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Teaching Tuesday: Re-imagining the M.A. Thesis

October 13, 2009 1 comment

Our department has begun a discussion about our M.A. degree in history. This has led me to think a bit about the potential of a non-thesis M.A. and the nature of the M.A. thesis itself. It seems to me that the M.A. thesis today is neither fish nor foul. Years ago, the M.A. was enough to teach at some universities and represented the mastery of some content and some of the basic research skills of the Ph.D. (Although it is interesting to note that even in the late 19th century, folks regarded the M.A. as a bit worthless. As Philip Katz’s recent survey of the M.A. degree in history has recounted). Many Ph.D. programs award the M.A. now, in passing, or designated as a kind of honorable discharge for students who do not make the grade for Ph.D. level work. Other places see the M.A. as a specialized, terminal degree for teachers or even public historians. In general, these two options for the M.A. do not require the completion of the traditional Master’s Thesis.

Places like the University of North Dakota, however, who specialize in the M.A. in history and regard is as a stepping stone toward admission into a Ph.D. program, continue the practice of encouraging students to write an M.A. thesis. In general these theses are 70-100 pages in length, make an original contribution to the discipline, and demonstrate a basic mastery of historical methods, academic writing, and vaguely defined “historical thinking”. It’s a pretty standard approach to the thesis.

The only thing is that these theses are basically exercises in method. At half to a third of the length of a proper dissertation, they often involve far less original research — our M.A. program is designed to be completed in 2 years. Consequently, a Ph.D. dissertation can metastasize into a book with just the right amount of low level intellectual radiation, the M.A. thesis can rarely produce more than a decent article. To extract a 8,000-10,000 word article, it is common to discard 70%-80% of the material from the M.A. thesis. This seems to me to be a frustratingly inefficient use of time, paper, and intellectual energy. On the other hand, graduate education in history has never been predicated on efficiency. Students are more artisans than assembly line workers.

The real question, however, is not whether that 80% of the thesis that is discarded when a thesis is converted to a scholarly article is a useful component of the process, but whether it is a useful component of the thesis. Most of this material in the M.A. is dedicated to the careful documentation of process. This includes extensive (and frequently over-wrought) historiographic introductions, digressions on method and methodology, and extraneous narrative or interpretive chapters designed primarily to pad out length and show additional competence in the historical idiom. In other words, most of the material in the M.A. thesis is dedicated to documenting the research and composition process in a transparent way. For some students, this material validates their ability to work like a historian, even if the final results of the thesis do not necessarily make a substantive contribution. In my experience, however, and for most students, these pages represent additional editing work, citation work, and busy work which often (but not always) detracts from the overall quality of the main argument in the text by channeling time and energy to less significant exercises. If the goal of the M.A. is to demonstrate basic competence as a historian, the canonical length and standards of a publishable article should satisfy these requirements. Moreover, it would ensure that the student would have the time and energy (especially in a two year degree) to focus attention on the arguments that matter rather than the assorted flotsam that M.A. thesis often attract. Finally, history is a massive competitive field. Finding a job and establishing one’s academic credentials are becoming more and more difficult with each passing year. An more professionally oriented M.A. thesis could contribute to a student’s developing profession credentials (especially when in a thesis-based M.A. program that is complemented by a non-Thesis M.A. option. The latter could be geared toward professionals in public history, teachers, and others who regard Master’s degree as something other than a stepping stone to advanced graduate work in history). So, a re-imagined M.A. would be 8,000-12,000 words of publishable quality work, focused on an original thesis, and bearing the efficiency of prose that marks the best kind of published articles.

Some of the first, M.A.’s produced by Department of History at the University of North Dakota appeared were supervised by Orin G. Libby and appeared in the early volumes of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. So a re-imagined M.A. thesis could even carry the imprimatur of the father of historical research here at the University of North Dakota.

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Categories: North Dakotiana, Teaching

The Flu, The University, and the Department of History

September 28, 2009 Leave a comment

We’ve recently been barraged by university communications regarding prospects of a serious outbreak of the H1N1 Swine Flu.  This is not the first time that the University of North Dakota has had to deal with an outbreak of the flu.  In 1918, UND endured a particularly tragic outbreak of flu as the campus transformed itself into a base for the Student Army Training Corps (SATC).  Similar to our current situation, the flu crisis was managed by a new university president, Thomas Kane, who had been inaugurated just a year earlier.  Unlike our current leader, Robert Kelley, however, Kane had had a controversial first few months in office including the botched handling of a student drinking case, a flip-flopping attitude toward the tense political situation in the state, and an inflammatory inaugural address that rankled the sensitivities of many longtime university faculty members including the irascible Orin G. Libby.

