UAA College of Business and Public Policy: 50 years in the making

by Michelle Saport  |   

Rasmuson Hall framed by sunflowers
UAA's Rasmuson Hall, home to the College of Business and Public Policy, framed by flowers along Providence Drive. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

UAA's College of Business and Public Policy (CBPP) is celebrating 50 years. This half-century mark underscores CBPP's dedication, innovation and influence in shaping business education in Alaska. The community is invited to celebrate the college's rich history and bright future at the CBPP Showcase on Oct. 13.

Journey from past to present

From its start as a community college division housed in temporary buildings to its current esteemed stature, CBPP's first 50 years follow a trajectory of impressive growth and achievements.

Foremost among CBPP's major milestones was earning accreditation from the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB), a distinction held by only 6% of business schools worldwide. The college received initial accreditation in 1995 and most recently gained an accreditation extension in 2021 after exceeding benchmarks during its last review. AACSB's accreditation criteria, continually refined over the years, are the gold standard for evaluating a school's mission, faculty qualifications, curricula and other critical areas. For students, accreditation has the added benefit of making it easier to transfer credits between other AACSB schools and helping graduate school applications stand out.

"AACSB accreditation is a testament to our dedication to providing a rigorous, credible and competitive education. It assures employers that CBPP graduates are ready to perform on day one," said Terry Nelson, Ph.D., associate dean and professor of leadership and business administration.

Another significant milestone was the construction of Rasmuson Hall, the college's dedicated building, completed in 1992. Originally named the Business Education Building, the new facility symbolized the college's growth and emergence as a major entity on the campus. The building was formally renamed Edward & Cathryn Rasmuson Hall in 2005 to honor the couple's numerous contributions to UAA.

The building is constantly evolving to keep pace with changing demands and trends. Major recent additions include the Weidner Center for Real Estate Management in 2017, Alaska Data Science & Artificial Intelligence Lab in 2019 (a partnership with the UAA College of Engineering), Seawolf Stock Ticker in 2022, and the First National Bank Alaska Finance Lab in 2023. These state-of-the-art centers function as hubs for academic and extracurricular activities, significantly enhancing the student experience and expanding research opportunities.

At the Oct. 13 showcase, guests can view the stock ticker in action, tour the labs and journey through the college's remarkable history at the pop-up CBPP Museum. A timeline and two honored docents, Professor Emeritus Larry Foster and Staff Emerita Janet Burton, will offer context for the collection. In addition to artifacts from the college's past (like the 1991 strategic plan, self-study for initial AACSB accreditation, and paper course catalogs dating back to the '80s), items from other colleges and units will be on display, from old Seawolf varsity jackets to '70s-era technology used by the UAA/APU Consortium Library.

UAA Business Education Building under construction (UAA University Advancement photographs, Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage)
1992: Business Education Building (now Rasmuson Hall) under construction. (UAA University Advancement photographs, Archives and Special Collections, University of Alaska Anchorage) 
Ed and Cathryn Rasmuson speak at the naming celebration for Rasmuson Hall
2005: Ed and Cathryn Rasmuson speak at the naming celebration for Rasmuson Hall. (Photo by Mike Dineen / University of Alaska Anchorage) 

Business is everywhere

Although business education is often perceived as a "boring" field, shuffling papers and dealing with numbers — it's anything but dull. At UAA, especially, business is a dynamic field where students engage in research, simulations, experiments and real-world applications. Whether making real-life decisions for a million-dollar investment fund, role-playing major powers during an Alaska-specific disaster simulation, co-authoring and publishing a research paper with a faculty member, investigating real financial crimes alongside industry professionals or interning in a residential leasing office for one of the country's largest property management companies, opportunities extend well beyond the classroom.

Moreover, Nelson stressed the universal nature of business. It permeates every sector and career path. Whether a student aspires to be an engineer, a dancer or pursue another profession, understanding business is crucial. From leadership and organizational behavior to accounting and marketing, business skills are invaluable for personal and professional growth. Even if a student's passion lies elsewhere, business knowledge complements and enhances their chosen field.

The college's most popular minor, business administration, lays a solid foundation for students in any major. It's a key part of the college's drive to encourage all students, regardless of study area, to pursue programs in entrepreneurship and leadership.

Two students using tabletop gaming for a disaster simulation
2021: UAA College of Business and Public Policy Master's of Public Administration graduate students Maya Narang and Cuckoo Gupta demonstrate how their class uses Discord servers and board games to plan and run Arctic Strategy disaster scenarios. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Adapting to a changing landscape

At the core of CBPP's success story is its dedication to academic excellence. The college's offerings have expanded significantly over the years, adapting to meet the needs of both students and the workforce. When the college first launched, the curriculum included foundational subjects like accounting and general business. Today, the college offers a wide range of certificate, undergraduate and graduate programs encompassing areas such as finance, economics, property management, hospitality management, public administration, logistics, marketing and more.

