Higher Education on Alaska's North Slope

The teleconference room on the first floor of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation building in Barrow, Alaska, houses the latest in telecommunications equipment. For those uninitiated in the complexities of North Slope life, this facility may seem out of place in the northernmost town of the United States. However, change has come to Barrow with the same unswerving force as the fierce winter blizzards that buffet the North Slope's coastal and inland communities.

In the center of the large conference table is an imposing three-foot multidirectional microphone, sensitive enough to pick up and transmit voices from every corner of the room. An electronic blackboard can transmit written words and images to remote villages located hundred of miles from this northern regional center of 3,000 people. The teleconference room is used on a daily basis for meetings and conferences that require the participation of individuals who are scattered throughout the remote Inupiat villages of the North Slope Borough.

On any given night during the school year, the teleconference room becomes an electronic classroom. As the instructor chats with the students physically present in the teleconference room, he is joined by other students who phone in one by one from remote villages, from such locations as Nuiqsut, Kaktovik and Point Hope.

On the surface, the class might appear like any other college-level evening course. Appearances are deceiving, however, since the instructor's presentation style and interactional sensitivities are tested to the limit. Not only must he run a classroom in which many of his students are invisible, but he must contend with the special demands of a multi-ethnic student body with a wide range of academic skills and educational levels. The students are not the only ones who learn in such a unique educational setting.

History of the North Slope

Alaska's North Slope has changed dramatically since the discovery of oil in Prudhoe Bay, approximately 200 miles east of Barrow. The Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971 made possible the creation of the North's first Inuit-controlled home rule borough, complete with powers of taxation, planning, wildlife management and educational administration. Since the fertile oil fields of Prudhoe lie within the jurisdiction of the North Slope Borough, most of the borough's income comes through taxing the oil companies' holding leases on state-owned lands. In 1972, the borough initiated extensive capital improvement projects designed to provide jobs and improve living conditions throughout its eight native settlements.

Although strikes the casual visitor as an intensely acculturated northern community, the Inupiat residents of the entire North Slope hold strongly to their cultural traditions. Nowhere is this cultural continuity seen more vividly than in the emphasis on traditional whale hunting. Each spring, as coastal leads open in the frozen Arctic Ocean, Bowhead whales migrate north to their summer feeding grounds in the Beaufort Sea. In the past, whale hunting formed both the subsistence and ceremonial base of North Alaskan Inupiat life. The whales provided nourishment as well as spiritual renewal as they gave themselves up to whale hunting crews that had followed the necessary ritual observances.

Even today, hunting of the great Bowhead whale contributes significantly to the domains of subsistence and social solidarity. Inupiat residents of Barrow are keenly aware of the importance of whale hunting for maintaining cultural continuity and ethnic identity. For this reason, the Inupiat of the entire North Slope have lobbied intensively against a plethora of animal rights organizations seeking to ban all commercial and subsistence whaling. The Inupiat of the North Slope remain committed to the notion that they can reap the benefits of the modern world while holding on tenaciously to ceremonial and subsistence activities that reaffirm their cultural integrity.

North Slope's Educational Needs

In order to fulfill crucial administrative, business and political positions within the borough, the Inupiat of the North Slope have felt an increasing need for advanced educational and vocational training. In the past 20 years, the North Slope Inupiat have had to import non-native workers to perform many essential tasks. As more Inupiat receive advanced educations and vocational training, however, the North Slope hopes to rely less upon this imported labor force.

Despite this trend toward self-sufficiency and self-determination, many native residents of the North Slope have been unable to receive desired educational training. Although the community of Barrow is equipped with an impressive high school complex, only a handful of students are able to leave the North Slope to pursue college degrees. Students who do leave to attend college in Fairbanks, Anchorage or the "lower 48" often suffer from loneliness and culture shock and frequently drop out. Others are simply unable to leave the community due to family or work obligations.

The dream of establishing a locally controlled higher education facility, initially proposed by the North Slope's first mayor, Eben Hopson, in the early 1970s, was realized through the creation of the Inupiat University of the Arctic. The university offered a range of continuing education classes and vocational courses. However, administrative problems, primarily in the form of financial mismanagement, caused the university to close in 1980. It was apparent to all involved that the organization and creation of Inupiat University had been rushed along without sufficient consultation with other academic institutions within the state, such as the University of Alaska. Although conceived with the best of intentions, Inupiat University proved to be a poorly planned and rather sad chapter in the history of North Slope higher education.