Louis Geiger’s The University of the Northern Plains provides the best summary of the flu’s decent on campus in October of 1918.  The university had just re-organized itself to take on the training of over  400 army cadets who greatly outnumbered the small body of regular students on campus.  The campus moved to a quarter system, Davis Hall, Budge Hall, the dinning hall of the Commons, and the Phi Delta Theta Fraternity house were turned over to military use as barracks and headquarters for the cadets and money was allocated for the construction of an Armory

Despite what would have appeared to be significant preparations for the arrival of these new students, the university was unprepared for the influenza epidemic when it struck campus in October.  By October 9th, the university had suspended classes and placed the entire campus under a quarantine.  Training and classes for the SATC abruptly stopped as growing numbers of the corp became ill and parts of Budge Hall and the Phi Delta Theta house were converted to make-shift hospitals to serve the increasing number of sick students.  The hospitals, however, lacked proper equipment, toiletries, and bedding making them poorly suited to care for the sick.  Moreover, the Grand Forks community, an important support network for the university, suffered at least as grievously as the university campus.  By mid-October Grand Forks reported over 3000 cases of the flu and on campus 320 of the 470 cadets were ill.  Tragically, 29 of these students would die and Geiger reports that no other university campus had a worse record (p. 298).  In contrast, the Agricultural College in Fargo had far fewer cases and deaths despite having a larger number of SATC students; the quick acting Dean of the Medical School, Harley E. French, took decisive measures to prevent the spread of the flu among campus women (who were organized and housed separately from the SATC).  One died, but far fewer were ill.

The upshot of the flu tragedy on the University of North Dakota’s campus was significant. Orin G. Libby, the noted historian, had served as the chair of the University’s War Committee and had worked alongside President Kane to bring to make the arrangements necessary to accommodate the SATC on campus.  Libby, whose feathers had been ruffled already by Kane’s impolitic speech at his inauguration, placed the blame for the tragic student deaths squarely on Kane’s shoulders.   In 1920, Libby joined a group of faculty members including John M. Gillette, perhaps the most well-regarded and influential member of the university faculty during the first half of the 20th century, to call for Kane’s removal.  Kane for his part rallied support from Vernon Squires (who would later write the first history of the university) and, perhaps significantly, Dean French of the Medical School.  The precise details of this conflict have been lost, but it attracted sufficient attention from various university stakeholders to compromise in a serious way both Kane’s and Libby’s ability to serve as campus leaders.  Libby and the Department of History, in particular, suffered at the hands of Kane as they clashed repeatedly throughout the early years of the 1920s (for more the Kane-Libby clashes see my three-part series: Politics and the Presidency at UND: Reflections on the Past at the Dawn of a New Era, part 1, part 2, part 3)

Stay healthy, UND!

The Merrifield Move

It’s finally happening.  After all the bluster and delays, the department is finally moving from its long-held place in Merrifield Hall to O’Kelly Hall.  As my colleagues are slowly being moved out of their offices, I’ve been able to sneak in and get some final pictures of the offices before they are lost to us forever (how’s that for dramatic?).

It will also give me a chance to add some little odds and ends that I had meant to include in other posts about Merrifield, but had not for various reasons.

First, this note greeted me on my return from Europe:

 

As the days past the “faculty still in Merrifield” became less and less true as they moved, one by one.

One of the great offices on campus has been until recently occupied by Han Broedel our Early Modernist.  It has a bathroom, for one thing:

It is also, almost certainly, Orin G. Libby’s former office from the day that Merrifield opened in 1928 until his retirement in 1944.  I am basing this idea, Pausanias like, on a passage from Elwyn B. Robinson’s autobiography:

“Dr. Libby had two rooms for his office, side by side at Merrifield #221 and #223, with a door connecting them. The first was larger than the other with a toilet, important to me [Elywn B. Robinson] because of the frequent, urgent bowel movements [Robinson had serious problems with his digestive track nearly his entire adult life. ed.]. It had Dr. Libby’s desk, a worktable, and a lot of bookcases. The other room, #223, had bookshelves to the ceiling and a worktable. Its door to the hallway was not used. From the books on the shelves, I believed it was a workroom connected with Dr. Libby’s editorship of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly. That publication of the State Historical Society was suspended for lack of funds in the Thirties, so the room was not much used. A folding army cot was set up there, and I would lie down and rest between classes.”

