President Webster Merrifield bestowed upon the University of North Dakota a legacy of academic excellence and leadership. Before arriving, Merrifield was a Greek and Latin tutor at Yale University, his alma mater. He served on UND’s first faculty along with President William Blackburn and Vice President Henry Montgomery. Merrifield taught Greek and Latin, as well as Literature and Political Science. He was Secretary of the Faculty, the first University Librarian, and the force, along with Montgomery, behind adopting a liberal arts curriculum rather than offering a more practical education.
After President Blackburn was dismissed in 1885, the University asked Merrifield to assume the presidency, but he declined. Instead, Montgomery became acting president for two years, and Merrifield recruited UND's second president, Homer Sprague, who for four years wrought his own changes and ideas. Upon Sprague's resignation, Merrifield was appointed UND's third president, a position he would keep until 1909.
President Merrifield faced challenges as had his predecessors. Statehood in 1889 conveyed its own political problems, and a troubled and depressed agricultural economy added to his concerns, along with competition from other state colleges. In spite of these difficulties, Merrifield survived the 1890s and attendant budget crises, including a potential threat to close the University, and moved UND forward into a new century.
Merrifield’s presidency was an era of reorganization and expansion. He established new programs and colleges, the essence of a true university. The School of Mines opened in 1897, and two years later the Law School opened, UND’s first professional school. 1901 witnessed the creation of the College of Mining Engineering, the College of Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, the College of Liberal Arts, and the Normal College (Teachers College). In 1905, a two-year School of Medicine was established, and in 1906, Merrifield and Edward P. Robertson, president of Wesley College, a private Methodist college, signed an affiliation agreement that allowed students to take 30 hours from either institution toward a degree. During this period, Merrifield also devoted his energies toward improving North Dakota’s secondary school system.
Under Merrifield’s guidance, the UND campus expanded significantly. Two men's dormitories were constructed, the Cottage in 1893 (renamed Macnie Hall in 1908) and Budge Hall in 1899. Several other buildings were erected: the Power House in 1899, later named Chandler Hall, Science Hall in 1902, the President’s House in 1903, Babcock Hall and the Armory and Gymnasium in 1907, the Library in 1908 and Sayre Hall, Wesley College's first building in 1908.
In reflecting upon Merrifield’s leadership, Melvin A. Brannon, Dean of the Medical School stated: “His great cathedral monument is the University of North Dakota.” In his honor, Merrifield Hall, which houses the Departments of History, English, Languages, and Religion/Philosophy, was named after him in 1930, and the Merrifield Competition was created in 1992. Both reflect Webster Merrifield’s devotion to high academic standards and a quality education.