History of Arctic and Northern Studies (ACNS) at UAF

UAF’s Arctic and Northern Studies (ACNS) program began in 1971 when the University established the B.A. in Northern Studies (NORS). The NORS B.A. started as an interdisciplinary degree that students and their faculty committees shaped, drawing on coursework in multiple disciplines across the campus with a focus on the North. Although few students chose this route, Dr. Terrence Cole, who would become a central faculty member in the UAF History Department and NORS program, notably earned a B.A. with a double major in Geography and Northern Studies from UAF in 1976.

UAF has never offered graduate degrees in history, political science, or geography, even though student demand for a graduate program on the North in the social sciences and humanities existed. To address this issue, College of Liberal Arts (CLA) Dean (and Anthropology Professor) Anne Shinkwin and Psychology Professor Judith Kleinfeld, an expert in rural education issues in Alaska, drew on the B.A. program and conceived of an M.A. program with assistance from other faculty including historian Claus-M Naske. The program would support the study of the history, cultures, economics, and politics of the circumpolar North. Students would benefit from faculty expertise in social sciences and humanities, the Alaska and circumpolar collections in the library and museum, and close proximity to Northern field sites. Dean Shinkwin submitted the proposal for an M.A. in Northern Studies to the Faculty Senate in 1989. UAF approved the program, which welcomed its first cohort of students in fall 1991. The program directly served, and continues to serve, UAF’s mission, which emphasizes research, teaching, and the arts related to “the circumpolar North and its diverse peoples.” In summer 2017, Dean Shinkwin called the program’s initiation one of her greatest achievements as CLA Dean during an interview with Robert Hannon.

The development of the NORS M.A. must be contextualized in global events as well. The thaw of Cold War hostilities between the West and East, the increased communication among Northern Indigenous peoples, and the recognition of common environmental and other challenges in the circumpolar North provided the political-social context for imagining collaborative problem solving across borders. Much travel between Alaska and Russia had commenced, including sister city visits. With the demise of the Soviet Union in late 1991, just as the Northern Studies M.A. program launched, opportunities for collaborative research projects and student exchanges blossomed.

Northern Studies, as a classical regional studies program, recognized the common historical, political, economic, and social challenges faced by the peoples of the circumpolar North. The hallmark of regional studies programs – interdisciplinarity – has allowed faculty and students to approach research problems holistically, recognizing that the Northern setting and various common conditions, including colonial pasts and dependence on non-renewable resource extraction, and core-periphery tensions interrelate. Remote Northern regions, which host a diverse range of Indigenous peoples, have largely been seen by more recent migrants and by their governments as resource frontiers with strong national security implications. The end of the Cold War era opened up opportunities for collaboration as never before, as seen in the inception of the Arctic Council and many international research projects. The timing to study the Arctic and its collaborative potential was perfect.

Dean Shinkwin selected Dr. Kleinfeld to direct the program. Other core faculty included historians Claus-M. Naske, Peter Cornwall, and Terrence Cole; political scientists Jerry McBeath and James Gladden; geographer Roger Pearson; economist Colin Reed; anthropologist Linda Ellanna; English professor Jim Ruppert; and library sciences professor Marvin Falk. Numerous other UAF faculty who were actively researching in the circumpolar North supported the program by serving on graduate student advisory committees. Students also have benefited from the expertise of visiting scholars through the UAF program, Northern Momentum. Political Science and NORS faculty member Karen Erickson initiated the program with support from Provost Paul Reichardt. Professor Willy Østreng of Norway, a polar ocean policy and international security specialist, Professor Kari Hakkappaa, of the University of Lapland law faculty, and Professor Ian Urqhart, of the University of Alberta’s Political Science Department, each spent a semester teaching at UAF.

The program has benefited from continuity and stability in leadership since its inception. Dr. Kleinfeld directed the program from 1991 to 2010. Historian Mary Ehrlander joined Dr. Kleinfeld as Assistant Director in 2001. From 2007 to 2010, Drs. Ehrlander and Kleinfeld co-directed the program. In 2010, upon Dr. Kleinfeld’s retirement, Dr. Ehrlander became Director of NORS. In 2015, political scientist Brandon Boylan became Associate Director of NORS. From 2018 to 2020, Dr. Boylan co-directed the program with Dr. Ehrlander. Dr. Boylan has directed ACNS since 2020, when Dr. Ehrlander retired. Historian Tyler Kirk became the program’s Assistant Director in fall 2020. Numerous other faculty from across and outside the campus have served the program and its students for many years.

Because the degree program addresses such a broad array of topics, M.A. students are required to develop concentrations of study. Over the years, the program has established structured concentrations, including the Northern History, Arctic Politics and Policy, and Environmental Politics and Policy concentrations (in AY 2021, the Arctic Politics and Policy and the Environmental Politics and Policy concentrations merged). However, most students have chosen individualized concentrations, for example in Alaska history and politics, historical geography, Scandinavian history, Indigenous governance, or Arctic security, which allow the greatest flexibility in coursework. In 2016, the program changed its name from Northern Studies to Arctic and Northern Studies (ACNS) to clarify the region the program addresses and to highlight the faculty’s expertise in Arctic subject matter and their active research within the Arctic. The timing coincided with increasing attention on the Arctic from around the world, owing to global implications of climate change, the recognition of the Arctic as a “sink” for globally produced contaminants, and the negative impacts of these developments on the region’s Indigenous peoples.

