A logger's son tries to build an Athens of Alaska

Glenn Olds left behind the presidency of Kent State University, a housekeeper , a cook, and five secretaries a few years ago to take over a closed-down school with a $4 million debt, no students, and a location many consider as cerebral as a moose: Alaska.

For the first week on the job, the Yale PhD holder and former consultant to four US presidents scrubbed floors. Friends were concerned about his reasoning ability. Some speculated that he secretly knew of a mother lode of gas and oil beneath the campus.

Actually, Dr. Olds was playing out a fantasy that many educators hold: starting a college from scratch. ''I'm an innovator and a builder--not a holder, '' says the energetic educator, referring to his decision to move to chilly Alaska.

The college he has been shaping the past five years is Alaska Pacific University, the state's only private four-year college and one of the few in the country in the past decade to reopen its doors after closing in near bankruptcy.

Dr. Olds is a futurist and internationalist in a state more often known for its caribou and iconoclastic frontier-seekers. The son of an Oregon logger, he is trying to turn this small college into something of an Athens of Alaska.

It is an unusual experiment. He has shifted away from traditional courses and moved more toward ''global education.'' He has also abolished the idea of tenuring faculty and requires a work stint of all students before graduation.

By all odds, the university shouldn't make it. To begin with, there is no large ''brain pool'' to draw from in a state with only 400,000 people. Only one-third of Alaska's high school seniors decide to go to college, and the vast majority of those attend schools outside the state.

Moreover, the one advantage colleges here have over their brethren in the ''Lower 48''--a state treasury steeped in oil wealth--is out of reach to private institutions. Yet the school is surviving, although on financially wobbly legs.

Founded in 1957 by Dr. P. Gordon Gould, an orphaned Alaskan Aleut, Alaska Methodist University led a precarious existence until, in 1976, it was closed for a year of painful evaluation. It reopened later with 34 students and the new name of Alaska Pacific University, reflecting the school's more global orientation.

Today it has some 450 full-time students--10 percent from foreign countries-- 31 faculty members, and another 29 adjunct professors. Recently the school passed one of its toughest tests in its drive to provide Alaska with an alternative college: It earned accreditation from the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges.

Set on 300 acres of black spruce and birch, Alaska Pacific University is trying to gear students for the 21st century, partly by focusing studies on the emerging Pacific Rim. This future ''frontier'' includes countries of Asia as well as western North America. It is where Dr. Olds, a former ambassador to UNESCO, believes much of tommorow's political, cultural, and economic power will lie.

Instead of American history or British literature, students find themselves reading Japanese authors and listening to lectures on the ''evolution of human society.'' ''We believe that the problems of the world cannot be divided into neat little compartments,'' says Dr. Raghbir Basi, college provost. ''When students come here, they expect to major in biology. They find a course in human potential.''

At a time when many colleges are trying to answer a demand for career-oriented courses that give students specific, salable skills, the university's curriculum is not broken down into traditional disciplines such as economics or math. Different fields of study are are tied together under ''integrated themes'' such as productivity or creativity.

While students can take more traditional courses, the classes are lumped under four main areas: resource development, management, communications, and value and religious service. The unusual academic approach has caught some vocational-minded students by surprise, and the attrition rate among undergraduates is higher than some administrators would like.

One place vision bumps into reality is money. With a moderate tuition fee ($ 2,400 per year) and no endowment, the school has to scurry after private donations to keep up with its expanding enrollment. One option being looked at is to sell or lease part of its land to the state. The $11 million this would bring in would give the college a tidy endowment.

The college is also investigating the pooling of resources with government and business. The US Geological Survey already leases one of the university dormitories for office space. That money goes toward cutting the school's $3 million federal debt. Still, some outside skeptics think the school would have a better chance of surviving in isolated Alaska if it specialized, such as in business. But Dr. Olds already sees the school carving out a unique niche in 21 st-century education.

''We believe our graduates will have more flexibility in the job market, in career opportunities, and in further study,'' he says.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to A logger's son tries to build an Athens of Alaska
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today