Big changes are afoot at an Alaska university -- but not the one you’re thinking of.

Alumni and Native Dancers mingle during the first Alumni Mixer in the Leah J Peterson gallery on the campus of APU. (Ted Kincaid/Alaska Pacific University)

Alaska Pacific University, the private liberal arts school located in Anchorage’s U-Med district, recently reached a milestone on its journey toward becoming what’s known as a Tribal University. In 2019, after several years of concerted effort, APU’s Alaska Native enrollment hit 24 percent, crossing the 20 percent threshold set by the U.S. Department of Education and earning designation as an Alaska Native Serving Institution, one category of a minority serving institution.

The designation means APU now qualifies for grants intended for institutions that serve students who have traditionally been underserved by higher education. This includes Tribal Universities as well as historically black colleges and universities and other institutions that largely enroll students from minority groups.

But that’s just the beginning, according to APU President Dr. Robert Onders.

“The much harder component is the incorporation of indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing,” Onders said. “The transformation, for APU, is much longer and much more challenging.”

Back to the beginning

For Alaskans who know it as a small, private liberal arts university with one of the top Nordic ski programs in the world, the idea of APU as a Tribal University may seem surprising. But Onders said it’s not a change in course so much as a return to the university’s roots.

APU offered its first classes in 1960 as Alaska Methodist University. Founder Peter Gordon Gould, who was Aleut, saw a need “for indigenous leadership ... educated and trained in Alaska for Alaska.”

Alumni and Native Dancers mingle during the first Alumni Mixer in the Leah J Peterson gallery on the campus of APU. (Ted Kincaid/Alaska Pacific University)

“He felt like Alaska needed critical thinkers,” Onders said. “He was envisioning an Alaska Native serving institution in the private liberal arts model.”

Over the years, APU began to attract high-achieving students -- largely from out of state. As recently as 10 years ago, according to Onders, about three-quarters of the student body came from Outside, and the university didn’t even have an in-state recruiter.

“It had gone a different direction,” Onders said. Now, he added, “I think it’s coming back to its original intent. APU’s in-state enrollment is now 80 percent,” Onders said.

Becoming a Tribal University

In addition to focusing on in-state and Alaska Native enrollment, APU has increased the number of Alaska Native and Native American people on its board of trustees to about 80 percent. It’s been the early phase of what Onders sees as a long and rewarding journey for the university.

“I think we’re through a lot of the major transition challenges,” Onders said. “Now it’s about execution and implementation of the curricular changes that need to occur, as well as increasing APU’s presence externally.”

It’s a process that involves everyone on campus, Onders said, and every academic discipline.

“It’s a different way of teaching,” he said. “The inclusion of language, of learning through culture. I think we still have a long way to go.”

Alaska Native culture needs to be incorporated into the core curriculum, he added, not just treated as a special interest or elective. The university just hired for a new position that will focus on indigenous ways of teaching.

Martha Senungetuk works on carving a bowl in a traditional manner in APU's Atwood Art Center. (Ted Kincaid/Alaska Pacific University)

Becoming a Tribal University doesn’t mean APU is only interested in educating Alaska Native students. Onders said incorporating indigenous knowledge and ways of knowing grounded in the cultures that have flourished in Alaska for thousands of years will ultimately add value to the APU experience for every member of the university community, regardless of their personal cultural background.

“People who have gone to APU or experienced APU speak very highly of their experience,” Onders said. “What we don’t want to lose is all the good that has been occurring at the university.”

Joe and Martha Senungetuk, APU's artists in residence, show off the art and tools of their trade. Miniature kayak frames students built for a class Joe and Martha taught. (Ted Kincaid/Alaska Pacific University)

A new center for Arctic research

Along with its growth as a Tribal University, APU has branched out into new partnerships in Alaska and around the world. An affiliation with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, now in its third year, is focused on expanding Alaska’s homegrown health care workforce. And last year, APU joined University of the Arctic, a global network of schools and institutes focused on the circumpolar north.

“(APU has) primarily focused historically on being a teaching school,” said James Temte, APU’s project manager for its programs with ANTHC. “Now we’re looking, with the partnership with ANTHC, to also include research opportunities for faculty and students.”

One program that’s benefiting is APU’s FAST Lab -- short for Fisheries, Aquatic Science and Technology. FAST Lab researchers look at what’s going on in Alaska’s fisheries. Through the APU-ANTHC affiliation, they’re now also looking at how it impacts Alaskans who have always relied on subsistence fishing to survive.

“They’ve been very successful in raising external funding to respond to fishing industries’ research interests,” Temte said. “Now the work is expanding to explore what the locals are seeing within the fishing industry and how the changing environment impacts their communities.”

APU’s new Office of Research and Community Engagement, an initiative of the university president’s office, will work to attract researchers from around the world.

“It’s a way that interested research parties can establish a partnership with APU,” Temte said.

Indigenous Research participants celebrate their class with a traditonal blanket toss outside of Carr Gottstein on the campus of APU. (Ted Kincaid/Alaska Pacific University)

That’s important, he added, because it means knowledge about -- and solutions to -- Alaska matters will originate in the state.

“We know that we live in a unique place, and we want to develop unique programs that address the needs that we see,” Temte said. “The research needs to come from Alaska.”

With increasing interest in the changing Arctic, there’s a lot of research funding available, Onders said -- and right now, much of it is being granted to out-of-state institutions.

“Arctic research should have impact and funding, and the money should stay in Arctic communities,” Onders said. “Right now that money is building buildings in the Lower 48, and that makes no sense to me. I hope we have the opportunity to turn the tables on that.”

Alaska Pacific University is honored to celebrate the graduation of fall class of 2019, associates, undergrad, grad and doctorate earners. The celebration was held at the Wendy Williamson Auditorium on the campus of the University of Alaska, Anchorage on December 14th, 2019. (Ted Kincaid/Alaska Pacific University)

More change on the horizon

Last month, Onders told university trustees that he plans to step down when APU can find a qualified replacement to serve as president. He’ll be transitioning into a role focused more directly on health matters like those involved in the ANTHC affiliation. Onders said it’s the right time for a change in leadership as APU moves into the next phase of its journey toward becoming a Tribal University, particularly as the presidency has never been filled by a woman or an Alaska Native person. He added that he looks to the Tribal health care system, and its transformation from federal management to a network of programs operated for and by Alaska Native people, as a potential model for education.

“The Tribal health system as a whole transformed health care for everyone who lives in rural Alaska,” Onders said. “I think APU, in partnership with regional educational institutions, can potentially replicate that process that occurred in the health care system under Tribal governance.”

Strengthened by partnerships like those with University of the Arctic and ANTHC, Temte said APU is positioning itself to do great things in Alaska and beyond.

“I think we have the opportunity to create something that is unique to the world,” Temte said. “I think especially in the circumpolar north, indigenous ways of knowing are critical to the survival of our planet. If we can be a hub for that, we’ll be doing our job well.”


This story was sponsored by Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium, a statewide nonprofit Tribal health organization designed to meet the unique health needs of more than 175,000 Alaska Native and American Indian people living in Alaska.

This story was produced by the creative services department of the Anchorage Daily News in collaboration with Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium. The ADN newsroom was not involved in its production.