Gold discoveries in the early 1900s brought sudden changes to the Tanana Valley. In 1906 the hill where UAF now stands became part of a federal Agricultural Experiment Station, and in 1915 U.S. Congress approved money and transferred a piece of land from this station to establish a school of higher education. On May 3, 1917, with a stroke of his pen, Alaska Territorial Gov. John Strong signed the bill to create the institution now known as the University of Alaska. With a federal land grant, the institution began as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines with research and teaching in support of agriculture and mining as its focus. The Alaska Territorial Legislature added funding, and in 1922, when construction of the first building was completed, the college opened its doors to students. In the first year, a faculty of six offered 16 classes to a student body of six. Commencement in 1923 consisted of a single graduate.
The institution quickly began to grow. In 1931 the federal government transferred the entire Agricultural Experiment Station to the college. In 1935 the Alaska Territorial Legislature changed the institution's name to the University of Alaska to reflect the school's expanding role in research, teaching and public service for all Alaska. By then, faculty and course offerings had grown to include a range of liberal arts, science and engineering.
World War II brought a rapid influx of population and development to the territory. A wartime national awareness of the need for scientific polar research in the interests of defense and communications led to the establishment in 1946 of the Geophysical Institute. Since its inception, the GI has earned an international reputation for its studies of the earth and the physical environment at high latitudes. The university awarded its first Ph.D. degree to a geophysics student in 1955.
World War II brought many changes to Alaska. Battles were fought on Alaska soil, the Alaska Highway was built, and the activity spawned the first major migration of people into the state since the gold rush. As people moved to Alaska, so did money, ideas and energy.
The Geophysical Institute was established by the U.S. Congress in 1946. GI has since earned an international reputation for its studies of the earth and the physical environment at high latitudes. It also operates the Poker Flat Research Range, the only university-owned rocket range in the world.
In 1947, the first summer session was held at the university, symbolizing its growth into a year-round center for knowledge. Eight years later, the university awarded its first Ph.D. All this at the University of Alaska, when Alaska itself had yet to become a state.
Statehood and Beyond
The University of Alaska had a significant role in the statehood movement of the 1950s, when the Constitutional Convention was held on campus. The Alaska Constitution was drafted in what is now Constitution Hall and signed in stately Signers' Hall, now the home of UAF student service and administrative offices. Alaska became the nation's 49th state in 1959.
Research expanded broadly in the decade of the 1960s with the establishment of institutes in several disciplines. The Alaska Legislature created the Institute of Marine Science in 1960 and the Institute of Arctic Biology two years later. Since 1969 the Geophysical Institute has operated Poker Flat Research Range, providing launch facilities for NASA and the Department of Defense. Poker Flat is the only university-owned rocket range in the world.
In 1970 the university was designated a federal sea grant institution for marine research. Today the College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences has been awarded the first phase of funding for the construction of the R/V Sikuliaq, a 242-foot ice-capable vessel to support research in high latitudes. Stations in Kodiak and Juneau are also actively involved in marine and fisheries research.
In 1972 the Alaska Legislature established the Alaska Native Language Center and provided operating funds. Since then the university has supported research, documentation and teaching of the state's 20 Native languages.
To meet the need for expanding services for all Alaskans, the University of Alaska statewide system was created in 1975. Campuses in Anchorage and Juneau were assigned their own chancellors and central staffs, with the statewide administration and overall university president remaining in Fairbanks.
Meanwhile, the main campus in Fairbanks continued to expand and improve. The University of Alaska Museum of the North, one of the state's most popular visitor attractions, moved into the Otto Geist Building in 1980. The museum's unique collection offers the public a view of the rich and varied culture of the North. A $42 million expansion in 2006 added more than 40,000 square feet of space.
In 1981, UAF enrollment topped 5,000 students for the first time. The university also began to emphasize its shared scholarship and global education efforts in a series of agreements with schools in Japan, Denmark, Canada, People's Republic of China, and Russia. The institution has branched out to include rural campuses in Bethel, Dillingham, McGrath, Kotzebue, Nome and the Interior. Education centers in Fort Yukon, Galena, King Salmon, Nenana, Shishmaref, Togiak, Tok, Unalakleet and Unalaska provide additional education services to rural Alaskans.
UAF's public service role is filled in part by the statewide Cooperative Extension Service with its eight district offices. Public broadcasting stations KUAC-FM/TV the first public stations in the state, are headquartered at UAF.
In 1991 NASA named UAF a space grant institution for aerospace research, making it a Land, Sea and Space Grant institution. Its colleges and schools offer more than 100 disciplines with a variety of vocational and technical programs. Graduate degrees are available in a wide range of academic study. UAF is internationally known for its research in the Pacific Rim and the circumpolar North. It is consistently among the top 100 universities in the nation for funding from the National Science Foundation.
UAF is the leading doctoral-granting institution in Alaska, offering Ph.D. degrees in anthropology, several of the physical and natural sciences, mathematics, natural resources and sustainability, and engineering. Master's degrees are offered in the humanities, natural resources management and geography, social sciences, northern studies, physical and natural sciences, and in professional fields such as engineering, justice, education and business administration. Interdisciplinary programs are possible for students who have a research focus in areas where UAF has faculty expertise and research facilities available.
Take the scenic route to see more
For even more historical photos and information about UAF and Alaska, visit the Rasmuson Library's online collections:
- Alaska's Digital Archive
- The Butler Brothers' Gold Rush
- Film Clips
- Oral History (Project Jukebox)
- Wenger Eskimo Database