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Campus clock strikes students as off

November 6, 2008

The University clock in the campus mall has raised questions after a student noticed that it uses IIII instead of the traditional Roman numeral IV.

“It’s one of those things that you don’t notice, but once you do, you notice it everywhere,” Mary Halada, former vice chancellor of administration and finance, said.

At the beginning of the 2008 fall semester a student contacted Halada to ask why the clock has a IIII instead of a IV.  Halada said that the student thought it was inappropriate for an academic institution to have a clock with incorrect Roman numerals.

The idea for the clock, which cost $23,740, was suggested by former chancellor Don Betz in 2006. 

“The clock itself has provided a welcome focal point on the campus mall and is an easily identifiable location for people to meet,” Betz said in an e-mail interview. “Visitors often commented to me positively on its design and placement.”

Betz said that he had not observed the anomaly on the clock, but that it poses an interesting question.

“Someone is very perceptive,” Betz said. “It can serve as a great question for visitors and new students.”

Freshman John Erickson, 19, also said he did not notice the IIII.  When it was pointed out Erickson said he thought it was erroneous and unsophisticated. “It shows a bad example for the school,” he said.

Junior Michelle Lappen said she felt the same way. “I have never noticed it, but I feel like it makes us look stupid because we don’t know how to use Roman numerals.”

Sabrina Foss, an English Education major, said she was not aware of the IIII even though she uses the clock every day because she does not wear a watch.

“Although I don’t have a problem with the representation of the four, I do think it reflects poorly on the manufacturer, and possibly the campus because even though it was intentional, it looks like a mistake that no one caught.”

The IIII did not phase Alan Tuchtenhagen, associate vice chancellor for enrollment, who said he has no opinion on it. “I love the clock…regardless,” Tuchtenhagen said.

The IIII on the UWRF clock, however, is not out of the ordinary. Other universities and college campuses have clocks with the same IIII.

Tom Weiss, the director of procurement services, said that the IIII seems to be a common practice. “I even looked specifically at a street clock when I was in La Crosse about two weeks ago and it had the IIII,” Weiss said in an e-mail.

This fall Halada and her husband took a trip to the Black Hills and stopped at several college campuses and community squares along the way. Halada said that every clock that they saw had the IIII.

To be clear, the company who installed the clock, Verdin Clock Company, did not make a mistake. Since 1842, the family-run business has been creating clocks, according to the Verdin Clock Company Web site.

The problem with answering the question is that the real reason for the IIII is a mystery.

A common answer circulating the Internet is that the IIII is for aesthetic reasons balances the VIII on the opposite side.

Halada’s favorite explanation goes back to 1364 when Charles V scolded a watchmaker for writing IV on a tower clock. The watchmaker protested, but the King replied, “I am never wrong,” according to the book Famous Watch Houses by Elen Introna and Gabriele Ribolini.

“That one is my favorite,” Halada said with a laugh. “It sounds like something a king would do in those times.”

Halada said she welcomed the question from the student because higher education is about gaining knowledge.

“We all learn something new,” Halada said. “[It] is why we are all here.”