administrators and the legislature as surplus capital that isn’t being used productively and an example of inefficiency at a public institution to be “punished” by austerity. In fact, the entire federal grant system now works along these lines with less and less money provided to pay for the maintenance and depreciation (indirect costs) of the original investment (direct costs).

In other words, talking about deferred maintenance as a reason to build a building isn’t the language of fiscal responsibility, but the language of austerity. The language of deferred maintenance is meant to make the university look like an irresponsible institution (whether this is the case or not) and often results in funding cuts purported to enforce more efficient operation, but actually designed to penalize public institutions (and to case-build for privatization). For example, the legislature has proposed several times to make resources available but only if a significant part of the funds would go toward deferred maintenance. Covering deferred maintenance costs on campus isn’t always or eve often responsible thing to do. It hurts students.

That being said, there are two compelling reasons – at least to me – for approving the students’ request for funding a new union. 

First, there has been a good bit of talk about the union attracting new students as well as  vague statements that the union is the “heart” or the “core” of the campus. I don’t disagree with either of these things, but I wonder whether they’re overly narrow. To be clear, I’ll admit to finding NDSU’s union building very attractive and functional. I also have had the privilege of traveling to other campuses quite regularly over the past few years and, in comparison UND’s union, is both limited and outdated.

As an aside, this one of my favorite hallways on campus (it’s not technically in the Union, but rather in Swanson Hall, but is more or less in the Union complex):

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Despite this hallway and the appeal of the union to prospective students and visitors, it isn’t really the best argument. What is more compelling to me is the growing awareness that campus buildings play an important role in the coherence of the campus community and this plays a role in academic performance and retention of students. Like many state schools, UND attracts students from a wide range of backgrounds. The presence of spaces on campus that encourage students to socialize and interact is particularly important at a school like ours not because our “posh” or privileged students expect it, but because having appealing and functional spaces on campus levels the playing filed for our diverse student body. This is part of the mission of public universities and something that a well designed campus should accomplish.

We know, for example, that first generation students, minorities, and students from less advantaged backgrounds often struggle to integrate into the campus community and this has an impact on academic performance. They tend to study alone more, they tend to find campus to be an alienating place, and they tend to see their academic work as more separate from their “real life.” With the growth of private dormitories and the continued strength of fraternities and sororities, historically disadvantaged students also have fewer spaces to interact with other students outside the classroom. If they do look to the union as a common space, it’s dingy and spent vibe tends to reinforce these students’ position as marginal. Conversely, an updated and appealing union may well expand the impact of what faculty and students do in the classroom by creating inclusive spaces for informal interaction and to eliminate – for the time being, at least – a real dichotomy of opportunity across our diverse student body. In short, this is not a building that is being built instead of things that would improve academic life on campus is a false dichotomy.

Second, voting “no” on the new union will continue a policy of austerity that involves the withholding of funds – or even support for policies – that do not adhere to a top down strategic vision implemented by legislators, administrators, alumni, and various other stakeholders on campus. This situation and initiative reminds the bosses that students ARE stakeholders, and they have every bit as much the right to shape campus in a respectful and deliberate way as the legislature, the administration, or the faculty. In fact, while I don’t necessarily agree with building of a new union per se, I’d go to the wall to protect students’ rights to raise the funds to build a union. If the state isn’t going to support the university system in a reasonable way, then they lose the right to tell students not to take matters into their own hands.

In the spring of 2018, I taught a class on the UND budget and what was clear was that students DO have strong opinions about the current fiscal situation on campus and do have priorities that administrators, faculty, and legislatures doesn’t always recognize. More than that, they want a voice. This is their voice. And the argument that “only” 2400 students participated and “only” 1300 students wanted the union speaks more to a condescending attitude toward students than a legitimate concern. Over my time at UND, the last 15 years, far less representative groups have raised fees on students or made decisions that directly impact the quality of education and experience. The decision, for example, to eliminate music therapy was made by one administrator. When my class pressed senior administrators to explain the cuts to baseball and Women’s Hockey, their responses were evasive and guarded. It was clear that students were not only uninvolved in these decisions, but would not always be given access to the processes that produced these decisions. In general, student input on most matters of campus policy, curriculum, and administration is often limited to one or two students on committees, at best. That 1000+ plus students made their voices heard in a relatively transparent way through this vote is enough for me to support them.

Veterans Day, the Great War, and Free Speech

It’s Veterans Day and we’re also recognizing the 100th anniversary of the Great War.

In keeping with this, I figured I should send you along to the North Dakota Quarterly page to check out the first volume in our Reprint Series: The University of North Dakota and the Great War. It features articles from 1916, 1917, and 1919 including Wesley R. Johnson’s remarkable “War Experience of a University Student as a Dough Boy” published in 1919.

Und and the great war

To this remarkable account, we can add the results of some research by a University of North Dakota student, Sawyer Flynn, who transcribed a pair of remarkable poems written by Horace Shidler to honor his fallen friend Harold Holden Sayre. These poems were discovered during the Wesley College Documentation Project as Sayre’s father donated Sayre Hall to Wesley College (and later renamed the hall in memory of his late son).

The poems and Sawyer’s research speak for themselves.  

Finally, if you’re in Grand Forks, come down to Half Brothers Brewing from 6-8 pm to an event hosted by UND’s Center for Human Rights and Genocide Studies. Tonights event is titled Sports, Speech, and Justice: A Community Conversation. It features Eric Burin and a panel of luminaries pulled from the pages of his latest edited volume, Protesting on Bended Knee: Race, Dissent, and Patriotism in 21st Century America. More importantly, it provides a space for a conversation about free speech, justice, and patriotism in 21st century America, and this feels like a good way to recognize the sacrifices of veterans.

Be sure to check out Jason Reid’s feature article on African American Veterans over at the Undefeated which quotes Eric’s book!

The Joy of Voting

There’s a lot going on over the next month at The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. If you want to be in the loop follow The Digital Press on Twitter

This week, the Digital Press kicked off a collaborative project with Dr. Eric Burin in the Department of History at the University of North Dakota and Citizens University, a non profit leader in civic engagement. The project is called The Joy of Voting and it looks to “reinvigorate a culture of voting” or at least remind the public that voting can be a joyous experience. Grand Forks, North Dakota is one of four cities in the U.S. with a Joy of Voting program along with Akron, Charlotte, and West Palm Beach

The Digital Press is working on only one little aspect of the Joy of Voting project in Grand Forks, which focuses on soliciting and publishing online memories of how voting was a joyful experience. Check it out here:

Joy of voting grand forks e28093 2018 10 09 13 54 58

The Joy of Voting website and Facebook page will be updated daily with a new memory of voting as a joyful experience. Depending on the response to the page, we might put together a little digital book celebrating voting in Grand Forks.