Since the early 2000s, the M.A. program has been fully achievable online, albeit with limited course offerings. In recent years, applicants increasingly have sought to complete their programs by distance. In 2020, Drs. Ehrlander and Boylan launched the fully online M.A. program, which UAF’s eCampus supports. Since COVID-19 erupted, online course offerings have expanded substantially. As more classes have moved to online or hybrid delivery, faculty have strived to maintain the sense of a learning community that one ideally experiences in graduate level classes. Students can also pursue the B.A. in ACNS in an online format, although some courses still remain only face-to-face.

From the M.A. program’s inception, Dr. Kleinfeld and core faculty have fostered a warm and nurturing culture. Faculty have hosted regular potluck events in their homes to allow students and faculty to get to know one another. Small class sizes and teaching assistantships have promoted faculty members’ close mentoring of students. For many years, teaching assistants aided faculty in teaching UAF’s core undergraduate curriculum. The program has supported students in presenting their research at academic conferences, which promotes professional development. The membership of the Alaska Historical Society today includes many NORS / ACNS graduates who are working throughout the state and elsewhere. From time to time, faculty have arranged road trips for students, as well, for instance to Denali National Park, UAF’s Toolik Research Station in the northern foothills of the Brooks Range, and Whitehorse, Canada for symposia hosted by Yukon College. Students have had access to a variety of other special learning opportunities, including several Canada Days at UAF symposia that highlighted the historical, cultural, economic, and political ties between Alaska and the Yukon; and the Trans-Arctic Change: Extending Interdisciplinary Collaborations on the Environment (TRACEICE) program, which brought students and faculty from UAF, the University of Bergen (Norway), and Oregon State University together at the University Centre in Svalbard and at UAF for two week-long interdisciplinary seminar series on the changing Arctic.

The Model Arctic Council (MAC), which then ACNS Director Ehrlander and Associate Director Boylan initiated through UArctic, brings university students from throughout the Arctic and the world together to simulate the work of the Arctic Council. The Arctic Council is a high-level intergovernmental forum composed of the eight Arctic states, six Indigenous peoples groups, and numerous Observer countries and organizations that addresses common challenges that require international cooperation, foremost environmental and Indigenous issues. The MAC program rotates every two years with the chairship of the Arctic Council. Drs. Ehrlander and Boylan hosted the first UArctic Model Arctic Council at UAF in spring 2016 during the U.S. chairship. Since the MAC’s inception, program leaders have engaged Indigenous and state delegates to the Arctic Council to enhance participants’ learning experience. In June 2017, Dartmouth College, in collaboration with UAF faculty, hosted the week-long “US-Canada Arctic Science Diplomacy and Leadership Workshop and Model Arctic Council.” The University of Lapland in Rovaniemi, Finland hosted the second UArctic MAC in October 2018, and the University of Akuyeri hosted the third in March 2020 (online, owing to COVID-19), during Finland’s and Iceland’s chairships of the Arctic Council, respectively. The MAC 2022, which the Northern Arctic Federal University (NArFU) was to host during Russia’s chairship (2021-2023), was canceled due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Numerous ACNS graduate and undergraduate students have participated in the MAC.

The ACNS M.A. program has attracted students from throughout the circumpolar North and elsewhere, including Canada, Denmark, Norway, Russia, Austria, China, Germany, Japan, Peru, and the United Kingdom. As of summer 2022, the program had graduated 160 M.A. students; twenty-three NORS/ACNS graduates have subsequently earned Ph.D. degrees; and eight M.A. graduates are currently in Ph.D. programs. The percentage of M.A. graduates to earn Ph.D.s is a recognized indicator of a program’s strength. Those who have not pursued higher degrees have entered a wide range of fields, including various government agencies, journalism and media, academia, and private enterprise, the vast majority in the North.

Beginning in 2022, the program now offers a Graduate Certificate in Arctic and Northern Studies for working professionals who want to develop Arctic expertise but do not want to or cannot commit to an M.A. degree.

Since the program’s launch, a small number of Interdisciplinary (INDS) Ph.D. students have been “housed” in NORS / ACNS, because their focuses have been Northern/Arctic and their advisory committee chairs have been core NORS/ACNS faculty. Being housed in ACNS offers an inclusive structure and cohort that many other INDS Ph.D. students do not enjoy. Since the late 1990s, twelve students have earned Ph.D.s, two of them graduating in summer 2022. Interest in earning Ph.D.s in Arctic-related topics in the social sciences and humanities has grown in recent years. In fall 2022 the program had nine INDS Ph.D. students housed in ACNS.

In short, Arctic and Northern Studies is an interdisciplinary program focused on the Arctic and circumpolar North at UAF, Alaska’s flagship university and America’s Arctic university. It offers a B.A., M.A., and Graduate Certificate and hosts several Interdisciplinary Studies Ph.D. students. It is the only regional studies program focused on the Arctic in the United States to offer this range of degrees.