The door linking the two offices was not used in recent times, but was still there, to the left of the tall bookshelf:

Dr. Iseminger, the most outspoken opponent of the move from Merrifield, has vacated his office.  He had been in his office since the mid-1960s.  His office was famous for a number of reasons.  First, he still pounds out missives on an old manual typewriter, so the office had a particular sound.  He also had a massive philodendron plant that crept around the top of the overflowing bookshelves.

Finally, the office preserved some of the original flooring in Merrifield Hall. The local rumor is that this was the surplus battleship decking installed as cost cutting measure (and perhaps salvaged from the 15 odd battleships scrapped at the end of World War I in accordance with the Washington Treaty including, ironically, the USS North Dakota (which wasn’t officially scrapped until 1931)).  Whether the floors were actually old battleship decking or not is relatively unimportant.  They are funky:

The move from Merrifield Hall is pretty sad.  The building was tied to the Department of History since its inception.  Moreover, by moving our department we will be separated from the departments most closely allied with the study of the past: English, Philosophy and Religion, and Languages.  But we’ve been promised a better future in our new digs in O’Kelly Hall including upgraded office space, better classrooms, and easier access to the Memorial Union food court. 

DSCN0559

It’s still hard not to think that this isn’t an end of an era.  For more of my tribute to Merrifield Hall see: Check out Room 215, Room 217, Room 209Room 300, the hallways of Merrifield, and even Merrifield Graffiti.

Friday Quick Hits and Varia

October 24, 2008 Leave a comment

Some quick thoughts for the weekend:

  • More Merrifield Moving: Gordon Iseminger made his feelings known regarding the Department of History’s impending move from Merrifield Hall on the front page of the Grand Forks Herald.  His rear guard actions captured the significance of the event well and ensured that the campus and the community realized that the Department’s departure from its long time home in Merrifield will be a loss.  He evoked the spirit of the building and of Robinson and Libby:

“Designed by famed architect Joseph Bell DeRemer, Merrifield Hall was built in 1929 and immediately elevated the aesthetics of the young campus, where earlier construction had been more utilitarian. Windows have been updated, and hallway ceilings were lowered to accommodate new heating and cooling systems, but there have been no additions to alter its external elegance.

It has a worn, familiar feel inside, where the terrazzo floors are original and the staircases curve into those sun-dappled window seats.

Down the hall from the core cluster of history faculty offices, one classroom is outfitted with maps and framed portraits of former history department leaders, including Elwyn Robinson, author of the 1966 “History of North Dakota,” and Orin G. Libby, often called “the father of North Dakota history.”

“It was in this building that Robinson and Libby made their careers,” Iseminger said, and that tradition — that history — should matter to the larger university community.”

As the Departmental Historian, I was a bit surprised to see Iseminger’s assertion that Libby “made his career” in Merrifield.  Libby was hired in 1902 and published his dissertation, by far his most significant piece of scholarship some 5 years earlier.  In 1914, Libby arranged to hold the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (the predecessor to the Organization of American Historians) on campus, and this was surely his finest hour.  Libby’s high profile battles with President Kane in the 1920s had tarnished his reputation on campus and weakened the position of the department as Kane sought to undermine Libby’s power on campus by dividing the department into separate departments of European and American History.  Despite these battles, he nevertheless had the privilege of new offices in Merrifield Hall where he would work until his retirement in 1945.  While he worked hard during his final 15 years on campus to maintain North Dakota Historical Society during the darkest years of the depression, his scholarly output waned and even his teaching fell behind the times.  Libby’s career was made before he came to Merrifield Hall and continued despite the move.  This gives our department hope.

Cheer on the Phils this weekend. 

More Merrifield Memories

September 30, 2008 Leave a comment

Elwyn B. Robinson carried out much of his life work in Merrifield Hall.  In fact, if the Department of History has to move, one of the greatest disappointments will be the separation from the space consecrated by the work of our predecessors in the Department.

