Former UND President Tom Clifford remains revered decades after his presidency, death
More than 10 years after his death and nearly three decades after he left office, Tom Clifford remains possibly the most revered president in the history of the University of North Dakota.
Clifford served as UND president for 21 years, from 1971 to 1992. He was beloved by people across North Dakota and, as the search begins for a new president at UND, Clifford’s name surfaces often in conversations throughout the community.
Many long for a president in Clifford’s image as the State Board of Higher Education prepares to replace outgoing President Mark Kennedy. Earlier this month Kennedy was appointed the next president of the University of Colorado system. He will leave UND on June 15, three years after he arrived.
During a conversation with the Herald’s editorial board last year, Kris Engelstad McGarry, whose family has donated millions of dollars to UND, lamented that the family’s “last really great relationship (with a UND president) was with Clifford.”
“He was that hometown guy,” she said. “Hometown people … have a tendency to really be part of the fabric of that town and want to do what’s best for the town.”
This week the Herald spoke to a handful of people about Clifford and whether it’s possible for the board to find a candidate who can emulate his style and influence.
Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, has served in the North Dakota Legislature for decades, including a 24-year stint from 1973 to 1997 while Clifford was president at UND. He briefly left politics, but returned to the Legislature and has served since 2001.
Martinson described Clifford as a “genuine people person” who cared about his students and staff. He said Clifford was one of the best presidents legislators have ever worked with.
“There were no airs to Tom Clifford,” Martinson said. “There was no arrogance. There was no ‘I’m the dean of the business school,’ and no ‘I’m the president.’ It was just ‘I’m Tom Clifford.’”
Peter Johnson, chief liaison officer at the university and former UND spokesman, worked with five of the 12 full-time UND presidents. Johnson, who also worked with interim President Ed Schafer, said Clifford’s strength was engaging with people as individuals. Johnson recalled that Clifford knew people’s names and the names of their families.
Clifford cared about the person first and would work to help them in any way he could, according to Johnson.
Clifford bailed students out of jail and would even find ways to help students financially if he could.
Johnson called Clifford “a true legend.”
“He’s the higher education legend from North Dakota,” Johnson said.
Clifford made his way through UND at a relatively young age. He graduated from UND in 1942 and later received a degree from the law school in 1948.
He became a professor and was named dean of the College of Commerce at age 29. He became vice president for finance in 1959 and, in 1971, he was named president.
“He knew the university inside and out from an early age,” said Diane Odegard, widow of the late John Odegard, who worked with Clifford to build what is now known as the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.
McGarry, head of the Engelstad Foundation, this week said Clifford was “from the area, known by everyone and very approachable.”
“(Clifford) was the main reason that my father, Ralph, decided to gift to UND,” she said.
Bruce Smith, former aerospace dean, said the single most important factor in Clifford’s success at UND was him being from North Dakota and UND.
“He understood the people and the culture of North Dakota. He was dedicated to the state and the university. He loved UND,” Smith said. “Every decision he made was tempered by what was the best decision for the state and the university, not what was the best decision for him or for promoting his career. He wasn’t trying to build a resume so he could go somewhere else.”
Clifford also had an ability to make people feel comfortable, Smith said. He was approachable and listened to individuals, no matter their status.
“He was as comfortable with the potato farmers in the back room of the Bronze Boot as he was in a tux addressing the dignitaries visiting UND,” he said.
Ed Schafer, the former governor who came to UND as interim president in 2016, remembered Clifford as a man who was always about the students. That is something that has stuck with so many who were on UND’s campus during Clifford’s 21 years at the helm.
“I think that’s why he’s so beloved now is all of us who were students then thought he was terrific, the best president we ever had,” he said.
Clifford retired on June 30, 1992.
Not always easy
Although Clifford is remembered as one of the greatest university presidents in the state’s history, it didn’t come easily. One of Clifford’s biggest hurdles came early in his presidency as UND was attempting to start its aviation program.
“Without Tom we probably wouldn’t have UND Aerospace,” Diane Odegard said.
There were faculty members who did not want UND to have an aviation program, a sentiment that stuck around into the early 1980s, Odegard said. But Clifford was always there to support John Odegard and help his dream become a reality, Diane Odegard said.
