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The Rise of Regional Studies

When in 1950 Dean Ernst Giesecke proposed an Institute for Regional Studies at North Dakota Agricultural College, not many people had a clear idea what he was talking about. President Hultz went along, though, and on 8 March 1950, the state board concurred, establishing the institute as a program of the School of Applied Arts & Sciences.

As I have explained, in bringing the regional project to North Dakota, Dean Giesecke was inspired by developments in Texas and Oklahoma. There authors and scholars such as J. Frank Dobie, Walter Prescott Webb, and Walter Campbell (who wrote under the pen name Stanley Vestal), and literary institutions such as the Southwest Review and the University of Oklahoma Press, labored to garner respect for the Great Plains as a distinctive region in American life.

The regional spirit percolated north slowly, with literary efflorescences emerging in Montana and in western Minnesota during the 1970s. Then in 1976, the year of the American Bicentennial, the University of Nebraska founded its Center for Great Plains Studies, which still flourishes. By that time, however, the Institute for Regional Studies at NDAC, later NDSU, already had been in operation for a quarter-century. It is the oldest regional studies center on the Great Plains of North America.

The truth is, Dean Giesecke, arriving in Fargo in 1949, took stock of the school he was to lead, and he decided he had to do something bold. Across the American West, state universities, including the land-grant universities, were expanding, their enrollments surging with the GI Bill, their research programs booming with government contracts on account of the Cold War. Except on the northern plains, where cautious politicians and administrators declined to buy into the rise of the research university. Montana State, South Dakota State, and North Dakota State, although they did grow, came to be referred to as “the baby land-grants” — not quite grown-up.

Particularly stunted within the baby land-grants were programs in the liberal arts and the basic sciences (as opposed to applied studies such as engineering). Dean Giesecke’s School of Applied Arts & Sciences was considered a service unit, expected to offer basic coursework and not aspire to academic status. His faculty was demoralized.

From across departments, however, Giesecke pulled together a cohort of six activists: H. Dean Stallings, the librarian; W. C. “Lum” Hunter, a historian; O. A. Stevens, a botanist; Kenneth Kuhn, a literary scholar; E. A. Helgeson, another botanist; and Rudolf Otterson, another historian.

None of these fellows — and they were all men — was a distinguished research scholar, or ever had been expected to be one. But when Giesecke called on them to elevate their game, to make the people of North Dakota proud and earn some respect for their school, they responded. They were the Bad News Bears of the northern plains.

Take the botanist, Stevens, for instance. For decades he had combed North Dakota cataloging plant species, his wife doing the driving because he could not be trusted behind the wheel when he was looking for plants. His collections were voluminous, and he also was the state’s popular authority on birds. He had no reputation as a research scholar. The first book published by the institute, however — and it became a regional classic — was Handbook of North Dakota Plants, by O. A. Stevens. In the pipeline today is a republication of Stevens’s work by the twenty-first century publishing imprint of the institute, North Dakota State University Press.

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