University hits historic milestone

By Chancellor Brian Rogers

For Alaska and its university, this week marks a milestone born out of grit and determination.

One hundred years ago, President Woodrow Wilson signed the act reserving land for the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines, but it wasn’t without opposition.

The week of the actual signing, Alaska’s territorial legislature and governor stood up for what later became the University of Alaska. They provided a crucial endorsement, via telegram to Alaska Territorial Delegate James Wickersham in Washington, D.C., during an end-of-session debate in the U.S. Congress.

For more than a year, Wickersham had been promoting a bill to reserve federal land for the benefit of Alaska’s schools and the yet-to-be-built college. On Feb. 17, 1915, the Senate passed the bill, but objections from members of the House stopped its progress as the March 4 adjournment approached.

The bill reserved a site for the university at the agricultural experiment station, which the federal government had established near Fairbanks about a decade earlier. The designation provided a handle for opponents to grab and twist.

The location had been chosen “irrespective of the desire of the people of Alaska as may be expressed by their legislative assembly,” claimed Rep. Patrick Norton, R-N.D., during debate on the House floor Feb. 24. The provision “savors altogether too much of special congressional legislation for the benefit of a particular city or locality in Alaska,” he said.

Undeterred, Wickersham and Alaska’s elected territorial leaders were ready for that argument when the bill came back to the House floor March 3. Wickersham read a telegram signed by the governor and 19 of 24 legislators approving the location of the college.

The House passed the bill later that day — the last one of the 63rd Congress — and on March 4, 1915, President Wilson signed it.

Those leaders who fought so hard in 1915 were wise. They knew that a strong university is vital to the health of our state. They knew that for the people of Alaska, a university was a measure of self-determination, a way to help shape our own destiny and educate the next generations of Alaskans.

As we near the mid-point of the Alaska legislative session, it is critical that Alaska’s leaders today, as in 1915, recognize the role of the university in the future of our state.

Through the land grant mission — teaching, research and service — the university serves the state in many ways.

Our university educates Alaskans. Each year, more than three-quarters of our admitted students come from Alaska. In the fall of 2014, about 83 percent of our enrolled students were from Alaska. It’s imperative that we keep the best and the brightest students in our state.

Our six-year graduation rates, the standard we use to compare ourselves to universities elsewhere in the country, have been steadily increasing in recent years. For the students who entered in 2008, that rate is more than 42 percent, which brings us within four percentage points of the average for other schools like UAF nationwide.

Our graduates fuel Alaska’s economy. More than 29,000 UAF alumni live and work in Alaska. Tens of thousands more alumni from UA campuses throughout the state do the same. They are the engineers and bankers, the teachers and biologists, the health care providers and policymakers that help keep our state strong.

The university is an economic engine for Alaska. Our research is conducted across the state, providing jobs, vital insights and information needed by industries.

We are a resilient state served by a resilient university, poised to help Alaska’s communities move beyond today’s challenges. We have weathered tough financial times several times in our 100-year history, and we will do so again as we grapple with Alaska’s current fiscal challenges.

A century ago, Alaska’s elected leaders stood up for what later became the University of Alaska. Today, we look forward to the next 100 years with that same resolve. We remember the wisdom of those territorial leaders: Even in the face of challenges, our university is key to ensuring Alaska’s bright future.

Brian Rogers is chancellor of the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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