Through his work as a CPA, Clifford even helped secure the university’s first two airplanes from Montana, Johnson said.
John Odegard and Clifford worked together to get the program built and helped lay the foundation for what the program looks like today, she said.
Whether it was dealing with the Legislature or a tough faculty question, Clifford was able to put everyone at ease when times were incredibly stressful, Diane Odegard said. Smith concurred.
“He had great wit,” he said. “He could defuse a tense situation with humor, yet at the same time come away with an outcome that would be in his favor.”
Johnson said Clifford had to deal with his own economic difficulties while he was president, as funding for higher education was being cut as expenditures were going up.
Clifford started with a $24 million budget at UND; by the end of his tenure, the budget soared to $170 million.
Clifford helped bring the medical school from a two-year program to a four-year program, which wasn’t a popular idea at the time due to the cost. Johnson said it remains one of Clifford’s greatest achievements.
Schafer, said, “as much as that endearing smile got to you, he was kind of gruff in ways too.”
“He wanted students to perform. He wanted his classrooms to operate properly. So, there was kind of two sides to him.”
As talks to replace Mark Kennedy move forward, many in the community say UND is in need of another Clifford-type president.
McGarry said she hopes the selection committee for the next UND president takes its time to evaluate what hasn’t worked before and added she hopes the committee is “particularly thoughtful in its search, perhaps even engaging the Grand Forks community in the process.”
“The president who is selected needs to know who his/her students are and be fully invested in the community, unlike the presidents in recent history,” McGarry said.
Martinson echoed McGarry’s sentiment, adding “we need (another Tom Clifford) so bad.”
“Tom Clifford had his heart and soul in North Dakota and the University of North Dakota,” Martinson said.
Earl Strinden, founder of the UND Foundation and a former longtime legislator, said understanding North Dakota’s history is important for the next president at UND. The state’s roots are tied to its Legislature, which is the strongest body of state government, he said. Strinden said Clifford understood that, while some other presidents haven’t.
“Those who come in to serve as president will benefit greatly if they know the history of the state and why things happened as they did,” he said.
Clifford is the epitome of a North Dakota president, Schafer noted.
Schafer said the next president at UND has to fit the culture of North Dakota. He said running a university is one thing, but fitting in with the culture of the region and state is another.
Martinson said he’s never liked the presidential hiring process, noting that the State Board often ends up hiring consultants and spending a lot of money trying to find a new president.
The consultants are more focused on moving people around, rather than finding the right person for the job, Martinson added.
“I’ve never liked that process,” he said. “I think the Board of Higher Education could do just as good a job doing the process themselves.”
Fair to compare?
McGarry says the presidents who came after Clifford had different career outlooks and were not as committed to the area.
“The three presidents following (Clifford) have been career academics or politicians building a resume and on the lookout for their next job,” she said. “They didn’t care how their decisions and policies affected the area because they wouldn’t be there in four years' time.”
While many in the community like to draw comparisons between recent presidents and Clifford, Johnson said it’s not fair to do so.
Johnson noted there are many distinct differences from life as a university president in the 1970s. The media atmosphere has changed, and that means the university and the president communicate differently. Additionally, the way people view a higher education degree also has changed.
There was also a greater reverence for university presidents in the 1970s and 1980s than there is now, Johnson said. When Clifford would show up at an event, it was a big deal; that’s changed a bit, Johnson said.
“It was like royalty had come to town,” he said.
University presidents also do not stay as long today as they did when Clifford was president. National statistics show that a university president serves for about five or six years on average. But back in Clifford’s day it wasn’t uncommon for presidents to serve more than 10 or 15 years.
Was Clifford really as great as his lore and legend?
Johnson said the legend has “tremendous factual basis.” And it’s just human nature to reminisce and compare.
“I think as a species we love to compare. We love to compare former presidents in the United States and people forget those were different times,” he said.
Schafer said Clifford “was a North Dakotan true and true” and also remembers that Clifford eschewed “the pomp and circumstances” of the position.
“He was a man of the people. All of that fits the North Dakota psyche,” he said. “Myself and others, that’s the kind of culture you want to bring into the university.”