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Mike Jacobs: Vandals approach UND's campus

UND president Mark Kennedy answers questions during a meeting with the Grand Forks Herald Editorial Board. photo by Eric Hylden/Grand Forks Herald

There's a lot to see in North Dakota, including wide open spaces, expansive vistas and distant horizons, but there aren't many monumental landscapes, the kind that we humans create to express our aspirations and celebrate our achievements. I can think of three, the state capitol grounds, the approach to Valley City State University from downtown and the UND campus.

The International Peace Gardens was on the list, but it's been diminished by the demolition of the peace tower that once directed vision beyond the flowers planted there. The Peace Tower was poorly constructed; without it the landscape celebrates the unbroken friendship between Canada and the United States, but without the architecture.

The UND campus is open and uncluttered and its architecture does reinforce the institution's heritage and mission. But for how much longer?

An important part of the UND landscape will be destroyed next week if the administration goes ahead with plans to demolish the yellow brick buildings on the north side of University Avenue, across the street and a little to the west of Chester Fritz Library. These appear to be two buildings but they bear four names, Corwin, Sayre, Robinson and Larimore. They are all that remain of Wesley College.

The Methodist Church established Wesley College, actually moving its Red River University from Wahpeton to Grand Forks to take advantage of UND, then sharing curriculum in a way that was precedent setting in the United States and helping to house and educate some of UND's most distinguished alums — playwright Maxwell Anderson, the state's first Pulitzer Prize winner; and Carl Ben Eielson, its heroic Arctic pilot among them.

The Wesley College campus was conceived carefully, with its buildings defining a large open space. The buildings are in a uniform architectural style, called Beaux Arts, and of identical material. Together they reflect the faith-based, optimistic and progressive outlook of the college's founders. They are also memorials to individuals important to the region and to the college. This is especially true of Sayre Hall, named for Harold Holden Sayre, who died in World War I when his airplane was shot down on a bombing mission behind German lines.

For many years, a modernistic building housing the UND Alumni foundation encroached on the Wesley College Quad, obscuring the buildings and diminishing the impact of this monumental landscape. Inadequate for its intended purpose and without redeeming architectural or historic merit, that building was demolished last year.

UND knows that the Wesley College buildings are historically important. A campus tour guide, "Sites 2C at UND," includes them. Earlier this month, the university held a memorial for Sayre and his namesake building, and its blog, "UND Today," published "Harnessing history before it's gone" describing a history class project to document the campus.

Now the original buildings — architecturally unique and historically important — are set for the wrecking ball. This is justified as a cost-saving step; the university is overbuilt and needs to reduce its footprint and its costs. Wesley College is also in the way of President Mark Kennedy's "Coulee to Columbia" initiative to remake the UND campus. It's been hinted that commercial buildings could be part of the plan, which has been presented as progress.

It sounds more like vandalism, especially since the campus is one of the few places that remind us, on a grand scale, of the vision of the people who built the state.

Turning to other topics, but sticking to the subject of UND, here's a brief excerpt from this column published on March 15, 2016. The headline was "Assessing the field in UND's presidential race."

"There might be an issue of arrogance. ... Kennedy used the honorable in his title. As a former member of Congress, he's entitled, but it felt a little fancy. Both board and legislators are leery of egoism. That's what derailed a former chancellor and a former NDSU president. ..."

By now, it's clear that Kennedy's arrogance has derailed his own presidency and now threatens UND. Kris Engelstad McCarry's interview with the Herald last week is more evidence of that. Sure, she's had issues with previous presidents about handling of her family's extraordinary generosity to UND, but this is the first time she's felt the need to raise the issue publicly.

The university system office responded to her unhappiness by saying that it's an issue between her and UND, but the Board of Higher Education can't ignore the damage Kennedy's arrogance has done, not least among legislators. Ducking the issue will discredit the board — just when that governance of the system is under intense scrutiny.

There is some good news. UND's mission statement has been reduced from 219 words to just 13: "to provide transformative learning, discovery and community engagement opportunities for developing tomorrow's leaders."

Sounds good. Let's make it happen.

Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Herald.

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