Robinson’s first memories are worth quoting:

“While we were getting settled in our apartment, we were also exploring the campus of the university.  The lawns, large trees, and shrubbery were attractive in the late summer, and with no classes there were few people about.  We gradually came to identify the buildings. My office was in the basement of Merrifield Hall, the newest and largest building on the campus.  It had been completed in about 1928 [actually it was completed in 1929 ed.] and housed the College of Science, Literature and Arts, headed by Dean William Bek, a professor of German.  Just to the south of Merrifield Hall was Old Main, the first building of the university.  In it were the administrative offices – the business office, the president, the registrar, the extension division, buildings and grounds, and the stenographic bureau.”

The rooms Robinson and Libby used in Merrifield are more or less the same as we use today: “The American history classes then met in Rooms 217 and 215 of Merrifield Hall.  Room 217 had 66 seats and Room 215 had 40.  Libby’s classes all met in room 215.”

Robinson experienced sometimes prolonged periods of ill health and the proximity (or as our administrators on campus here say “adjacency”) of classes to the Department’s offices benefited him greatly:

“I missed teaching all of January, the rest of semester, but went back with the start of the second semester in February.  I was still very weak, and since my office was in the basement and my classes on the second floor of Merrifield Hall, arrangements were made so that I did not go back to the basement after my first class.  Dr. Libby had two rooms for his office, side by side at Merrifield #221 and #223, with a door connecting them… It had Dr. Libby’s desk, a worktable, and a lot of bookcases.  The other room, #223, had bookshelves to the ceiling and a worktable.  Its door to the hallway was not used.  From the books on the shelves, I believed it was a workroom connected with Dr. Libby’s editorship of the North Dakota Historical Quarterly.  That publication of the State Historical Society was suspended for lack of funds in the Thirties, so the room was not much used.  A folding army cot was set up there, and I would lie down and rest between classes.”

In fact, the adjacency of the offices of History and those of Sociology, particularly the office of John Gillette, reinforced the strong ties between those two department.  Libby and Gillette served on a number of dissertation committees together and produced some of the most successful early Ph.D.s from the University.  The most famous of these, George R. Davies, completed the first Ph.D. from the University, albeit in 1914 — over a decade before Merrifield Hall was built.

 RobinsonMerrifield
Stephen Robinson in the window of Merrifield Hall where the Department of History is located on the campus of UND.
Photo by Elwyn Robinson

Images from the History of the University of North Dakota

Steven Robinson has generously provided me with some photos take by his father Elwyn B. Robinson.  Those included here were primarily taken by him in 1947 (with exception of the photograph with Dr. Robinson in it!).  

Elwyn Robinson was an avid photographer (as was Robert Wilkins), and he came by this honestly as his father owned a professional photography studio in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. In his autobiography you can feel his excitement in his description of purchasing the camera presumably responsible for these photographs in 1947:

“On May 8 I had purchased a second-hand Leica, a model IIIb manufactured before the war, paying $175.00 for the camera, case, four filters, and a sunshade. I was much excited to have one of the famous German-made cameras with an Elmar f 3.5 lens and a focal plane shutter with speeds from one second to 1/1000 of a second. In June I bought a copy of the Leica Manual by Morgan, Lester, and others, and spent a good deal of time with it. I must have taken a lot of pictures that summer in the enthusiasm of having a fine camera. I can’t remember what I did with my Argus AF, but looking back I expect that I could have taken as good pictures with that $15.00 camera as I could with the Leica. I soon devised a way I could use the Leica lens with the Argus enlarger. I owned the Leica until the 1970’s when I sold the Leica to a collector for almost as much as I had paid for it. I devised a system for saving and filing the films that I took, numbering and dating them. They were finally thrown out in preparation for the move to Tufte Manor.”

His photographs capture life in Grand Forks in the late 1940s and some of the character of the figures that populate Geiger’s history of the University and my own meager offering in the history of the department.  I particularly like the photograph of Dean Bek who must have died less than a year after this photograph was taken.  Bek did much to see the University through the Depression and the Second World War and his famous address to President West and the faculty in 1944 captures the optimism of the post war university:

“The University is coming out of the blight and fog of depression. A new day is dawning. The depression did some terrible things to us… Before the university was hamstrung by insufficient funds it had an enviable reputation among sister institutions…” (“Remarks of Dean W.G. Bek at the Faculty Meeting of the University of September 23, 1944,” Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection. William Bek Papers. Collection #120, file 1. Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections, Chester Fritz Library, University of North Dakota, Grand Forks.)

