Home > Departmental History at UND, North Dakotiana > Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota

Clarence Perkins and History at the University of North Dakota

In honor of the University of North Dakota‘s 125th-iversay, I will continue to look back at some of the key players in the Department of History’s development within the University.  As before, I am not going to dwell right now on the well-known story of Orin G. Libby, but will shine some light on a less well-known, but no less important figure in our Department’s history, Clarence Perkins.

Despite his nearly 20 year career at the University, Clarence Perkins remains an ill-defined figure in the history of the discipline at UND. His significance was largely overshadowed by his more cantankerous colleague, Orin G. Libby. Nevertheless, Perkins played a key role in the expansion and development of the discipline at the University. Trained at Harvard, he had taught in the Department of History at Ohio State University from 1909-1920 when he was wooed to the University of North Dakota by President Thomas Kane.  Kane and Libby had clashed during late ‘teens and particular controversy arose over Libby’s seemingly irregular hiring practices.  Almost from his first days on campus, Libby had criticized Kane’s management style and suitability to lead the university.  A particularly violent disagreement over Libby’s right to hirer additional faculty in the Department of History had led Kane to split the Department of History into two parts, as a largely punitive measure against Libby.  From 1920 until after Libby’s retirement in 1945, there would be a Department of American History under Libby’s chairmanship and a Department of European History

Clearance Perkins was hired by Kane to lead the Department of European History.  Affable, jolly, generous, and prone to gossip, there is no evidence that he and the more taciturn Libby got on well.  Perkins had studied at an undergraduate at Syracuse University and received his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1908.  His thesis was a The History of the Knights Templar in England and he taught medieval and modern English History.  Early in his career he produced a series of prominent articles on the Knights Templar in both the American Historical Review (1910) and in the English Historical Review (1909, 1910, 1930) but like scholars of an earlier era he was qualified to teach in almost any European field from Ancient to current affairs. During the 1920s, he demonstrated his wide ranging competence in writing a well-regarded high school textbook, The History of European Peoples published by Rand, McNally, and Company in Chicago and stretching to nearly 1000 pages, as well as several study guides for the Ohio State Bookstore in Columbus.  Throughout the 1930s he continued to write popular texts like Man’s Advancing Civilization (1934 and 1937) and Ancient History (1936). In 1940 he published Development of European Civilization with two former colleagues at UND, Clarence Matterson and Reginald Lovell.  These and other books provided him with some income, particularly during the dark years of the late 1920s and 1930s when the collapsing grain prices and then the Great Depression wracked the state and gutted the University budget.  Throughout his career at UND Perkins was a successful teacher and scholar who had a national reputation and regularly spent time away doing research both in Europe and at major American universities like the University of Texas.

Perkins’s who had far less baggage than Libby with the administration and took time to cultivate good relations with the Kane administration. This better relationship enabled him to hire good quality faculty throughout the 1920s like Claudius Johnson (Ph.D. Chicago in 1927) in 1921, Albert Hyma (Ph.D. Michigan 1922) and Fletcher Brown in 1922, and Clyde Ferrel (Ph.D. Wisconsin) in 1923. In the later 1920s, Perkins’ department hired Phillip Green (Ph.D. Chicago) and Donald Nicholson (Ph.D. Wisconsin). Perkins, like Libby, often relied on personal connections with colleagues to find capable professors for their departments. In an interview conducted in the late 1970s, Robert Wilkins, whom Perkins hired in the 1940s, opined that Perkins sought candidates who were likely to be comfortable at the University and over time relied less upon the recommendations of colleagues at more established East Coast institutions. In fact, Perkins had hired Wilkins on the advice of fellow Syracuse alumnus, F. Lee Benns, a noted scholar at Indiana University where Wilkins had received his B.A. and M.A.

Despite the relatively good credentials held by many of the faculty members of the 1920s, their appointments in the two Departments did not necessarily coincide with their increasingly specialized training. For example, Felix Vondracek, a specialist in Central European history found himself teaching the Survey of American history in Libby’s American History department; Phillip Green, in contrast, a specialist in American history, primarily taught European history in Perkins’ European History Department. Notwithstanding the odd assignments, the faculty of both Departments tended to be productive with Libby and Perkins setting the tone for the more junior faculty.  Perkins, in particular, took pains to note the accomplishments of his faculty in his annual reports to the president.

Perkins was particularly concerned with the difficulty in retaining qualified faculty, a problem characteristic of the university as a whole and reflected in the Departments of History. L. Geiger, in his book University of the Northern Plains: A History of the University of North Dakota 1883-1958, considered “the chief cause of the turnover was the uneasy relations between the president and the faculty.” It is perhaps unsurprising, however, that this particular factor does not appear prominent in the History Department’s annual reports to the President. Perkins stressed in his reports throughout the 1920s that the pay for faculty was too low if the University hoped to compete with Eastern colleges which regularly paid as much as 50% more than UND. In practice, it was not just eastern universities that hired away qualified faculty from UND; one member of the faculty, G.P. Hammond, was hired to teach Latin American History at the University of Arizona. A. Hyma, who became a noted scholar of the Renaissance moved on to teach at the University of Michigan (his major contributions to the Christian Renaissance have been collected here).  An instructor or even Assistant Professor was unlikely to earn over $2000 a year. Salaries from the mid-1930s through the early 1940s stood below the levels of the turn of the century, and while jobs were scarce throughout the U.S. many of the better qualified junior faculty were able to obtain positions elsewhere.  Perkins understood this reality, and admitted as much to President West in a letter when he conceded “I believe it is far better to get men good enough to move and have them stay only two or three years here than to land mediocrities who stay indefinitely.” Perkin’s continued to replace faculty who left, spending considerable time working to find teachers for the European History department. The struggle, however, to keep a full compliment of faculty was obvious: Nicholson left in 1935, Reginald Lovell the same year for Willamette College in Oregon, Clarence Matterson left in 1939 left for Iowa State University at Ames where he would eventually become department head, Charles Morely left for Ohio State in 1942. 

These departures distressed Perkins, but they did allow him to hire two men who made massive and enduring contribution
s to the University: Robert Wilkins replaced Phillip Greene who sought to return to his southern roots by taking a job at Queen’s College in Charlotte, North Carolina. Perkins also hired Louis Geiger, a Ph.D. from the University of Missouri, on the advice of former University of North Dakota history alumnus Elmer Ellis.  With Perkins’s sudden death in 1946 (and Libby’s retirement the year previously), Geiger, Wilkins and Elwyn Robinson emerged as the most influential members of the Department during the 1950s and 1960s.

Other Short Biographies:
Horace B. Woodworth and History at the University of North Dakota
Charles Carter and the Hittites in North Dakota

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