Friday Focus: UAF’s forward-leaning bent

headshot of a man
UAF photo by JR Ancheta

— by Dan White, chancellor

Before there was Xbox Series X and PS5, there was Sega and Wii. And way before that, the very first … yes, Atari. Space Invaders or Pong were the only early-on choices I remember. What did we do before that? And who was responsible for all the space invaders? I suppose there were the all-mechanical pinball machines in arcades filled with buzzers and bells. And before that? Right, it was marbles. I am just old enough to remember when playing marbles was a thing because it didn’t require quarters, a game box or a single strand of fiber optics. It just required a loop of string, a handful of marbles and a shooter (also a marble). Thankfully that was it because there was no internet at the time and the desktop computer was not yet a thing. 

I suppose that every kid who played marbles had the dilemma of whether or not they were playing for “all the marbles.” Winning all the marbles was satisfying in the short term but not very much fun past that. Once you had all the marbles, then what? No one else could play. You couldn’t sell marbles for much. Plus when all your marble-less (suddenly former) friends went to do something else it was just you, weighed down by all those marbles. Now you had to defend the marbles against those who didn’t have a string or a shooter — but did have a Louisville Slugger. 

I grew up in Colorado on the site of an old, played-out high gravel placer mine. (Sorry for all the adjectives.) “High gravel” refers to riverbed sediments left high on a mountain slope by the ancient river that twisted and turned through the valley millions of years earlier. The gravel deposit was on a steep slope at 8,000 feet above sea level and hundreds of feet above Clear Creek, which cascaded down its current course. Gold was deposited in amongst those high gravels and because I lived and played on the gravel deposit, so were a few marbles. Although someone may re-mine that area to find any remaining gold, no one is mining marbles.

UAF is America’s Arctic university. We are the global leaders in Arctic research. Bar none. Different universities involved in Arctic research with billion-dollar research budgets are not the global leaders. We are. We got this far because UAF has long been filled with innovators — scientists, engineers, musicians, artists, psychologists, social workers and more. UAF has also had a historic bent towards the future. We have the best climate modelers in the world, the largest fleet of drones, the only university-owned rocket range, a symphony orchestra, a world-class museum, and operations of the only ice-capable vessel in the U.S. research fleet. Add to that we are a blend of students of all ages, backgrounds, interests and cultures, with the best Alaska Native and Indigenous studies program anywhere. And throughout the pandemic, UAF’s research enterprise got stronger. UAF’s world-leading Arctic research actually grew during what must have been the most turbulent time in UA history. 

But research is not the only place where we see growth. In this great research university, enrollment is on the uptick. Because UAF started strategic enrollment planning several years ago, we have modernized curriculum, streamlined grant aid and initiated new programs for high schoolers (among many things). UAF enrollment is growing. This year's incoming class was larger than last year’s, and that is something to celebrate. 

We are leaders because of our forward-leaning bent. I am confident that UAF will continue its leadership in the Arctic because we focus on the future. Focus on what’s next. I believe that we are in the position we are in because we have not been sucked into the trap of defending a pile of marbles while the world moved on. We will keep innovating, keep pushing the boundaries, and only look back to celebrate how far we’ve come, just as this week we celebrated 75 years of the Geophysical Institute and 30 years of the Alaska Satellite Facility. Congratulations GI and ASF! Keep on innovating and let’s keep our bent toward the future (‘cause no one is mining marbles).

Friday Focus is a column written by a different member of UAF’s leadership team every week.