Wheeler

George Wheeler longtime head of the Biology Department and Famous Friend of Orin G. Libby.  He served with Libby and Gillette on the committee that recommended the appointment of John C. West as University president.  He was known to represent the old guard well into the 1960s when he resisted the idea of rotating department chairs introduced by President George Starcher.

Wilkins
Robert Wilkins longtime member of the Department of History

Lincoln
Arleigh Lincoln (Sociology) and daughter Ann. The Lincolns lived at the SW corner of the intersection of Hamline & 5th Ave N. 

 Butler
Francis Butler (founder of the Butler Construction Co)  who lived in the second house to the south of 425 Princeton

RobinsonGordon
Elwyn Robinson with  Gordon

Thormosgaard
Dean Thormosgaard (Law)

Bek
Dean Bek

More History of History at the University of North Dakota

April 14, 2008 Leave a comment

I know that I stated that the three part study of the Libby-Kane Controversy was the final installment of my history of the Department of History at the University of North Dakota.  As so often happens, things change.  I have begun working with the sons of Elwyn Robinson to bring together the manuscript of his autobiography which I discussed briefly before in this blog in Sources for the Department of History at the University of North Dakota.

RobinsonHeroesofDakotaElwyn Robinson began his autobiography in January of 1982 and continued working on it until his final illness in January 1985.  Much of this manuscript can be found in the Orin G. Libby Manuscript Collection at the Elwyn B. Robinson Department of Special Collections at the University of North Dakota.  Recently Steven Robinson, Elwyn’s eldest son offered me a copy of Chapter 13, which does not seem to appear in the manuscript and typescript preserved at the University of North Dakota which ends which at Chapter 12 and Robinson submission of the manuscript of the History of North Dakota to the University of Nebraska Press. 

Also included in the papers that I recently received is a very brief introduction by Robinson.  He offered this eminently reasonable prologue to his task at hand:

“I believe that my guidelines are essential to the success of the effort. They are: (1) to put down all that I can remember without any concern about whether it will be of any interest to anybody or whether it is presentable (2) to not worry about the literary quality or the organization of what I am recording, and (3) not to be in any hurry to accomplish the task and not to work on it too long at a time. I want, however, to spend some time on the job every day.”

Later he offers another piece of wisdom:

“Robert Wilkins remembers an aphorism of either Anthony Eden or Harold Nicholson: ‘Old men do not remember, they invent.’ So what I am writing is more the way I remember it, not necessarily the way it was.”

Here’s the table of contents: 

Chapter I. Childhood on the Russell Farm, 1905-15

Chapter II. Growing up in Chagrin Falls, 1915-24.

Chapter III. Oberlin College, 1924-28

Chapter IV. Teaching School, 1928-30

Chapter V. Graduate School, 1931-35

Chapter VI. Early Years at the University of North Dakota, 1935-39

Chapter VII. Stevie and the move to Princeton Street, 1939-42

Chapter VIII. Gordon and the War Years, 1942-45

Chapter IX. “Heroes of Dakota” and a Promotion, 1946-49

Chapter X. Three Operations and the Start of History of North Dakota, 1950-53

Chapter XI. Progress on History, 1954-58

Chapter XII. Completing the History of North Dakota, 1959-64

Chapter XIII. Years of Triumph, 1965-1970

My goal with this is to find a publisher and gradually begin editing the manuscript filling in details as I go.  There is a lot to edit (although Robinson’s prose is spare and clean) and many small points that need elaboration.  My hope is that this text will provide a distinct insight into the academic career of an individual who while remarkable and important for the history of both the state of North Dakota, is also representative of a particular place in the history of both the university and academic culture in the United States as it crossed the gap between pre-war and post-war worlds. 

The text also provides myriad interesting insights into the various people and places Robinson experienced during his academic career.  At Oberlin College in Ohio, for example, he appreciated the courses offered by Leigh Alexander.  Alexander was a Princeton-trained Classicist and head of the department for years at Oberlin.  His 1911 dissertation was on fragments of Nicholas of Damascus on the Lydian Kings and was written under William K. Prentice. 

There are numerous other little interesting bits of information that will come out as I re-read this manuscript, and I will from time to time post them here.

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

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

March 30, 2008 Leave a comment

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

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

March 24, 2008 Leave a comment

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