Home > Departmental History at UND > Politics and the Presidency at UND: Reflections on the Past at the Dawn of a New Era – Part 2

Politics and the Presidency at UND: Reflections on the Past at the Dawn of a New Era – Part 2

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 second clash between Orin G. Libby and President Thomas Kane erupted only a month after the Hagan Agreement came to pass in 1920 (for details see Part 1).  The central point of this second Libby-Kane controversy regarded the proper procedure for expanding the history department. From the days of President Frank McVey, Libby had sought to expand the department by either adding faculty which only occasionally exceeded Libby and a part-time instructor like George R. Davies, who was primarily a sociologist and would have an important career at the University of Iowa). Since 1916 Libby’s requests for additional faculty had become all the more urgent, as the University required that all students take a semester of History and this taxed the limited faculty resources in the department. In the Spring 1920 Libby became interested in hiring a certain Robert R. Russell who had been teaching at Ottawa University in Kansas. At the time, Russell only held an M.A. completed at the University of Kansas under Carl Becker and F. H. Hodder, but he was enrolled in the Ph.D. program at the University of Illinois. Libby regarded Russell as having sufficient teaching experience and, being enrolled in a Ph.D. program, he would soon complete the necessary requirements for eventual promotion to full professor serving alongside Libby as the Professor of European History.

After meeting with Russell in Minneapolis for what appears to have been an impromptu interview, Libby forwarded a letter to Kane recommending that the University hire Russell. Kane responded that he did not see any need to hire Russell at present because the classes were being taught by a man named John W. Taylor. If there was to be a faculty change, Kane would require some justification from Libby to dismiss Taylor and hire someone new. At the same time, Kane contacted Russell and inquired to his qualifications for the job. In response to Kane’s request, Libby provided a detailed argument regarding the need to hire Russell and a careful enumeration of his qualifications. Kane received Libby’s recommendation of Russell, but regarded this as avoiding the larger question of whether Taylor should be dismissed. Moreover, he criticized Libby’s plan to expand the department suggesting that the candidate he favored, Russell, was in fact no more qualified than Taylor who Libby evidently deemed inadequate. Kane, perhaps posturing here, suggested that the department would benefit by hiring a “full fledged man” rather than relying on Taylor or Russell. Moreover, before any change could be made Kane insisted again that Libby provide evidence for Taylor’s incompetence in the classrooms of the Department of History in order to justify dismissing him. Libby steadfastly refused to do this, and this evidently was the sine qua non for any further action from Kane.   In fact, for President Kane, Libby’s inability to provide grounds for Taylor’s dismissal invalidated Libby’s recommendation that the university hire Russell.

As this dispute gradually escalated, Kane kept Russell informed of the issues at stake with the appointment of Taylor and the behavior of Libby, thereby providing the unsuspecting candidate with quite an insight into the workings of both the department and the administration of the university. Libby, who had become increasingly impatient with what he saw as Kane’s stalling tactics, finally referred the matter to the Board of Administration. The board in this instance sided with Kane who in turn created a separate Department of European History and hired Clarence Perkins as a full professor to be the chair of this department. He had been an Associate Professor at Ohio State University and received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1908.

The second round of the Kane-Libby controversy, much like the first, reflected the growing pains of the University as new and old faculty and administrators sought to accommodate their personal ideas of how a university should function with growing body of professional standards. Libby, for his part, arrived at the University with sterling professional credentials, a willingness to be active in University life, and an expectation that the faculty’s views be respected in the running of the University. Moreover, he reinforced this view of faculty’s place on campus through such as activities as founding a Grand Forks branch of the American Association of University Professors.  Nevertheless and perhaps ironically, Libby’s behavior often seemed to represent more traditional approaches to academic life. It seems likely that Libby’s preference for an individual like Russell who would have been quite junior in status to Libby, would have ensured his continued control over departmental affairs. Kane’s choice, Perkins’ held qualifications that were certainly more significant than either Taylor or Russell, suggesting that Kane, for all his faults, sought to hire a more substantial scholar than Libby’s choice. In a sense, then, Kane’s view of the development of the department was perhaps more in keeping with later standards, and Libby, or so it would seem, sought to rely on older models of academic practices more dependent on personal acquaintances and a hierarchy based on seniority and professional prestige. Furthermore, Libby’s willingness to move Taylor aside without being willing (or perhaps able) to articulate a reason contrasted with Kane’s willingness to support Taylor’s appointment. Kane’s perspective in this matter was consistent with his ideas of faculty promotion articulated in his inaugural address.  Kane professed his unwillingness to dismiss a successful member of the faculty without clear reasons. In this sentiment, Kane clearly meant to state his willingness to protect faculty from the arbitrary dismissals that characterized the tumultuous wartime years when some faculty, like Libby’s friend William Schaper at the University of Minnesota had lost their positions due to academic, political, or personal animosities. 

Over the l
ast 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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