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Does History matter?

As UND prepares to dismantle its School of Communication and send the parts to various new academic homes on campus, one part of the reorganization has not been well received by history.

As UND prepares to dismantle its School of Communication and send the parts to various new academic homes on campus, one part of the reorganization has not been well received by history.

Make that History, as in Department of.

For as long as sculpted gnomes have beckoned students to marble reading benches at each grand staircase landing, Merrifield Hall has been history's home. Since it was built in 1929, its second floor is where North Dakota's Nonpartisan League still railed against "the interests," guns still roared at Gettysburg and Napoleon still emerged victorious from the mists at Austerlitz.

But the School of Communication reorganization plan has many of the school's faculty moving to Merrifield, where UND administrators hope the newcomers can benefit from "adjacency" to the English department, another longtime Merrifield occupant. To make room, history professors will be moved across the grassy campus center to O'Kelly Hall -- which most of the communications faculty members are vacating.

"People love Merrifield Hall," said John La Duke, associate dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "But when you move someone into a building, you have to move someone out."

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Incentives offered

Administrators announced plans a month ago to dissolve the School of Communication, which had been plagued in recent years by internal problems, and relocate its faculty and staff to other departments. The state Board of Higher Education will have to sign off on the plan, which administrators hope to put into place during the semester break this winter.

The College of Arts and Sciences has offered history and other displaced faculty some incentives, including new paint and carpet for the offices in O'Kelly, plus additional shelf space for the book-intensive history faculty.

"It's for the good of the college we're putting this package together," La Duke said. "We're trying to make things better for everybody."

But Gordon Iseminger, a longtime member of the history faculty and a Chester Fritz distinguished professor, said that the forced move seems unjust and feels like punishment.

"I can't believe, on a campus this size and with all the planners, there isn't another way of doing this without moving the history department," he said.

"I've been very distraught over this. Now I'm angry."

Kimberly Porter, who chairs the history department, said that she is "not particularly happy about" the prospective move. Feelings vary among the department's other seven faculty members, she said.

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"There's something sentimental and iconic about Merrifield and history," she said. "We could lose some of the sense of what history is, and I worry that could have an effect on our enrollment.

"And this is my 13th year, so I know my office," Porter said, "and the idea of moving is disconcerting. There's a nice western view, and my plants like it.

"But we're part of a large institution, and in a large institution fingers sometimes get pinched. I much would prefer to remain in Merrifield, but I think the prospects for that are becoming dimmer."

Adjacency

Iseminger has had an office in Merrifield Hall for 45 years. But it's not simply the inconvenience of moving that bothers him, he said.

"The key words (from administrators) have been 'synergy' and 'adjacency,' " Iseminger said, scowling as he spoke the -- to his mind -- bureaucratic words.

"But there is already a 'synergy and adjacency' here, in what history has with English, languages, religion and philosophy," he said. "We are going to be poorer if we and our students no longer have that easy contact with faculty and students in the other humanities."

Greg Weisenstein, UND provost and vice president for academics, said that he understands Iseminger's concerns but isn't persuaded by them.

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"We need to take into consideration how that faculty might be inconvenienced," he said. "They've been in their offices for quite some time. But we had a history department before we had Merrifield Hall, so they moved at some time.

"And we have very good communications systems on campus -- telephone, e-mail and fax," he said, so it's not as though history would lose all ties with colleagues in philosophy, languages and the other fields.

"I recognize it's easier and more effective to have immediate physical contact with the other disciplines, so I understand the hesitancy to move," Weisenstein said. "But this whole reorganization has been thought out pretty carefully."

La Duke, who also is a professor in the biology department, said that history faculty and students may "develop new synergies with geography" and other disciplines that will be history's new neighbors in O'Kelly Hall.

History matters

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.

"History is one of the university's most productive and stable departments," he said, "and it has only brought credit to the university while there has been turmoil and dissension in many other departments.

"But they needed 10 offices, and we have 10 offices."

Reach Haga at (701) 780-1102; (800) 477-6572, ext. 102; or send e-mail to chaga@gfherald.com .

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