The North Slope Higher Education Center

Nevertheless, higher education on the North Slope continued to be a high priority for many Inupiat residents. Mayor George Ahmaogak, who assumed office in 1984, revived Eben Hopson's dream in the form of the North Slope Higher Education Center (NSHEC), formally established on 7 January 1986 through the passage of North Slope Borough Ordinance No. 85-23.

This time, the educational center was formed through extensive planning, negotiation, proposal writing and consultation with national experts in Native American education. In order to ensure the center's academic and administrative integrity, the University of Alaska agreed to serve as the sponsoring institution by certifying academic credits, assisting in the screening of all potential faculty members and in setting registration and financial guidelines. At the same time, to ensure that the center remained sensitive to the special needs and concerns of North Slope residents, a local NSHEC board was created with members from six of the eight North Slope communities.

The mission and objectives of the NSHEC were that it "provide academic programs that are responsive to the needs of the citizens of the North Slope, particularly in the training and education of local people to manage and control the modern, complex institutions that have been established by and for them" Since many of the center's potential students would be adults employed full time, the center was conceived with a flexibility to accommodate the needs of these special students. The ultimate objective for the NSHEC was to develop its academic programs and administrative procedures to the point that it could, one day, achieve accreditation as an independent and locally controlled public institution of higher learning.

Getting the Center Off the Ground

During the formative stages of the center's development, the mayor appointed an interim director, Dr. Robert Harcharek, who had been faculty member with Inupiat University and had eventually married into the community. During the summer of 1986 the board hired full-time faculty members for the hall term; the University of Alaska also agreed to provide several of its own faculty members. In addition, a number of local residents, both Inupiat and non-Inupiat, were hired to offer courses in their areas of expertise. All faculty members received affiliate appointments at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Locating adequate office space in Barrow proved to be somewhat of a problem. Administrative and faculty offices were eventually set up at the main building of the old Naval Arctic Research Laboratory located some four miles from downtown Barrow. Unfortunately, since the vast majority of the center's students live work in Barrow, its distance limited the amount of out-of-class contact between faculty members and students. All classes, however, are taught in the evenings either at the teleconference room of the Arctic Slope Regional Corporation or in classrooms at Barrow's extensive high school complex, Faculty members usually meet with their students before and after class for advisory sessions and other special consultations.

After a rocky first semester, the NSHEC was in full operation with a total of 146 students enrolled in 25 different courses, including accounting, anthropology, English composition, political science, mathematics, education, business administration, public administration, journalism, psychology, computer science and Inupiaq language. Ninety-six percent of the center's student body works full-time on the North Slope.

Challenges Facing the Center

As would be expected in such a unique cultural and environmental setting, the center has confronted a host of formidable challenges. One of the most difficult is that faculty members often have to deal with an incredible range of student skills, interests and academic levels. A single class may contain people who have already had extensive postsecondary experience along with individuals enrolled in their very first college-level course. Some students, most notably non-Inupiat, may already hold college degrees but attend classes to obtain specific training. As a result, instructors may have to spend a great deal of extra time working with the less experienced students to ensure that they do not feel left behind.

Providing for the special needs of village students in one area that has plagued all faculty members. Students who reside in Barrow, and therefore attend classes in person, make up the vast majority of the center's student body. All courses offered to students in Borrow, however, are also offered to those students in this Slope's seven isolated villages. Since they are unable physically to attend classes, these village students are somewhat handicapped. Frequent teleconferences, correspondence and telephone calls serve to ensure that these students keep up with course requirements.

However, since village students have no visual contact with classroom members, they often miss the subtle nuances of classroom lectures and discussions. As a result, it is not unusual for village students either to fall significantly behind or to drop out altogether. Most faculty members find that for every course offering, they must actually teach two classes: one for Barrow students and another for village students. The amount of preparation that goes into providing instructional packages for one village student can be twice as much as that for 20 Barrow students.

To alleviate these problems, faculty members can sometimes make advising trips to villages, although time and money constraints often curtail the number of visits. The North Slope's Inupiat villages are widely dispersed and are very expensive to fly to on a regular basis. The center can also videotape or tape-record lectures and send them out to the villages. Nevertheless, without the frequent firsthand contact with faculty members, village students cannot get the attention received by Barrow students. For them to be successful, they must show an enormous level of commitment and self-motivation.

The center's ethnic composition has also posed some problems for NSHEC faculty. Although the entire North Slope Borough is predominately Inupiat, the town of Barrow, which contains 82 percent of the region's non-native population, is a multi-ethnic, multiracial community. According to a 1985 population census of Barrow's 3,016 residents, almost 40 percent were non-native; the remaining 60 percent were Inupiat, Indian and Aleut. The discovery of oil on the North Slope has brought about a dramatic increase in the number of non-natives coming to Barrow to fill essential administrative, educational, political and law enforcement positions. Within recent years, a surprising increase has also taken place in the numbers of other non-native ethnic groups, including Filipinos, Mexicans, Chinese and Eastern Europeans.

