Lawmaker plans new, unusual private college for Sitka

State Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins of Sitka dropped out of Yale University soon before graduation to run for the Legislature. He won that seat at age 23. Now, three years later, the state's youngest lawmaker is planning another big venture.

This time, he's trying to start a college in his hometown.

Outer Coast College started with doodles on napkins in the summer of 2014, said Kreiss-Tomkins, and the proposed college now has a name, a tentative budget and a prospective idyllic space in Sitka, near the water and backed by mountains.

The project draws inspiration from Deep Springs College, an idiosyncratic, all-male 2-year school on a cattle ranch and alfalfa farm in the California desert.

But, Kreiss-Tomkins said, "We're not going to have cattle and alfalfa in Sitka."

At the very earliest, Outer Coast College would open in fall 2017, but its website underscores that's "the most optimistic possible timeline." There's still much to be done.

From beginning doodles to a California visit

Kreiss-Tomkins' doodles turned into conversations last year with colleagues, friends and accrediting agencies.

"Basically I was just doing some baseline diligence to see if this seemingly cool idea was completely unfeasible and I should just throw it out," he said. But those weren't the answers he got. "I ran some numbers and nothing I encountered indicated to me that the idea was a complete non-starter."

Kreiss-Tomkins said he envisioned a college with excellent faculty who wouldn't focus on research and publications and who would instead put all their energy into the classroom. As Outer Coast College's website puts it, it would be a "simpler, relentlessly student-focused institution." Kreiss-Tomkins also wanted to make the college affordable.

He said he thought about Deep Springs College, a school founded in 1917 where students play a large role in day-to-day operations and don't pay tuition. He had known about Deep Springs as a high school student, but he didn't think about applying. Then he went to Yale and met classmates who had attended Deep Springs for their freshman and sophomore years.

"I was blown away by their thoughtfulness," he said. He wanted to learn more.

Last year, a friend and Deep Spring alumnus encouraged Kreiss-Tomkins to visit the campus. At Deep Springs, the small student body controls a lot, including designing the curriculum, selecting professors and admitting students. The students also have a lot of control over who visits campus.

When Kreiss-Tomkins wanted to visit, he had to send a request. The students took a vote. They said he could come, recalled Will Hunt, the co-president of Deep Springs' student body at the time.

"So I flew down to San Francisco and drove seven hours to Deep Springs in mid-January, right before legislative session starts," said Kreiss-Tomkins. "I was only there for 48 hours but it was immediately affirming."

He met Hunt, toured the campus and talked to students and faculty. Hunt said he became Kreiss-Tomkins' "de facto host." Kreiss-Tomkins told him he wanted to start a college inspired by the Deep Springs model.

"It's what a vast majority of Deep Springers had wanted for a long time," Hunt said. Pretty soon, Kreiss-Tomkins was asking Hunt for recommendations -- what he thought could and could not be transferred to a college in Sitka.

Within the next couple of days, Hunt got an email from Kreiss-Tomkins. That email contained a job offer, recalled Hunt, who was about to finish his two years at Deep Springs. The 21-year-old decided to put college applications on hold and move to Alaska, taking a year-long Sitka Winter Fellowship -- a program Kreiss-Tomkins had previously created that pays recent college graduates food and travel stipends to take service positions in the town.

"I think I thought at the time that there must be a less than 50 percent chance of it working," Hunt said. "Even if there was a 2 percent chance, I would be crazy not to give it a shot."

The way Hunt puts it: Starting a new college seemed like a hard nut to crack, but at worst he would learn from trying to crack that nut.

He was brought on as a full-time fellow dedicated to starting Outer Coast College. Hunt's fellowship is paid for by two individual donors, Kreiss-Tomkins said.

'Pouring our hearts and souls into this'

By September, Hunt had moved to Sitka. So had Stephanie Gilardi, who took another Winter Fellowship with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, and Javier Botero, who works remotely for a New York startup company. Both volunteer on the Outer Coast College project.

"I was blown away by it," said Botero about when he first heard of the plan to start the new college. "I wanted to come up immediately."

Hunt, Gilardi and Botero, plus Kreiss-Tomkins, are now the main group of four, all under the age of 33, fueling the plans for Outer Coast College. Everyone pretty much has their hands in every aspect of planning, Botero said, and there's a lot to do.

Starting with finding a space. The campus of the former Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka provides "perhaps a literally unique opportunity," Kreiss-Tomkins said.

The historic Sheldon Jackson campus spans 22 acres and encompasses about 20 buildings, about a mile away from the University of Alaska Southeast's Sitka campus. It also has some vacant space, he said.

Sheldon Jackson College, founded in 1878, shut its doors in 2007. The deteriorating campus was given to the Sitka Fine Arts Camp and a huge community effort went into revitalizing the buildings, said Roger Schmidt, the camp's executive director.

Now, the campus hosts many groups and activities, but there's room to add more, Schmidt said. "I think we see ourselves as willing partners toward this project." A final decision with Outer Coast College has not yet been made.

But plans for what the college would look like have started.

Outer Coast College would be a two-year, private college. It would stay small like Deep Springs, accepting 20 students in two classes. Unlike Deep Springs, the Sitka college would accept men and women, Kreiss-Tomkins said.

It would have a labor component. Students would cook, clean and help restore the campus. But the romanticized idea of intellectual cowboys reading works of philosophers and herding cattle wouldn't be part of it, Kreiss-Tomkins said. Maybe they would eventually have a dairy goat operation or a big garden in Sitka, he suggested, but first they have to figure out the academic side of things.

Outer Coast College would also not practice isolationism. It would instead weave itself into the town, incorporating students into various service projects. Students would wield control over admissions, setting the curriculum and faculty hires -- just like at Deep Springs.

"There's a lot of learning through responsibilities and learning through failure," Kreiss-Tomkins said. "So you fail at these responsibilities and there are consequences for that. And there's failures with self-governance, too. If you make a bad admissions decision, there are downstream effects of that."

Inquiries from potential students and workers are already coming in, he said.

After researching for months, Botero said, the team still needs to get accredited and start a big fundraising effort, to pay for the college. Kreiss-Tomkins said that tuition would largely depend on the success of the fundraising campaign. The school has started paperwork to become a nonprofit and wouldn't ask for any money from the state, he said. "It's private in every sense of the word."

Despite the hurdles the team still must overcome, Kreiss-Tomkins said he's optimistic that Outer Coast College will "become a reality in a number of years." He feels the momentum.

"We're all pouring our hearts and souls into this," he said.

Tegan Hanlon

Tegan Hanlon was a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News between 2013 and 2019. She now reports for Alaska Public Media.