Twelve years ago, as a “newcomer” northerner and the newly appointed President of Yukon College, I began my love affair with the north. I was tutored in matters northern and circumpolar by the late Aron Senkpiel, Dean of Arts and Science, a thoughtful and ardent exponent of the special requirements of higher education in this region. In one of our earliest conversations he explained to me the importance of the academic cooperation provided by the Circumpolar Universities Association. For a small institution such as ours, it provided rich linkages with scholars from the international northern region, and gave our faculty, and later our students, a window on emerging knowledge endemic and relevant to the north.
My first CUA conference was in Luleå, Sweden, hosted by Luleå University of Technology in 1998. It was an exciting affair for me, and my first experience of Sweden and the living discourse of the circumpolar scholarly community. It was at that conference that I met some of the founding figures of what would eventually become the University of the Arctic. Prominent in my memory are Esko Riepula, Rector of the University of Lapland, Charles Jago, President of the University of Northern British Columbia, Ingegerd Palmer Rector of Luleå University of Technology, and most particularly, Outi Snellman, who headed up the CUA secretariat. The excitement permeating that conference was the concept of a potential circumpolar university, built upon the shared resources of all of us, and endorsed by the newly created Arctic Council in 1997 as a promising undertaking. Their Task Force, under the leadership of Bill Heal presented the idea to the conference. There was a lively buzz about what it could mean, how it might work, and whether it was possible to bring it about. The question for the delegates was whether the CUA would “take on” a feasibility study to assess the merits of the idea, and to formulate some preliminary thoughts based on the feedback received from the circumpolar community. They agreed, and the Arctic Council assigned the task.
The CUA’s Feasibility Study Working Group went to work. In Canada, Peter Johnson and I canvassed stakeholders from coast to coast to coast, as our colleagues worked in their nations on similar tasks. The feedback was rich and instructive. We learned of the barriers to higher education experienced in the Canadian north, especially by the First Nations and Inuit communities. We discovered the support of national associations for the development of a collaborative institution. We found political friends, constructively critical academic administrators, and cautiously hopeful community leaders. The final report was favourable to the creation of the University of the Arctic, and well received by the Arctic Council officials. It also laid out the basic blueprints for this wonderful organization.
The period between 1998 and the launch of UArctic in Rovaniemi in 2001 was an exciting and energy-charged time. A cadre of internationally savvy and wonderfully committed scholars, administrators, governmental representatives, researchers and Indigenous peoples’ representatives worked through the challenges of relevant curriculum, the role that information technology could play, framing up a circumpolar mobility program, ensuring inclusive circumpolar representation, engaging diverse organisations and institutions, and deciding where to begin. What sort of governance provisions? How credentialed? What kind of administrative structure would suit? How would it be funded? What programs should be built first? So many questions, so much talent and innovation engaged in the creation!
I remember sitting at a picnic table with Terry Fenge of the IC