Looking at the sprawling UAA complex on the east side of town, it's hard to imagine, or in some cases remember, that it wasn't always there. The linear campus fills the land along Providence Drive from Lake Otis to Elmore. Most people in Anchorage have some association with the school; many have taken at least one class there, if not more, and community support is widespread, even with a struggling hockey team. It's unusual not to see a jacket or hat with the Seawolf logo on it on any trip around town.
It wasn't always so. In fact, there was a time when many city leaders firmly opposed the establishment of a University of Alaska campus here.
It wasn't so long ago that any mention of the University of Alaska was assumed to mean the campus in Fairbanks. This went back to the parceling out of traditional and remunerative institutions when the territory was new. Across the West as Congress created territories and states, founders sought to spread future largesse. One town would get the university — Eugene, Missoula, Seattle. Another would get the capital — Salem, Helena, Olympia. And another was conceded as the commercial/industrial center – Portland, Butte, and Tacoma, which was expected to be the major rail and port city in Washington. Not all states followed this course, but most did. Alaska followed suit: Juneau got the capital, Fairbanks the university, and Anchorage the railroad headquarters.
But then demographics upset the scheme, aided by strong leadership from some unexpected quarters. Visiting University of Alaska faculty began offering college level courses at Fort Richardson in 1950, and then the Anchorage Community College opened in 1954, with night courses at Elmendorf. Right from the beginning there were calls for more courses and more diverse subject areas than the infant school could offer. Teachers needed fifth-year courses; accountants needed professional development, engineers needed career upgrades. Pushed by growing demand from Anchorage's expanding population, the school grew akimbo. ACC was originally a partnership of the Anchorage School District and UA. Concerned about a potential competing institution, soon after he became UA president, William Ransom Wood oversaw the incorporation of ACC into the statewide university.
But in 1958 a new school, Alaska Methodist University, began planning for an opening in Anchorage. Many of Anchorage's movers and shakers were put off by the notion of far-off Fairbanks controlling the state's only college, and quickly and enthusiastically embraced the idea of this new, "their own," university. Also, many who were of a conservative frame of mind liked the idea of a private, rather than public (government funded) school. Foremost among these was Bob Atwood, publisher of the Anchorage Daily Times, then the state's largest-circulation newspaper. Despite plans, AMU would not offer classes until 1960.
In 1966 voters approved bonding for buildings for ACC; several opened in 1970. Yet an evolving, expanding and maturing state university was not Atwood's idea of the city's future. But it was the idea of one city father, and he put his foot down: That was Elmer Rasmuson. Anchorage would need a campus of the state university, he understood; AMU was not a sufficient option. And as both the major civic and commercial manager in Anchorage, and as president of the UA Board of Regents, and Anchorage mayor after 1964, he prevailed.
In reality, the writing had been on the wall from the start. As Anchorage outstripped Fairbanks in population and commercial growth, becoming Alaska's dominant city, the demand for additional college courses burgeoned. New oil money funded new buildings, and also a new, sister entity, the Anchorage Senior College, which offered upper division and graduate courses.
AMU was never a financially viable undertaking; by the 1970s it survived only with aid from the state, and after Attorney General Avrum Gross declared that unconstitutional, the school closed in 1976. Reorganized with a more limited vision, it reopened as Alaska Pacific University in fall 1977.
Meanwhile, under the sure hands of first Lew Haines, then later Lee Gorsuch and others, and driven by the demographics, UAA grew into what we see today.
Beloved and highly regarded former history professor Will Jacobs has reconstructed UAA's history: "Becoming UAA: 1954-2014." It's a worthy read!
Steve Haycox is professor emeritus of history at the University of Alaska Anchorage.
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