Enrollments for NSHEC classes reflect this ethnic mix. During the winter term of 1986-1987, for example, only 46 percent of the students enrolled in courses were native (including Inupiat, Aleut and Athaspascan). Although the NSHEC was designed primarily to provide for the special educational needs of North Slope Inupiat, it has a policy of serving all borough residents regardless of ethnic affiliation. Furthermore, if NSHEC classes were offered solely to individuals of Inupiat descent, the center's total enrollments would be much lower.

The policy of offering courses to all borough residents does have its drawbacks, however. Many Inupiat students, although bright and motivated, may feel overwhelmed or inadequately prepared in a classroom dominated by the educated non-natives. As one instructor observed, some of the native students are less likely to speak their minds when placed in such a minority situation. For this reason, instructors have to be most attentive to the needs of these students while not compromising upon their ability to provide challenging material to the other students.

An area in which the NSHEC has had to face some uncertainty is in borough politics. Although the mayor unequivocally supports the center, a number of North Slope Borough Assembly members have expressed some opposition to the entire concept of higher education on the North Slope, believing that the benefits reaped by the center do not justify the great expense of establishing and maintaining it. For example, the chairman of the assembly, a political opponent of the incumbent mayor, has repeatedly gone on record in opposing the NSHEC. The NSHEC has become, to some extent, a political football, with the result that its continued funding is totally dependent upon the N.S.B. Assembly's political alignment at any given time. This financial uncertainty has had a substantial effect on faculty and staff morale.

Evaluating the Program

The program has already established a great deal of credibility. Accounting, business management, education and English writing courses provide students with specific job skills. The most popular courses are those in conversational Inupiaq, which are taken by non-natives as well as young Inupiat who have limited knowledge of their native tongue. In fact, Inupiaq language has become a required course for new teachers and public safety officers on course for new teachers and public safety officers on the North Slope. The North Slope's Department of Education has taken the center's mission most seriously, and requires all their teachers to take upgrading courses designed to improve their teaching skills and their knowledge of Inupiat culture and language. Another popular course is "Culture and History of the North Slope," which relies heavily on presentations made by local elders. In this regard, the mission of the NSHEC is to increase awareness and understanding of Inupiat culture as much as it is to provide higher educational opportunities to North Slope Inupiat.

In the spring of 1987, an internal evaluation committee from the University of Alaska and representatives of the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges gave the NSHEC a formal evaluation. After extensive meetings, interviews and observations of classroom teaching, the evaluators submitted a report that was full of praise for the center's rapid accomplishments. The report noted the high quality and commitment of the faculty and staff as well as the interest and enthusiasm of the students. It also gave a detailed list of recommendations for improving the center's educational services, including strengthening the library facilities, creating a faculty development program, improving the village delivery system and instituting a more effective advisory program for village-based students. The report also called for a clear understanding of the North Slope Borough's educational needs.

Despite the evaluation committee's positive report, it will be some time before the NSHEC is able to congeal itself into a viable, degree-granting institution. At present, the majority of students take only those courses that will provide immediate results in career development. The center's faculty and staff have met with students in Barrow and the villages to outline the detailed requirements for baccalaureate degrees in an effort to increase awareness of the scope of the center's offerings.

The problem of dealing equitably with the center's village students remains a formidable task. However, the NSHEC is not alone in such matters; the difficulties inherent in the distance-delivery of higher education courses have been a perennial challenge faced by most of Alaska's community colleges and universities. The University of Alaska's College of Human and Rural Development, for example, has offered such academic programs for several decades, the costs of which are relatively high compared to the numbers of students who successfully complete courses. For this reason, these students are usually the first to suffer when the state legislature institutes budget cuts.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that such expensive programs are necessary given the unique cultural and geographic characteristics of a predominately rural, sparsely populated state. A program that can graduate just a handful of native students from remote villages should be considered just as viable as on campus programs that graduate hundreds of full-time, residential students. Ignoring the special needs of these village students squanders the unique potential of rural Alaskan residents.

The North Slope Higher Education Center is in a unique position to determine its own fate, not only because it is located in the heart of rural Alaska but because its governing board is composed of local Inupiat who are sensitive to the needs of all North Slope residents. With commitment, continued funding and hard work, the center will no doubt entrench itself as an important component of the educational process within Barrow and all the remote villages of the North Slope.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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