From Special Collections/University Archives: Bucknell Alumnus Was First President of University of Alaska

Did you know Bucknell University took a vital role in the creation of the nation’s farthest north university? The University of Alaska was founded in 1922 under the name of the Alaska Agriculture College and School of Mines. In 1921, a man named Charles Bunnell, a Bucknell alum from 1900, became president of the newly founded institution and brought it forward as an accredited establishment of higher education.

Son of Lyman Walton Bunnell and Ruth Naomi Tingley, Charles Bunnell was born on January 12, 1878 in Dimock, a small town in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania. He matriculated at  Bucknell in 1896, graduating summa cum laude in 1900. After graduation, Charles Bunnell traded central Pennsylvania for the northern hinterland, taking a teaching job in a Baptist Mission School on Wood Island, Alaska. He taught for a few years on the island and in another town, Valdez, before passing the Alaska Bar Examination and becoming a lawyer with his own practice.

Charles Bunnell was very active in the community, joining several social, civic and fraternal groups before eventually participating in politics. In 1914, he ran for Delegate to Congress on the Democratic ticket. He lost to Judge James Wickersham, but in that same year became the District Judge of the Fourth Division (Fairbanks). Bunnell held that position for seven years, until he was presented with an offer to head a new land grant institution in 1921. He accepted, and on August 11th of that year, Charles Bunnell became the first president of the Alaska Agriculture College and School of Mines.

The college opened full time a year later, with an enrollment of six full time students and six instructors. Despite its low enrollment,  the college grew steadily under Bunnell’s guidance and became the University of Alaska in 1935, growing an initial enrollment of 6 students to almost 300 students when Bunnell retired in 1949. At the time of his retirement, Bunnell’s years of service made him the senior president out of 51 land grant colleges in the United States. Bunnell was the only president of a land grant university who also founded the main university.

Charles Bunnell died at the age of 78 in Burlingame, California in 1956. The Committee of Alumni at the University of Alaska commissioned a life-size sculpture of Bunnell to be placed on campus in his memory. He is depicted “as a middle-aged man with pride, purpose, and a sense of achievement. He is dressed in his doctoral hood, on his way to a commencement surprise.” The statue captures Bunnell in stride looking left, glancing at the space between the University of Alaska’s Signers Hall and the Bunnell Building toward the Alaska Range, signifying  the university’s motto, “Ad Summun,” meaning “To the summit.”

Charles Bunnell is remembered in William R. Cashen’s a book about Bunnell’s life, “Farthest North College President: Charles E. Bunnell and the Early History of the University of Alaska” with a copy available in Special Collections. As a part of its collection, Special Collections/University Archives has Charles Bunnell’s academic hood from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. If you would like to learn more about Charles Bunnell, check out this book or visit the Special Collections/University Archives to see his hood and documents regarding his career.


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