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Published August 20 2012

Forum editorial: They get it wrong sometimes

Monday’s Page 1 story about the history of North Dakota State University confirms the notion that leaders of the day sometimes get it wrong. Reporter Ryan Johnson’s “Cultivating NDSU” was a reminder that not all community officials or newspaper editors are visionaries – and certainly the leaders of Fargo in 1890 were anything but.

Fargo was a new city back then. North Dakota was a new state. The state was parceling out goodies to cities in the form of state institutions. Fargo was in the mix, as were Jamestown, Bismarck and other up-and-coming towns. Among the plums: a state prison for Bismarck; a state hospital for Jamestown. And for Fargo? Despite the reluctance of the city’s fathers (and it was fathers at that time), Fargo got the North Dakota Agricultural College, the land-grant school that later would become North Dakota State University.

The award was not greeted with universal acclaim. Writing in the Fargo Daily Argus, Editor Maj. Alonzo Edward was blistering in his sarcasm:

“The Board of Trustees of the North Dakota Agricultural College – whatever that is – met yesterday and elected a faculty – whatever that is.”

Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the beginnings of higher education in Fargo. For his part, Edwards and others wanted the state pen or the state hospital, using the logic there would always be prisoners and mentally ill patients. They were positively disdainful of a small college on the far north edge of town that would be devoted to the study of farming.

During those early years, Fargo harbored visions of itself as another Minneapolis or even Chicago. While agriculture was important to the region’s economic foundation, the leaders wanted to develop an urban economy.

Ironically, in the decades since, Fargo has become an urban center, and agriculture has evolved into one of the most important elements in the city’s economic success. NDSU has become one of the best universities in the nation. Its agriculture component has done – and continues to do – world-class research and development for farming and agribusiness.

They had it wrong in 1890, just as some visionless critics of new ideas get it wrong today. Consider the opposition a few years ago to the Fargodome, or the current dustup over the Fargo diversion flood protection project, or the criticism over building new schools in the city’s south and west growth neighborhoods, or the risk a private developer and the city took when West Acres was built in what was called “no man’s land.”

Seeing the future is tough. Real leaders take risks and usually win. The AC example was a rare misstep that turned out OK only because Fargo got the college when Jamestown got the state hospital. Is there anyone in the state today who does not see Fargo as the winner?

Forum editorials represent the opinion of Forum management and the newspaper’s Editorial Board.

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