Mike Jacobs: Rearranged campus reflects UND’s aspirations

Mike Jacobs is a Grand Forks Herald columnist.

Students are away, but the UND campus is by no means quiet. A building boom is underway. This struck me forcefully when I took a nostalgic walk across campus. I saw only construction workers. The look back at the campus I knew as a student half a century ago turned into a look into the future of the university.

The look-ahead view is filled with challenges.

Coronavirus and the absence of students have had a significant impact, but this is temporary. Probably – increasingly probably – students will be back on campus toward the end of August, and the fall semester will go on as usual, or at least something not too far out of the ordinary.

There is a greater threat.

North Dakota’s economy is in deep recession because of a collapse in the price of oil. Best guesses are that oil tax revenues will be down significantly when the next report arrives later this week. Revenue from oil taxes will be far below earlier estimates, when oil was flowing freely, and may wipe out the state’s vaunted budget surplus of somewhere around $100 million.


As it always does in times of crisis, the state’s university system will take a disproportionate hit because of the way state budgets are built. Public elementary and secondary schools – a major part of the state budget – are protected at current levels, so available resources go to the public schools first and only later to other state priorities. Unfortunately, the current governor is perhaps more hostile to higher education, at least to residential campuses, as any in history, and some legislators are happy to acquiesce. This is not quite so serious a crisis as the one that faced UND in 1895, when the governor vetoed the appropriation for the university, in full expectation that it would close. A fundraising appeal brought contributions enough to keep the university open.

All of this was on my mind as I walked across campus, taking particular care to pause outside buildings closest to me, the dormitory I moved into in the fall of 1965, for example, and Merrifield Hall, where the journalism department was housed, and the Student Union, now gone, to be replaced by a new building occupying the attention of many of the workers I watched on my walk.

On my first day on campus 55 years ago, I made a similar walk. I wanted to know my way around, so I used a campus map and walked by every building represented on it. That map and those buildings are frozen in my mind somehow.

Nostalgia did not overwhelm reality on my look-back/look-ahead trip across campus. The campus is very much larger now than it was 55 years ago, both in physical area and in educational scope. New construction reflects this.

For example, there’s a big hole at the northwest corner of the historic quad. Montgomery Hall once stood there. Soon a new building housing the College of Business will be built there, funded largely by Werner and Colleen Nistler. Across the street, the Hal and Kathy Gershman Center for Engagement is taking shape inside the old president’s residence, which I knew as Oxford House, in my student days the home of the Art Department’s studios. A little to the east, Chester Fritz Library, another alumni legacy, is undergoing a major makeover. Still farther to the east, the Memorial Student Union has been razed and construction has begun on a new building. None of these depends on state funds; the business school and the engagement center are funded largely by private gifts (though the state has pledged to match the Nistler gift), and the student union is backed by bonds supported by student fees. The main campus thoroughfare, University Avenue, is being remade – partly in the interest of safety – a project funded jointly by the city and the university.

The range of university programs is evident in a stroll across campus, from the easternmost point, where the Energy and Environment Research Center is located, to the westernmost buildings, housing the School of Aerospace Sciences, to the northernmost, the School of Medicine and Health Sciences. Recent building projects –demolitions and new construction – have rearranged the campus geography, opening long views that are an architectural expression of UND’s scope. Building projects – both demolition and new construction – are planned that will accentuate this notion, resulting in a campus that is both more compact and yet more monumental in design. Carnegie Hall will become an office building; the College of Arts and Sciences will move back to the central quad. Its current home, Columbia Hall, once St. Michael’s Hospital, will be razed to make room for a commercial area serving campus.

This rearrangement was a key component of Mark Kennedy’s presidency, and however brief his tenure, it will be lasting.

UND’s aspirations are reflected in the campus landscape. But here is the critical question – for North Dakotans individually, for UND’s new president, for the Board of Higher Education, the governor and the Legislature: Will the university’s resources match its aspirations? Or will its reach exceed its grasp?


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

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