Home > Departmental History at UND, Elwyn Robinson's Autobiography > History at the University of North Dakota

History at the University of North Dakota

I have finally produced a “final” copy of my pamphlet History at the University of North Dakota 1885-1970.  Those of you who read this blog regularly have read bits and pieces of this history over the past few year and know that my interest in the history of our department and the university more generally will persist.  Various observations on the history of history at the University of North Dakota appear here and here.

I include here part of the introduction:   

     The plan for each department to write a departmental history first emerged in conjunction with the Centennial Celebration at the University of North Dakota.  The result was a series of departmental histories which ranged widely in quality and length.  The Department of History, however, did not produce a formal history at that time.  It may have been that the production of a volume celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the University occupied their collective efforts.   While work began on such a publication, it never advanced beyond a rather ramshackle document without any author listed and entitled: “A Centennial Newsletter.”   When President Charles Kupchella requested that departments and divisions bring their histories up to date in the run-up to the 125th Anniversary of the founding of the University, I undertook to write a basic history of the department from the first historian on campus until today.  I quickly decided, however, that the task of writing the entire history of the department in a way that would do justice to the methods of our discipline was simply not possible in the time allowed.  Moreover, the material for the most recent history continues in regular use by the department’s officers and, consequently, has not been committed to the University Archives.  In other cases, the faculty did not preserve documents, which at the time appeared to be inconsequently.  Finally, delving into the recent past always runs to risk of re-awakening tensions between members of the department, and it seemed an unwise course for a junior, untenured faculty member.  Consequently, I chose to end my history around 1970.  The significant changes that took place in the department during the 1960s carried the department through the following decade.

     This document follows in the tradition of institutional history.  This largely derives from the reality that I am not an expert on history of the University, the state, or the developments within academia or the discipline over the course of the 20th century.  Numerous names, events, and historical developments sent me scrambling for my copy of Robinson’s, History of North Dakota,  L. Veysey’s, The Emergence of the American University,  P. Novick’s,  That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession,  and above all, L. Geiger’s History of the University of the Northern Plains.   The shadow of this last work, a fine example of institutional history, looms large behind these three chapters. 

     All things being equal, I would have liked to capture more of the experience of studying at the University during the first half of the 20th century.  At the same time, I have also neglected to follow the example of the best kind of modern history which captures the personalities of the main characters in the narrative; for long stretches this history reads like the worst kind of prosopography, where individuals fade away behind an endless litany of credentials, accomplishments, and dissertation advisors. 

The complete text can be downloaded here.  It text ends around 1970 without a conclusion.  I hope that I can pick it up again in a few years and bring it closer to today.  My ongoing work on Elwyn B. Robinson‘s Memoirs (or Autobiography) will undoubtedly add to this work as well.

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