|Remembering President Emeritus Thomas J. Clifford|
Thomas John Clifford served as the eighth president of the University of North Dakota, from 1971 to 1992. He shared with John C. West (1933-1954) the distinction of having the longest term as president, 21 years.
His connection to the University was far longer, spanning nearly seven decades. Long after retiring as president, Clifford continued to be active in development and fundraising work, particularly with the UND Aerospace Foundation. He also played a key role working with Ralph Engelstad to build the magnificent Ralph Engelstad Arena, the nation's best collegiate hockey rink.
Clifford was the first North Dakota native and the second graduate to serve as the University’s president.
He was born March 16, 1921, to Thomas and Elizabeth Clifford of Langdon. He enrolled at the University of North Dakota in 1938 and graduated in 1942 with a Bachelor of Science in Commerce (B.S.C.).
Clifford enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps as a private, was selected for Officer Training School, and saw action in the Solomon Islands, Saipan, Tinian, and Iwo Jima. Rising to the rank of major, he was wounded three times and decorated with the Bronze Star, Silver Star, and Purple Heart.
Following the war, Clifford was considering attending law school in Michigan when UND Accounting Professor Robin Koppenhaver asked him to fill in “temporarily” for an ill faculty member. Koppenhaver then recommended that he stay on and earn his law degree at UND. Encouragement from President John West (1933 to 1954) reinforced Clifford’s decision to pursue a career in academics instead of corporate law.
From 1946 to 1949, Clifford also served as counselor to men when many war veterans were returning to UND or beginning their college studies. Some “by-the-books” faculty and administrators were discomfited occasionally by Clifford’s willingness to bend the rules for students when he saw potential and felt the circumstances warranted it.
Clifford received his J.D. degree from the UND School of Law in 1948. The following year, he was promoted to professor of accounting and business law. In 1950, he was named dean of the College of Commerce (now the College of Business and Public Administration). At the age of 29, he was the youngest dean in the history of the University.
In 1957, Clifford received a Master of Business Administration degree from Stanford University. He then was a fellow in Stanford’s Executive Management Program. In 1959, he was named UND’s vice president for finance, in addition to his duties as a dean and professor.
Through the years, Clifford had established a wide reputation in business, professional and civic circles. One result was that both Gov. William Guy and a “Draft Clifford” group made repeated efforts in 1961 to persuade him to accept an appointment as head of the North Dakota Economic Development Commission. Clifford declined, asserting that he could best serve the state from the University.
On and off campus, students, faculty and staff, alumni and citizens came to appreciate the “Clifford style.” Intelligence and professional skill were matched with energy and vigor, quick insight, an affable but no-nonsense approach, informality and good humor, and a genuine concern for people and their situations.
He was known for calm and communication in the face of difficult situations. That quality was notably put to the test during a large demonstration at UND that followed the Kent State University killings in May 1970. Clifford helped defuse an angry crowd that had gathered in front of UND’s ROTC building.
His skill and judgment in dealing with high-pressure situations even extended to athletics. Until he became president, Clifford was the chief timer for basketball games. On many occasions (including UND-NDSU games), he had to make the call on whether a last-second shot was good or not.
On July 1, 1971, Clifford assumed duties as UND’s eighth president. Enrollment was 8,600, faculty numbered 600, and the campus was valued at $65 million. His starting salary was $30,500.
The Clifford administration was one of significant transition for the University of North Dakota. Under his leadership, the University evolved to become the largest and most comprehensive institution in a five-state area, with a national and international reputation in numerous fields.
One of the most visible examples of this evolution is the John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. Despite political obstacles and scarce resources, Clifford vigorously championed Odegard’s vision for an aviation program. From meager beginnings, the School of Aerospace Sciences grew to become a world leader in training, education and research.
Perhaps the greatest achievement for Clifford was the establishment of the M.D. program for the University’s School of Medicine and Health Sciences. When it became clear that UND’s two-year transfer curriculum would no longer be viable, he worked with Medical School officials to develop an innovative community-based M.D. program that avoided the need for an expensive teaching hospital and would help North Dakota “grow its own” physicians. The School of Medicine and Health Sciences is now regarded as a national leader in rural medicine, and its scientists and researchers have earned international reputations in a wide range of health fields.
