Consolation College

consolation college

Essay by David Danbom

From the get-go, it just wasn't a marriage made in heaven. The relationship between NDSU and the city of Fargo, that is.

For Fargo, the agricultural college was a consolation prize awarded by the constitutional convention when it parceled out the state institutions in 1889. As Samuel Roberts, one of Fargo's delegates to the convention remembered it; the city wanted "something big," such as the penitentiary or the insane asylum. But when the time came to pass out the plums, Bismarck got the prison and Jamestown got the asylum. Poor Fargo had to console itself with the college.

Getting the agricultural college was better than nothing, but there were at least three problems with it. One was that the city already had Fargo College, founded by the Congregationalists in 1887 in what turned out to be a hopeless effort to turn Norwegians into Yankees. The second was that, while everybody agreed that the new state would generate numerous criminals and lunatics, agricultural students were rather hypothetical. And the final problem was that, as the dominant city in the state, cosmopolitan Fargo viewed an ag school as distinctly downscale. Wouldn't it attract hicks to town, and give the city a yokelish flavor? Damn that Jamestown for grabbing the insane asylum!

The fledgling ag school wasn't too crazy about this arrangement, either. For one thing, it was stuck way out on the eastern edge of the state, in a region whose climate and soil type were different from what prevailed over most of North Dakota. Then there was the problem that, whether Fargo liked it or not, the college was associated with the city in the minds of many North Dakotans. That was a problem in a state in which folks made the sign of the cross when they heard the word "Fargo," and considered "Imperial Cass" to be one word. The answer for the AC was to locate itself out in the countryside, a good mile north of Fargo. It didn't help much in any practical way, but it symbolized the desire to maintain distance.

And so these two proceeded through the years, partners matched by economic interest and political compromise, but certainly not by love. The NDAC strove to maintain its little community, separate spiritually from Fargo even after the city's growth engulfed it. The job of the AC was to serve the farmers of the state and to educate their sons and daughters in agriculture, engineering and home economics. Too close association with Fargo would only complicate that mission.

For its part, Fargo usually ignored the NDAC except at homecoming, which gave merchants an excuse for a sale, or when there was a big controversy, as in 1937 when Governor Bill Langer tried to purge the school. Nobody downtown thought about doing much for the NDAC or even recognizing it, really, and when somebody did he didn't get very far. During the 1930s, for example, someone on the City Commission suggested changing the name of 12th Avenue North to "Bison Boulevard," but was shouted down by angry UND alums in the neighborhood. Small wonder the Fargo delegation to the legislature held the NDAC in low regard, usually ranking its funding somewhere between raising the gopher bounty and designating a state beverage on the priority list.

But a funny thing happened to these two reluctant partners. Like spouses in a loveless marriage sometimes do, they began to substitute mutual respect and regard for affection. They didn't fall in love, exactly, but they became accustomed to one another, and each came to depend on the other.

As the NDAC broadened beyond its agricultural base, eventually becoming a diverse, full-service university, its relationship to the city changed. It became more attractive to students from Fargo and other regional cities. In part for that reason, its student body became less insular and less suspicious of the city in which it was located. A growing, increasingly diverse, and better-educated faculty and staff appreciated what Fargo had to offer, economically, socially and culturally. And the urban amenities of the city in turn served as a recruiting tool for new faculty and staff.

Fargo began to see more value in the university as well. NDSU was a major employer -- the second largest in the city by the end of the twentieth century -- but its economic impact was not confined to staff paychecks and student consumption. The university turned out well-educated, hard-working graduates, many of whom wanted to stay in town. Fargo economic development authorities began to use NDSU to market the city to employers looking for pools of educated -- and relatively underpaid -- labor. Then, too, the university was home to a faculty with expertise -- sometimes world-class expertise -- in such areas of crucial importance to the modern economy as computer science, electrical engineering, biotechnology, polymers and coatings, nanoscience and many more. Suddenly the vision of a Silicon Valley with block heaters began dancing in economic development officials' heads, and NDSU was at the center of that vision.

Fargoans also began to see that the university could enrich their lives as well as their wallets. They recognized the contribution NDSU faculty and staff offered to the athletic scene, to the fine arts, and to the intellectual tone of the city. They came to appreciate the value of the recreational and entertainment diversions offered on campus. They came also to value the expertise that NDSU offered to government agencies, city boards and commissions. Universities make life better and richer for their communities. If you doubt it, just ask someone from a city lacking one.

Almost without recognizing it, and certainly without acknowledging it, Fargo and NDSU had evolved from a distant -- sometimes adversarial -- relationship, to a symbiotic one. They needed one another, fed off one another's energy, and prospered and grew together. They even got involved in cooperative endeavors such as the Fargodome and Newman Outdoor Field. It remained for President Joseph Chapman to proclaim NDSU a "metropolitan land-grand university." What had been a contradiction in terms in 1900 had become a reality a century later.

Thus the opening of NDSU Downtown, made possible through the generosity of Doug Burgum, one of the university's many great alums, is as important symbolically as it is educationally. In 1890, the NDAC sought to distance itself from the city. In 2004, NDSU embraces it. Could the city fathers who had wanted a penitentiary or asylum or the early professors who wished to be somewhere -- anywhere -- else have imagined it? I don't think so, but it just goes to show you how funny marriage is. Sometimes the most unpromising unions turn out to be beautiful relationships.

Photos provided by NDSU Archives