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George Dohrmann
October 08, 2001
A bullying North Dakota alumnus built the school a $100 million rink but tore its campus asunder
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October 08, 2001

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A bullying North Dakota alumnus built the school a $100 million rink but tore its campus asunder

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According to a source close to the university administration, Engelstad let key school officials and boosters know that he wanted Wanless and Baker ousted. Word spread around Grand Forks that before he would give the school more money, Engelstad not only wanted Baker and Wanless removed but also wanted guarantees that the Indian-head logo would be reinstated for hockey and the Fighting Sioux nickname retained.

Engelstad got everything he sought. In August 1998, Wanless announced he would resign at the end of the upcoming school year. Less than three weeks later Baker did the same. In December '98, Engelstad announced his $100 million gift, one of the 10 largest donations ever made by an individual to a U.S. university; $50 million was earmarked for the hockey arena and $50 million for unspecified other uses.

That Engelstad's announcement followed the departures of Baker and Wanless "is merely a coincidence," says Strinden, but others can't help but link the events. "The evidence was compelling," says Jim Antes, a psychology professor and former member of the school's athletic committee. "Nothing surprises me anymore about how the university is influenced by this man."

Shortly after helping announce Engelstad's $100 million donation, Strinden commissioned a Native American artist to design a new logo for the hockey team and for the new arena. On behalf of the alumni association, Strinden presented it to the university as a gift. New school president Charles Kupchella accepted and unveiled the logo—which resembles the original Indian-head image—in November 1999. Many Native Americans in the state, as well as students and faculty, were enraged. "I don't think [Kupchella] understood how sensitive an issue this was," says Ganje.

The reaction led Kupchella to temporarily shelve the new logo and form a committee to study the issue. Nine tribes from North and South Dakota had previously urged the university to stop using the Fighting Sioux nickname and symbol, and after Kupchella heard the committee's report last November, he seemed to be leaning toward doing just that. In a Dec. 16 e-mail to William Isaacson, chairman of the state board of higher education, Kupchella wrote: "I see no choice but to respect the request of the Sioux tribes...to do otherwise would be to put the university and its president in an untenable position."

Last Dec. 20, however, Engelstad weighed in. In a letter to Kupchella, with copies to members of the state board, he threatened to stop construction of the arena (on which he said he had already spent $35 million) and let the structure rot if Kupchella didn't approve the logo and endorse the nickname. The next day the board took the decision out of Kupchella's hands and voted to keep the name and adopt the new logo. John Korsmo, a board member at that time, says his group felt compelled to save Kupchella from "a no-win situation."

Engelstad completed the arena but has yet to actually hand it over to the university. One of his companies, Ralph Engelstad Arena, Inc., owns and operates the facility, which it leases to the school for one dollar a year. (There is a one-year renewable lease.) Engelstad in turn paid one dollar to lease the land from the university for 30 years. Strinden and others say Engelstad has pledged to give the arena to the school "after two years or so," but opponents worry that Engelstad will hold on to the facility as leverage against his alma mater. Because the arena ended up costing twice the original estimate, not a penny of Engelstad's $100 million pledge will be left for academic or other purposes. Faculty members accuse Engelstad of intentionally overspending to punish them for their opposition to the Fighting Sioux nickname and logo. They point to the arena's many extravagances, including the 400-foot hedge that spells out FIGHTING SIOUX for planes flying overhead, the 10,000-square-foot weight room and the electronically controlled vents in each player's locker. "How much was spent on spite?" asks Ganje. "How much of what he added is him saying, 'You will get none of my money' ?" Opponents also say that the reason Engelstad plastered the Indian-head logo all over the arena—it appears more than 1,000 times—was to rub his success in their faces.

The biggest beneficiary of the arena, of course, is coach Dean Blais and his hockey program, which has had 35 players drafted by the NHL. Several of those players have toured the arena and told Blais that it is better than any pro facility. Recruits are awed by it. "We've had kids walk in and stand at center ice and commit right there," Blais says. "That was before it was even finished." The arena seats 5,333 more than the old rink, and Blais proudly notes that half the season tickets for 2001-02 have been sold to people outside the Grand Forks area. "More people are getting to enjoy Sioux hockey," he says.

Not coincidentally, Ganje and others scheduled a conference on Native American team names and logos for this week in Grand Forks. The gathering was to end with a protest on the arena's opening night, but even as they prepared to voice their disapproval outside the building that some call Fort Engelstad, they knew that few university officials were likely to listen. Jim McKenzie, an English professor, said last week that a friend in the alumni association had helped him understand the school's stance. "Why can't you people lay low for a while?" the friend asked. "Wait until [Engelstad] dies. Then the name and logo can be changed."

Why must they wait? "No one talks about it openly, but everyone hopes the university can get more from Engelstad, perhaps the biggest donation in history," says McKenzie. "They are talking about a half-billion dollars. The bottom line is, this school won't do anything to jeopardize that."

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