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 1

Politics and the Presidency at UND: Reflections on the Past at the Dawn of a New Era – Part 1

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 tensions and changes during the first several decades of the 20th century coincided with a period of significant political and economic tensions within the state. The so-called Second Boom of the early 20th century had ended and the difficult economic times of the 1920s and the 1930s presented the University with a new set of challenges. The economic problems of the state not only led to serious financial difficulties for the University but also fed the rise of powerful political organizations, such as the NPL, that charged many aspects of public life with a political current. This political current tracing just below the surface infused the sometimes tumultuous discourse of university life with a factional and conspiratorial tone. Conservatives, in particular, had attacked economist James Boyle and sociologist John Gillette for the political elements of their research in agricultural economics and sociology of the rural poor respectively. Typical of this moment was the efforts of N.C. Young’s, an avowed conservative and head of the Board of Administration of the University, to oust law school professor Joseph Lewinsohn who was an active supporter of Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive Bull-Moose Party while on the law school faculty in 1912. Lewinsohn was not attacked simply on the basis of his involvement in controversial local politics, but also on account of his alleged incompetence as a teacher.  This blending of political motives with allegations of a genuine academic character led several leading members of faculty, including Orin G. Libby and his more progressive friend and colleague, John Gillette, to form a local branch of the American Association of University Professors. While the A.A.U.P. often remained strangely silent during the turmoil of the late teens and twenties, the great challenges and changes facing both the University and the department frequently played themselves out at the intersection of political, academic, and even pedagogical discourses.

Throughout this tumultuous period at the University, the discipline of history underwent its own transformation to acquire a very different appearance by the 1930s. Enrollments steadily increased as did the size of the faculty who tended to possess credentials not dissimilar from those expected of faculty today. This properly credentialed faculty produced an impressive array of publications, a solid reputation in the state and university, and a group of prestigious and influential alumni. It is with only a little exaggeration that the department’s faculty of the mid-century looked back on this period of the department’s history as a “golden age”.  The story of the successes and struggles of the university, department, and its faculty during this period have survived to a relatively remarkable degree in the papers of O. G. Libby. 

While numerous aspects of Libby’s career at the University and in the state in general have become legendary, his clash with the President Thomas Kane has remained somewhat infamous in Libby lore. Louis Geiger in his classic history (The University of the Northern Plains)found the tumultuous early years of the Kane presidency deserving of no less that 13 pages in his general history of the University and assigned Libby pride of place in his description of the clash. Libby’s character, politics, and understanding of the role of faculty in University life made him particularly vulnerable to attacks from the administration who sought faculty who supported their views or remained detached from the governance of the University.

The most popular impression of Libby comes through clearly in Iseminger’s portrayal of the man as the “defender of academic standards and university protocol.” This stood in stark contrast to Kane who from his earliest days on campus “consistently took the side of leniency in matters of discipline or academic standards and that he had only casual regard for the university constitution.” (see: G. Iseminger, “Dr. Orin G. Libby: A Centennial Commemoration of the Father of North Dakota History.” North Dakota History. 68:4, pp.2-25) While these characterizations are perhaps fair, in the larger context of the time, matters such as university protocol and academic standards for both faculty and students were hardly fixed points. In fact, the university constitution had only been implemented a scant few years before Kane’s arrival on campus as one of the last acts of the McVey Presidency, and few precedents had firmly established the extent of its authority. In this void of de jure policies, men like Libby and Kane with strong personalities held forth expectations that their views would command significant authority.

Libby’s strong personality gave his independent perspective a particular edge in the politically charged climate of the post-war period. Most scholars consider the appointment of Thomas Kane as President of the University to be a decidedly political. More Progressive minded members of the board, some of whom were strong NPL supporters, saw the selection of Kane to the presidency as a victory. In fact, George Totten, a leading NPL representative on the Board of Administrators famous declared Kane “our man.”  This victory, however, proved illusory as Kane quickly shifted from apparently progressive leanings to a more conservative orientation. In some ways, Libby, who never wore his politics on his sleeve even in particularly political times, shared Kane’s tendency to straddle positions in political debates. His involvement with the Campus War Committee, for example, might have suggested conservative leanings. Conservatives generally touted their patriotism and support for the wars as distinct from members of the NPL who were unfairly painted as unpatriotic and at times subversive. Libby’s close friendship with J. M. Gillette, however, an active supporter of Progressive causes ranging from Womens’ Suffrage to the NPL’s domestic agenda, suggested liberal tendencies.  The obscurity of Libby’s political views and seemingly contradictory elements of his behavior limited the support that he received from any one side and left him open to criticism from both.

Finally, Libby’s views on University life in some ways reflected ol
der traditions of university administration which preserved an important place for the faculty voice in University affairs.  Kane, on the other hand, like his predecessor Frank McVey saw the president as the ultimate arbiter of all university life. In this assessment, shared by Geiger, the clash between Libby and Kane, while unfortunate for both men, emerged as a key test case in the ongoing process of professionalization of the office of professor at the university. This, as most of my predecessors have observed, is another aspect of the significant contributions of the Libby to the development of the Department and the university in general.

The initial salvo in the clash between Libby and Kane is typically seen as the president’s mismanagement of the Influenza Epidemic on campus in 1918. In fact, as Iseminger observed, the clash between Libby and Kane might date even earlier to the president’s inaugural address in which Kane, among other things, offered a thinly veiled criticism of Libby’s close friend Gillette’s handling of a disciplinary case against a fraternity. (T. Kane, “The Installation Address of the President of the University of North Dakota,” School and Society 8 (1918), 127.) Such strangely impolitic statements, which nevertheless clearly sought to establish the pre-eminent position of the president on campus as the final arbiter of university affairs, came to characterize Kane’s term as President and predictably clashed with the equally blunt Libby. In the aftermath of the influenza epidemic in which 20 military trainees stationed at the University died, Libby emerged as the spokesman for a group of faculty who blamed Kane for the tragedy. In 1920, Libby along with four others – including Gillette and E. Ladd – composed a 12 page memo entitled “Memoranda of the Unfortunate Happenings at the University of North Dakota.” This document blasted President Kane as unsuitable for the office of president and established the basis for their call later that year that Kane be dismissed by the Board of Regents. As word of the memorandum and Kane’s endangered presidency became known, the controversy escalated drawing in students, the press, and members of the Board of Regents. In fact, the ruckus had a seriously disruptive effect on campus complete with the student body taking the President’s side. Such public demonstrations perhaps motivated all parties to come to the table. Ultimately Libby and his faction negotiated a secret deal with Kane brokered by three members of the Board of Trustees George Totten, R. T. Muir, who were important politicians in the state, NPL members, and apparently more or less in sympathy with Libby and his group, and John Hagan. This agreement became known as the “Hagan Agreement.” Its contents like the “Memoranda of the Unfortunate Happenings” are lost.  Whatever the specifics in this document, the “Hagan Agreement” appears to have established the basis for a functional, if not to say peaceful, relationship between Libby’s faction and President Kane. Its artificial, “negotiated” nature provided only the thinnest coating of formal niceties to obscure their deep animosity.  The peace between the two did not last long.

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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