The early years
Gold discoveries in the early 1900s brought sudden changes to the Tanana Valley. In 1906, the hill where UAF now stands, called Troth Yeddha' by the local Indigenous people, became part of a federal Agricultural Experiment Station. The U.S. Congress in 1915 dedicated the station's land to a future school of higher education.
On May 3, 1917, Alaska Territorial Gov. John Strong signed a bill from the Territorial Legislature to create the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, now called the University of Alaska.
With completion of the Main Building, the college opened its doors to students in 1922. On opening day, a faculty of seven (including President Charles Bunnell) offered 16 classes to a student body of six, although the student total grew to 15 by the end of the academic year. 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. By then, faculty and course offerings had grown to include a range of liberal arts, science and engineering. Mining engineering became the dominant field of study by the late 1930s as students sought employment in the local industrial-scale gold dredging operations and other Alaska operations.
World War II years
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.
As the war ended, the Territory of Alaska ran out of money. The university's accounts were frozen, even as returning soldiers boosted enrollment. In the 1947-1948 academic year, President Bunnell and Fairbanks business leaders kept the school open with pledges totaling $200,000. The Territorial Legislature established new taxes in 1949 that boosted funding for the university.
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 at the university. 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.
Alaska itself had yet to become a state.
Statehood and beyond
The University of Alaska played a significant role in the statehood movement of the 1950s. Delegates drafted the Alaska Constitution in the winter of 1955-1956 in what is now Constitution Hall. They signed it in the gymnasium, now the stately Signers' Hall and home of UAF student service and administrative offices. Alaska became the nation's 49th state in 1959.
The university's facilities expanded greatly during the 1960s to serve rapidly growing student numbers and academic programs.
Research also expanded broadly 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 remains the only university-owned rocket range in the world.
UAF launched public broadcasting station KUAC, the first in the state, in 1962. A television station was added in 1971.
The federal government designated the university a Sea Grant institution for marine research in 1970.
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.
Building a modern university
To meet the need for expanding services for all Alaskans, the university reorganized in 1975. Campuses in Fairbanks, Anchorage and Juneau were assigned their own chancellors. The University of Alaska statewide administration and president remained in Fairbanks.
Another reorganization in 1987, spurred by a drop in state revenues due to lower oil prices, moved administration of the community colleges from the statewide office to the three main campuses. The Cooperative Extension Service, which has helped fulfill the university's public service mandate since 1930, also moved to UAF.
The campus in Fairbanks has continued to thrive, along with satellite campuses in Bethel, Dillingham, Kotzebue, Nome and the Interior. Education centers in Fort Yukon, Delta Junction, King Salmon, New Stuyahok, Togiak, Tok and Unalaska also serve rural Alaskans.
The University of Alaska Museum of the North, one of the state's most popular visitor attractions, moved from Signers' Hall 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, the People's Republic of China and Russia.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, UAF’s scientific enterprises expanded. NASA named UAF a Space Grant institution for aerospace research in 1991, making it a Land, Sea and Space Grant institution. The Poker Flat Research Range received continual upgrades. The university established an Arctic biological research field station, earthquake and volcano monitoring centers, a satellite tracking facility and a center for Arctic research.
Scientific work continued to expand in the 2010s with creation of a center for unmanned aircraft research and the acquisition of a massive antenna array used to study the upper atmosphere. The research vessel Sikuliaq, a 261-foot ice-capable vessel operated by UAF, arrived in its home port of Seward in 2015.
On the sports field, UAF earned its 10th NCAA national rifle championship in 2008, and the hockey team went to the NCAA Division I national tournament for the first time in 2010.
UAF's colleges and schools offer instruction in more than 100 disciplines, including vocational and technical programs. Graduate degrees are available in a wide range of academic fields. 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.
Visit our 2017 centennial celebration website. It offers an interactive timeline, dozens of people profiles and multiple articles about UAF's history and accomplishments.
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