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Donald Poochigian, UND 'crusader' in liberal arts' name, dies

University of North Dakota philosophy professor Donald Poochigian discussed his decision to apply for two UND incentive programs in early 2017 - both a phased retirement and a tenured faculty voluntary separation. Poochigian said he wanted to stay at UND as long as he was able, but changed his mind because of changes in the university’s approach to his department. (Eric Hylden / Forum News Service)

Donald Poochigian, University of North Dakota philosophy professor and an outspoken champion of the liberal arts, died overnight on Thursday, Dec. 28, according to an announcement by his son. He was 74.

Poochigian was described by those close to him as an intensely smart and sometimes demanding classroom figure who was, by turn, a big-hearted advocate for his students' education. Colleagues say he would always make time for pupils, reading drafts of their papers and fostering their success. And come what may from university leaders, he was a fierce advocate of the importance of a liberal arts education.

"I would bet if you asked anybody on campus—Don was an advocate to the point of being a crusader," said Thomas Petros, a UND psychology professor and long-time friend.

His death was announced on Facebook by his son, Aaron, who penned a short poem for the occasion. Its opening lines sketched his ever-probing mind: "Last month my dad the Sage, the Brain, the Wiz / waxed geometric, just between us guys: / 'What is a point? A locus without size. / No length, no width, no depth, but there it is.' "

Poochigian's thoughts appeared regularly in the Herald, where he would either write columns or find himself quoted on UND. He was often concerned that the university was turning away from the liberal arts and toward a more vocational, technical track for its students.

"None of that namby-pamby liberal artsy-fartsy stuff for us! Contrary to Socrates, the uninvestigated life is worth living, certainly so concerning economic development, where an investigated life is but a luxury good," he scoffed in a 2012 column. "Thus it is the higher education 'stakeholders' who, viewing higher education as sucking blood money from the body politic, are poised to drive a stake through the heart of liberal education."

Poochigian, born in 1943, attended Fresno State College and Claremont Graduate School, both in California, earning his Ph.D. in 1971. He joined UND as an associate professor shortly after and taught until earlier this year, when he was among a cohort of professors who sought voluntary separation and phased retirement options to leave UND ahead of budget cuts.

"I had literally planned on continuing doing teaching and doing research, because I love it," he said at the time. "Now I'm walking away."

Poochigian was remembered around the university as not only passionate for causes—from students to faculty to the liberal arts—but as a man with personality.

"He was so witty and sarcastic—but there was a such a depth to him," said Curtis Stofferahn, a UND professor emeritus of sociology. "He had such wisdom and erudition. He was constantly a challenge ... Sometimes he'd look at you with utter perplexity if he thought you weren't keeping up with him."

UND administration officials lamented his passing as well, including spokesman Peter Johnson and Mark Kennedy, the university's president.

"All of us at UND are saddened by the passing of Don Poochigian who devoted a half century of distinguished service to the university," Kennedy said in a statement. "Professor Poochigian was passionate about how the study of liberal arts contributes to the university's goal of sparking curiosity and fostering critical thinking among all our students."

Poochigian's family was unable to be reached for comment, but his son's poem—read widely on social media—spoke intimately to his father's character.

"But what about that point, / that place released from need, decay and prayer?" the poem closed. "No length, no width, no depth, but it is there."

Sam Easter

Sam Easter is a City Government reporter for the Grand Forks Herald. You can reach him with story tips, comments and ideas at 701-330-3441.

(701) 780-1108
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