The Beginnings of Circumpolar Studies
By Jón Haukur Ingimundarson, Senior Scientist, Stefansson Arctic Institute
During the latter days of the very first meeting of the Interim Council of the University of the Arctic in Fairbanks, consensus began to form out of disparate and foggy ideas towards a set of concrete deliverables.
These plans included the governance structure and a coordination office, but several participants also insisted that the development of an education program should be a priority. Thus the concept of a “Circumpolar Baccalaureate Program in International Arctic Studies” – proposed by Sally Ross and Aron Senkpiel of Yukon College – was unanimously agreed and became what we know as Circumpolar Studies today.
I joined the development team as chair, along with Aron, Steve Young and Richard Glen, as well as Outi Snellman and Scott Forrest from the coordination office. In Fairbanks – and afterwards – Aron and Scott, with perennial backing and support of Outi and Sally in particular, worked in unison as prime movers for making the idea of a Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies (BCS) into reality. Aron frequently portrayed himself as an administrator on a special mission – focussing his energies on seeing UArctic’s first programs through to development. He humorously referred to Scott and Jón Haukur as the administrator’s perfect young and middle-aged academic companions.
Several euphoric “aha” moments occurred in the first meeting of the development team at Centre for Northern Studies in Vermont that laid the foundation of Circumpolar Studies’ basic structure and content. Our idea was a set of six courses on the themes of Land and Environment, Peoples and Cultures, and Contemporary Issues plus BCS 100 – an Introduction to the Circumpolar World. This basic course structure is still what we have in place today.
A key milestone in the process was when Professor Olav Hesjedal, formerly the rector of Telemark College, joined the team. This addition was the result of bringing together the Scandinavian Seminar Group’s similar idea for an “Interdisciplinary Arctic Studies Program” into Circumpolar Studies. The merged effort continued under the umbrella of UArctic, but with substantial input of both expertise and funding from Scandinavian Seminar Group.
Olav was a person of high-mindedness, and his mode of being industrious and diligent was contagious – he was a strong vitamin injection for the team. He helped establish BCS’s set of foundation principles and also ensured that Russian and indigenous scholars had funding to participate in the development work. Olav ensured through these principles that Circumpolar Studies would develop interdisciplinary Arctic studies while promoting an integrated view of the region and fostering connections between northern neighbours.
When Aron passed away in March 2003 and Olav Hesjedal in September 2014, UArctic lost two of its founding creators and visionaries of its first flagship program, the Bachelor of Circumpolar Studies.