Home > Departmental History at UND, North Dakotiana > Politics and the Presidency at UND: Reflections on the Past at the Dawn of a New Era – Part 3

Politics and the Presidency at UND: Reflections on the Past at the Dawn of a New Era – Part 3

This may be the final installment of my weekly feature on the history of the Department of History at UND. It will appear as a three-part case study (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) examining the clash between Professor Orin G. Libby of the Department of History and President Thomas Kane.  Its greater purpose is to shed light on the University of North Dakota at a crucial crossroads in its history.  In the early decades of the 20th the University found itself with a new University President, suffering through the leading edge of a significant economic crisis, and facing a time when particularly divisive local and national politics manifest themselves in University life.  At the center of the resulting maelstrom stood Professor Orin G. Libby of the Department of History.  I have not provided a full biography of Libby here, but rather an overview of the important and complex clash between Libby and President Thomas Kane.  Hopefully this serves a prompt to reflect on the history of the university at a moment when it is facing an important crossroads.  UND is welcoming a new president, the nation faces a likely economic downturn, the state of North Dakota is deep into a major demographic shift, and many politicians are becoming increasingly sensitive about the politicized nature of university faculty.

The final clash between UND President Thomas Kane and Orin G. Libby occurred in 1922. The conflicted and confused discourse evident in both Libby’s and Kane’s ideas of professional propriety was again apparent when Kane attempted to force Libby to retire, as well as two other members of the faculty who in a broad sense tended to side with Libby in the tumultuous university politics of the day. In a letter dated May 4, 1922, Kane outlined his grievances against Libby.  In particular, Kane accused Libby of being erratic as a teacher and as an administrator. For Kane this reflected a general “vacillating” attitude that manifest itself in Libby’s shift from being a “patrioteer” during the World War I to a supporter of the NPL (Non-Patisan League) once they had come to power. In fact, Kane’s alleges that Libby’s political leanings led him to be a member of “one of the most radical organizations in the state” which apparently had only nine members (this organization was apparent so radical and secretive no one could find any record of it. It was likely meant as an allusion to the Communist Party). Kane also leveled that Libby frequently interfered with the running of the university including violating the so-called Hagan Agreement of 1920 by contacting George Totten, a member of the Board of Administrators over the course of the Taylor controversy the previous year. In light of these charges, Kane recommended that Libby retire. Libby having no desire to retire asked that President Kane follow the University Constitution by bringing the matter before a special Committee of the University Council who would then offer their recommendations to the State Board of Administration. Kane agreed to this, but noted that he did not consider the University Constitution a binding document as it had not been approved by the present Board of Administration.

For the meeting of the Committee of the University Council Libby prepared a point-by-point response to Kane’s charges in a letter pointing out that many of the charges against him were unfounded, lacked evidence, or preceded the so-called Hagan agreement which stipulated the slate be wiped clean. Despite a rhetorically thorough refutation of Kane’s position, the Committee of the University Council submitted the recommendation that Kane and the three faculty members could not work together and that the three faculty members, including Libby should retire. The Board of Administration after considering the report of the committee agreed with its recommendations. It was only a later injunction by the Board of Administrators that saved Libby’s career at the University.

The final major clash between Kane and Libby shares many characteristics of the earlier clashes. These controversies show a number of important aspects regarding the growth and development of the university as an institution. First, as much as Libby reflected the new wave of professional academics at the University, his view of the role of faculty in University governance and life developed under President Merrifield who presided over a far more intimate institution in which faculty had come to expect much greater influence. Kane, in contrast, held the clear idea that the university president had the authority to oust an individual or force him to retire. In Kane’s view, the position of the faculty was largely a concern of the administration who would have the final say in hiring as well as firing individual faculty members. Grounds for dismissal need not be gross negligence, but could be tied to being a good citizen – not being part of radical political groups, or being a “patrioteer” or being vacillating and wavering. The deep rifts cut in North Dakota society by the contentious politics of the day had created seemingly accepted political pretenses for dismissing or at least challenging the position of an individual in the University. While Libby’s relationship with Kane over the next decade is difficult to ascertain, there seems to have been a mutual détente which allowed Libby not only to carry on his responsibilities as the head of the Department of American History but to expand its faculty and offerings.

Despite the difficulties between Libby and Kane, the University and the Department of History survived and even prospered.  Let’s hope that the words of William Schaper, prior to his dismissal from the University of Minnesota for political reasons, may still ring true when he advised Libby prior to taking the job at the University of North Dakota: “The University of North Dakota is still young and small. Its future is before it.”

Over the last several weeks I have blogged a series of short essays on the history of the Department of History  in honor of the University of North Dakota‘s 125th-iversary

Sources for the Department of History at the University of North Dakota
Louis Geiger and the University of the Northern Plains
Felix Vondracek and History and the University of North Dakota
Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota

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