One of the newest concentrations offered by CBPP is the Alaska Native business management minor and occupational endorsement certificate (OEC). (The program's first graduate, Amanda Sagmoen, completed the minor in 2016.) The two options cover the history, culture and management of Alaska Native corporations — essential knowledge for anyone doing business in the state.

CBPP Interim Communications Manager Kurt Robar, emphasizing the significance of the academic programs, said, "We strive for diversity and quality. Our programs are designed to give students a well-rounded education that is relevant in today's rapidly changing world."

The expanded offerings exemplify CBBPP's forward-looking approach to education, always staying a step ahead of trends and changes to ensure student success. Among these innovations is developing stackable programs that allow students to achieve milestones along their academic journey, ensuring a smooth transition and boosting motivation. Take accounting, for example; a student can start the program with the occupational endorsement certificate in bookkeeping, which takes a year or less to complete. If a student decides to continue their studies, the OEC stacks into the associate in accounting degree, which stacks into the bachelor's in accounting. This approach, now common across the university, helps students save time and money during their academic journey while empowering them to leave UAA with a credential, not just credits.

It's not just looking ahead either — the college is quick to pivot and respond in the face of unexpected challenges like those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To maintain a sense of community, even in a remote or hybrid learning environment, the college launched an on-campus welcome event to help new first-year, transfer and graduate students connect with each other and faculty, as well as learn more about resources and opportunities for involvement. Almost 200 students attended the 2022 event, with some online students meeting their professors and classmates in person for the first time. The event wrapped up with CBPP Dean John Nofsinger awarding more than $15,000 in tuition waivers to students. Inspired by its success, the college hosted an online scavenger hunt to reach even more students, awarding textbook funds for finding information on the CBPP website.

The commitment to supporting students and fostering talent is evidenced by the college's many notable alumni. CBPP boasts more UAA Alumni of Distinction than any other college and an impressive number of Top Forty Under 40 alums, including two on this year's list.

Vernon Smith speaks with students
2020: Nobel laureate and UAA's first Rasmuson Chair of Economics Vernon Smith, Ph.D., participates in a Q&A with College of Business and Public Policy students in UAA's Rasmuson Hall. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Research and innovation

Innovation is central to CBPP's mission, and research activity has been a major area of growth over the past five decades. Research stretches across all disciplines in the college, exploring everything from urban wildfire risk and socially responsible investing to teacher turnover and food security.

The Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER), which became part of UAA in 1984, is the oldest public policy research institute in Alaska and focuses attention on critical economic and social issues in the region.

"Our research is not just theoretical," said Nelson. "It has a real impact on our community. We aim to create knowledge that makes a difference."

In the '80s, the college was one of the first business schools to adopt a computer lab, equipped with some of the earliest Macintosh computers. Today, CBPP is at the forefront of technology as it endeavors to integrate artificial intelligence across the curriculum. Helena Wisniewski, Ph.D., the Marion Porter Endowed Chair, is leading efforts to infuse AI into several courses. The integration goes beyond the classroom as she envisions engaging the community in AI projects providing students with real-world experiences. The aim is to embrace AI and its potential, making it an integral part of both education and community development.

Ribbon-cutting for Weidner Center
2017: Student/alumni speaker Arina Filippenko cuts the ribbon with help from UAA Interim Chancellor Samuel Gingerich, left, Weidner Property Management Vice President of Public Relations Greg Cerbana, center, and former CBPP Professor and UAA Chancellor Tom Case, right, during the ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new Weidner Center for Real Estate Management at UAA's Rasmuson Hall. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Philanthropy and scholarships

Generous support from community and alumni donors has been an important catalyst for growth at CBPP.

One of the college's most significant gifts, $5 million from Elmer Rasmuson in 2000, established the Rasmuson Chair in Economics — the first fully endowed chair in the University of Alaska system. From the start, the chair enabled UAA to bring distinguished scholars to campus. Vernon Smith, Ph.D., a 2002 Nobel laureate in economics, served as the first chair from 2003 to 2006. He continues to serve as an affiliate professor, and CBPP renamed its economics lab after him in 2017.

A decade after the Rasmuson endowment, in 2011, Dean Weidner gifted $3 million to create the Weidner Chair, eventually leading to the creation of the Weidner Property Management & Real Estate Program at CBPP, one of the few programs in the country offering a bachelor's degree with a dedicated curriculum focused on the management of real estate assets.

