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Former UND President Tom Clifford remains revered decades after his presidency, death

Former UND President Tom Clifford is pictured in this 1982 photo. Photo provided by UND Archives1 / 2
Former UND President Tom Clifford is pictured with Ralph Engelstad, center, and former Gov. Ed Schafer in 1998. Photo provided by UND Archives2 / 2

More than 10 years after his death and nearly three decades after he left office, Tom Clifford remains possibly the most revered president in the history of the University of North Dakota.

Clifford served as UND president for 21 years, from 1971 to 1992. He was beloved by people across North Dakota and, as the search begins for a new president at UND, Clifford’s name surfaces often in conversations throughout the community.

Many long for a president in Clifford’s image as the State Board of Higher Education prepares to replace outgoing President Mark Kennedy. Earlier this month, Kennedy was appointed the next president of the University of Colorado system. He will leave UND on June 15, three years after he arrived.

Kris Engelstad McGarry, whose family has donated millions of dollars to UND, lamented last year that the family’s “last really great relationship (with a UND president) was with Clifford.”

This week, a handful of people weighed in on whether it’s possible for the board to find a candidate who can emulate Clifford's style and influence.

Rep. Bob Martinson, R-Bismarck, has served in the North Dakota Legislature for decades, including while Clifford was president at UND.

Martinson described Clifford as a “genuine people person” who cared about his students and staff. He said Clifford was one of the best presidents legislators have ever worked with.

“There was no arrogance," Martinson said. "There was no ‘I’m the dean of the business school,’ and no ‘I’m the president.’ It was just ‘I’m Tom Clifford.’”

Peter Johnson, chief liaison officer at the university and former UND spokesman, worked with five of the 12 full-time UND presidents. Johnson, who also worked with interim president Ed Schafer, said Clifford’s strength was engaging with people as individuals. Johnson recalled that Clifford knew people’s names and the names of their families.

Clifford bailed students out of jail and would even find ways to help students financially if he could.

“He’s the higher education legend from North Dakota,” Johnson said.

Clifford made his way through UND at a relatively young age. He graduated from UND in 1942 and later received a degree from the law school in 1948.

He became a professor and was named dean of the College of Commerce at age 29. He became vice president for finance in 1959 and, in 1971, he was named president.

“He knew the university inside and out from an early age,” said Diane Odegard, widow of the late John Odegard, who worked with Clifford to build what is now the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

McGarry, head of the Engelstad Foundation, this week said Clifford was “from the area, known by everyone and very approachable.”

“(Clifford) was the main reason that my father, Ralph, decided to gift to UND,” she said.

Bruce Smith, former aerospace dean, said the single most important factor in Clifford’s success at UND was him being from North Dakota and UND.

“He understood the people and the culture of North Dakota. He was dedicated to the state and the university. He loved UND,” Smith said. “Every decision he made was tempered by what was the best decision for the state and the university, not what was the best decision for him or for promoting his career. He wasn’t trying to build a resume so he could go somewhere else.”

Clifford also had an ability to make people feel comfortable, Smith said. He was approachable and listened to individuals, no matter their status.

“He was as comfortable with the potato farmers in the back room of the Bronze Boot as he was in a tux addressing the dignitaries visiting UND,” he said.

Schafer, the former governor who came to UND as interim president in 2016, remembered Clifford as a man who was always about the students. That is something that has stuck with so many who were on UND’s campus during Clifford’s 21 years at the helm.

“I think that’s why he’s so beloved now is all of us who were students then thought he was terrific, the best president we ever had,” he said.

Clifford retired on June 30, 1992.

Not always easy

Although Clifford is remembered as one of the greatest university presidents in the state’s history, it didn’t come easily. One of Clifford’s biggest hurdles came early in his presidency as UND was attempting to start its aviation program.

“Without Tom, we probably wouldn’t have UND Aerospace,” Diane Odegard said.

There were faculty members who did not want UND to have an aviation program, a sentiment that stuck around into the early 1980s, Odegard said. But Clifford was always there to support John Odegard and help his dream become a reality.

Through his work as a CPA, Clifford even helped secure the university’s first two airplanes from Montana, Johnson said.

Whether it was dealing with the Legislature or a tough faculty question, Clifford was able to put everyone at ease when times were incredibly stressful, Diane Odegard said. Smith concurred.

“He had great wit,” he said. “He could defuse a tense situation with humor, yet at the same time come away with an outcome that would be in his favor.”

Johnson said Clifford had to deal with his own economic difficulties while he was president, as funding for higher education was being cut as expenditures were going up.

Clifford started with a $24 million budget at UND; by the end of his tenure, the budget soared to $170 million.

Clifford helped bring the medical school from a two-year program to a four-year program, which wasn’t a popular idea at the time due to the cost. Johnson said it remains one of Clifford’s greatest achievements.

Fair to compare?

McGarry says the presidents who came after Clifford had different career outlooks and were not as committed to the area.

“The three presidents following (Clifford) have been career academics or politicians building a resume and on the lookout for their next job,” she said. “They didn’t care how their decisions and policies affected the area because they wouldn’t be there in four years' time.”

While many in the community like to draw comparisons between recent presidents and Clifford, Johnson said it’s not fair to do so.

He noted there are many distinct differences from life as a university president in the 1970s. The media atmosphere has changed, and that means the university and the president communicate differently. Additionally, the way people view a higher education degree has changed.

University presidents also do not stay as long today as they did when Clifford was president. National statistics show that a university president serves for about five or six years on average. But back in Clifford’s day, it was common for presidents to serve more than 10 or 15 years.

Was Clifford really as great as his lore and legend?

Johnson said the legend has “tremendous factual basis.” And it’s just human nature to reminisce and compare.

“I think as a species we love to compare. We love to compare former presidents in the United States and people forget those were different times,” he said.

Schafer said Clifford “was a North Dakotan true and true” and also remembers that Clifford eschewed “the pomp and circumstances” of the position.

“He was a man of the people. All of that fits the North Dakota psyche,” he said. “Myself and others, that’s the kind of culture you want to bring into the university.”