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Future Shock

True North: Tracking The Future Trajectory of Arctic Universities

University Business, Sep 2010

Watching the woolly mammoths reunite in Ice Age Meltdown on a 95-degree scorcher on July 4th, our thoughts turned to global warming and its cataclysmic challenges for our next generation.

UB readers who missed the Ice Age trilogy should know that the Chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead said on a recent visit to Boston, "All I know is that there's a lot more water out there? the melting Arctic creates all kinds of issues as more water is freed up for fishing, shipping and mineral exploration. The Arctic belongs to all the people around the world as no nation has sovereignty over it. These burgeoning sea issues mandate that the United States sign the U.N. Law of the Sea Convention Treaty so that we have a seat at the table. The Arctic makes it imperative."

Admiral Roughead recognized that the campaign for achieving long-term sustainability lies beyond gulf oil spills, urban smog and even rain forests - especially for those who live, learn, work, raise families and build businesses in or near the Arctic - a circumpolar community surrounded by splendid isolation.

Gradually, over the last 50 years, there emerged several leading circumpolar universities, each with a special Arctic niche. Just consider the University of Alaska Fairbanks, the University of Alberta (Canada) and the University of Lapland (Finland). So what logically joins these several unique circumpolar focused universities? At their epicenter, these institutions share a common sense of northern place, cultural affinity, ecological fragility and the largest outdoor co-laboratories in the world.

Founded as a Federal Agricultural Experiment Station during the Klondike Gold Rush era, UAF originally focused on agriculture and mining. Today, UAF offers higher learning access, opportunity, and excellence for thousands of urban and place bound students. With its main campus in Fairbanks, the university is located just 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle. At UAF, the North2North and GoNorth Student Exchange programs provide unique opportunities for students from Arctic member institutions to experience different northern regions firsthand and to share service-learning experiences face-to-face.

Known as "America's Arctic University," UAF is one of the few land, sea, and space grant universities in the world. Defined by its academic rigor and leveraging its circumpolar market niche, UAF is renowned for its pure and applied research in the mission critical fields of Arctic biology, Arctic engineering, geophysics, supercomputing and aboriginal studies.

Over the last 50 years, several leading circumpolar universities have emerged.

As the flagship campus and principal research center of the University of Alaska system, UAF is widely recognized for its International Arctic Research Center. At the core of its mission, the center hosts faculty and students that are devoted to the Arctic's role in the broader global ecosystem. The center also plays host to the Institute of Northern Engineering where end-to-end sustainability solutions are developed for the world's coldest regions.

Military history buffs will recall that in the wake of World War II, there was an increased national awareness of scientific polar research in the interest of international defense and global communications leading to the establishment of the UAF Geophysical Institute. Over the last several decades, the institute has earned an international reputation for studies of Earth and physical environments at high latitudes. Uniquely, the institute's Poker Flat Research Range is the only university-owned rocket range in the world, providing launching facilities for NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Recognized as a thought leader in circumpolar studies, UAF's Institute of Arctic Biology advances applied knowledge of high-latitude biological systems through the integration of research, scholarship and service learning. As Alaska's leading research organization for Arctic biological systems, the institute provides policymakers with important data to interpret, predict and manage biological systems. Toward this end, the university is also a lead partner in the Cooperative Institute for Arctic Research along with such world-class agencies and organizations as the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration and the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Beyond biological and marine sciences, UAF's Institute of Northern Engineering's mission is to create civil, electrical, environmental, and mechanical engineering solutions for the world's coldest regions. At the institute, UAF faculty and students are given the resources and opportunity to study Arctic hydrology, renewable energy sources for rural areas, ground water contamination, remote sensing, robotics, ecological engineering, cold regions infrastructure, materials technology, and mining-related solutions in permafrost regions.

The Fairbanks campus is also home to The University of Alaska Museum of the North, which houses an impressive collection of more than 1.4 million artifacts. With hands-on access to this wonderful collection of rare artifacts, UAF students and faculty work side by side on original research, aimed at interpreting the region's dynamic arctic environment and rich cultural heritage.

In its role as "America's Arctic University," the University of Alaska, Fairbanks has contributed new scientific knowledge and discovery to address global climate change - research that affects Alaska and the rest of the circumpolar North. Chancellor Brian Rogers summed it up this way. "There is no organization better poised to do that (global warming research) than UAF, where our acute, scientific research powerfully identifies and calibrates those effects and how best to deal with them."

James Martin and James E. Samels are authors of Turnaround: Leading Stressed Colleges and Universities to Excellence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009). Martin is a professor of English at Mount Ida College (Mass.), and Samels is president and CEO of The Education Alliance.