I sat through the inauguration of our new university president on Friday. It was a worthwhile experience providing that it only happens 10 or 11 times every 125 years. It was heartening to hear Robert O. Kelley focus on the history of the University. He based the first part of his inaugural address on Louis Geiger's history of the University of North Dakota, University of the Northern Plains. Geiger was a professor in the Department of History and wrote the book to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the school. Kelley also gave a nod to the Elwyn Robinson Department of Special Collections when he acknowledge it as the location of the university archives. So, in a speech designed to give equal attention to almost every part of the University campus and administration, two mentions to former members of the history faculty will have to count as some kind of success.
Kelley went on to discuss two former presidents of the University: William M. Blackburn and Frank L. McVey. Blackburn, who was the first president of UND and served from 1884-1885, struggled to win support of the faculty or staff and was let go. His advocacy of a more practical approach to university education did not sit well with members of the first faculty, particularly Henry Montgomery and Webster Merrifield, both of whom was succeed him as presidents of UND, and they arranged for his ouster. It is worth noting that Blackburn wrote one of the first histories of the region with his Historical Sketch of North and South Dakota.
McVey was a different kind of leader. He was the first Ph.D. to hold the office of University of President at UND (a degree in economics from Yale) and he was committed to bringing the University out of the 19th and into the 20th century. This feature of McVey's term as president resonated well with Kelley's own goals for the University. This transition included a massive revision of the curriculum, new faculty hires, and the waning influence of the 19th century "Merrifield Faculty" so-called because they had been hired by McVey's predecessor Webster Merrifield. It is also worth noting that McVey wrote history as well. His book The government of Minnesota, its history and administration, was published in 1901 and he later wrote an a study of the populist movement, economic history of Great Britain (based on his Yale dissertation), and a history of education in Kentucky. McVey, like Blackburn, did not finish his career at UND, but went on to serve as president of the University of Kentucky from 1917-1940.
The short terms in office enjoyed by both Blackburn and McVey hold up the risks and benefits of being an innovator at any university. If you are successful, like McVey, better opportunities await. If you fail like Blackburn, the consequences can be dire. Kelley's awareness of his predecessors and the importance of history in understanding the character of an institution is a good sign.
Hopefully the full text of Kelley's speech will be available online soon.