Clifford listed the recruitment and retention of a national-calibre teaching and research faculty as one of his most significant achievements. Considerable progress was made in improving faculty salaries, and accreditation was achieved for all of the University’s professional programs.
Under Clifford’s direction, the University acquired an entrepreneurial reputation for developing productive relationships with business and industry. Prominent among these is the Energy & Environmental Research Center. Previously a federal laboratory, the Center now has a worldwide portfolio of government and corporate clients. Another pioneering effort was the establishment of a Center for Innovation and Business Development (now the Center for Innovation), specifically charged with helping “inventors, entrepreneurs and small manufacturers develop new products, start businesses, and create jobs and wealth for the state.”
Enrollment grew significantly during the Clifford administration, peaking at 12,321 in 1989. Following the national turbulence of the late 1960s and early 1970s, students returned to more traditional interests. Clifford emphasized maintaining open lines of communication, and UND became one of the first universities in the United States to include students as full-fledged members of its governing senate.
A number of initiatives were directed at serving the needs of American Indians, both on campus and in the region. A director of American Indian programs was named in 1971, and the Legislature authorized the creation of the Department of Indian Studies in 1977.
The increases in the number of women students were significant, especially in the Graduate School and the Schools of Law and Medicine. Clifford was a strong advocate for women’s sports. The University’s athletic programs achieved extensive success, including numerous conference championships and three national championships in men’s ice hockey (1980, 1982, 1987).
Cultural life on campus and for the community was greatly enriched with the opening of the Chester Fritz Auditorium in 1972. In 1989, the North Dakota Museum of Art moved into its new home, the renovated “Women’s Gym” building. During the Clifford years, the annual Writers Conference grew to become one of the region’s premier cultural events.
A total of 52 new buildings were added to the campus during Clifford’s presidency. Notable among these were the additions to the Chester Fritz Library and the Hyslop Sports Center, Starcher Hall, the Nursing Building, most buildings of the Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences complex, and UND’s first heated hockey facility. His close personal relationship with Las Vegas entrepreneur and UND graduate Ralph Engelstad was crucial in making possible the largest-ever gift to the University, the magnificent Engelstad Arena (opened in 2001).
The Clifford administration saw the University’s annual operating budget grow from $24 million to more than $174 million. Research contracts and grants grew from under $500,000 per year to about $40 million.
In 1992, the State Board of Higher Education directed that the newly completed Earth systems science building be named in honor of Thomas J. Clifford. The citation stressed the continuing vision and entrepreneurship demonstrated by Clifford throughout his UND career. His talent for maximizing resources -- human and financial -- was recognized in 1986 when researchers at Bowling Green University identified him as one of the 100 most effective college presidents in the United States.
Throughout his UND career, Clifford remained very active in professional and civic activities. Among the numerous honors presented to him was an honorary doctoral degree from Jamestown College. An outstanding handball player, he was one of nine charter members of the North Dakota Handball Association Hall of Fame.
Clifford was often described as “the great communicator” in recognition of his tireless advocacy for UND and higher education in North Dakota. To help restore public support for a system buffeted by hard economic conditions, the State Board of Higher Education called upon him to “moonlight” for a year by also serving as interim chancellor of the North Dakota University System from 1990 to 1991.
Clifford retired on June 30, 1992. The State Board of Higher Education conferred upon him the title of President Emeritus. In retirement, he continued to work in development and fundraising for the University, particularly for the UND Aerospace Foundation. He also was active as a leader in the Greater Grand Forks community’s efforts to rebuild after the historic 1997 flood.
In May 2000, the University conferred upon Clifford an honorary Doctor of Laws degree during spring commencement exercises. He was presented North Dakota’s highest honor, the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award, in November 2002.
Thomas Clifford was married to Florence Schmidt of Anamoose, N.D., in January 1943. Their two sons, Thomas J. Clifford Jr. and Stephen M. Clifford, both earned degrees at UND. Florence Clifford passed away on December 5, 1984.
He married Gayle Kielty Kenville in May 1986. The Kielty family was prominent in Grand Forks civic and business affairs. Gayle is a graduate of UND as are her two children, Kim and Tom.