More recently, in 2021, UAA alumnus (and founder of the student Accounting Club) Gary Klopfer, B.B.A. '81, and his wife, Jane Cuddy Klopfer, donated $1 million to establish the UAA Student Investment Fund, enabling students to gain hands-on experience in portfolio management. Returns from the fund are dedicated to student scholarships, helping support the next generation of business leaders.

Affordability is a top priority for UAA, and CBPP is no exception. Last academic year, 117 CBPP students benefited from a combined $134,200 in scholarships. The college continuously works toward growing scholarships to help students succeed, with a scholarship for Alaska Native students as one of its newest initiatives.

Crowd at Rasmuson Hall celebrates opening of Seawolf Stock Ticker
2022: Dean of the College John Nofsinger addresses the crowd during the launch of the Seawolf Stock Ticker at the UAA College of Business and Public Policy Showcase event. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Community engagement and outreach

Beyond the confines of classrooms and research labs, CBPP recognizes the vital importance of community engagement and outreach. Throughout its 50-year history, the college has cultivated strong relationships with the local community, including K-12 schools, businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations. These collaborations enrich the academic experience for students, creating valuable opportunities for practical learning and networking.

From the annual showcase to public lectures, community events highlight CBPP's dedication to bridging the gap between academia and the real world. This past spring, economics faculty hosted a popular After-Hours Speaker Series at The Writer's Block Bookstore & Café to make their research more accessible to the public. The college's AI webinar series is another popular draw, both for attendees and distinguished speakers: past sessions featured Dave Johnson, Ph.D., chief data and AI officer for Moderna, discussing how AI accelerated COVID-19 vaccine development, and UAA alum Nick Armstrong-Crews, senior software engineer at Waymo, presenting a look at the power of autonomous vehicles.

Encouraging a passion for entrepreneurship and leadership in youth is another priority for the college. This year, the college broadened its free summer academy offerings to introduce more middle and high school students to business topics in an engaging format. The college also provides outreach to high school juniors and seniors through the Tom Case Leadership Fellows Academy, a comprehensive support and mentoring program.

The college-level version of the program, Tom Case Leadership Fellows, now in its 10th year, matches students with community business leaders for a yearlong mentorship. Engagement and service are also key components of the program, and students give back to the community by completing a group service project during their term.

Another established CBPP program for fostering entrepreneurship within the community is the Alaska Business Plan Competition, open to all UAA students and Anchorage residents. Participants develop and pitch their startup ideas to experienced investors, executives and entrepreneurs who provide invaluable feedback. The 2023 event awarded over $17,000 in cash prizes to the top competitors, key funds for helping them take their business to the next level.

Whether it's local employers who provide valuable feedback on ever-evolving workplace needs or alumni who give back by volunteering as a mentor, community also plays a pivotal role in sustaining the college.

Ross Spencer pitches his business
2023: Competitor Ross Spencer pitches his business, Apex Ladderbox LLC, as UAA's College of Business and Public Policy hosts the Perfect Pitch Business Plan Competition Finale in Rasmuson Hall. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

'Get involved'

Student Ross Spencer cites confidence and connections as two of the key things the college provided him. The health sciences grad returned to UAA to study business management with an emphasis in property management after discovering his entrepreneurial spirit while working in construction. His journey at CBPP dovetails with his efforts to develop an innovative storage tool he patented, Apex LadderBox. Although the tool is still in the prototype phase, Spencer says the mentorship and encouragement received through CBPP has been invaluable in moving forward.

He competed in the Business Plan Competition twice, winning second place each time, and participated as a 2022-23 Tom Case Leadership Fellow, paired with mentor Alyssa Rodrigues, director of the Alaska Manufacturing Extension Partnership. In addition to providing advice, Rodrigues connected Spencer with a manufacturer in Idaho who 3-D printed two designs for the Apex LadderBox — a major step toward bringing the product to market.

"I'm really impressed with how intertwined CBPP is with the community. They have taken their time to cultivate relationships, and I think that's paying dividends for them and for the students," said Spencer.

He encourages students to get involved and take advantage of all CBPP offers: "It's investing now into what you want to do later."

Rasmuson Hall framed by sunflowers
2022: UAA College of Business and Public Policy Professor Helena Wisniewski, Ph.D., and College of Engineering Dean and Professor Kenrick Mock, Ph.D., offer tours of the Alaska Data Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (ADSAIL) during the CBPP Showcase. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Showcase sneak peek

The second annual CBPP Showcase, which will take over all three floors of Rasmuson Hall and the adjacent Spine on Oct. 13, from 5-7:30 p.m., is a fitting tribute to the college's legacy. The 21+ event invites the community to explore the college and celebrate 50 years of quality education.

From interactive demos in the AI lab to breakout sessions highlighting CBPP programs like experimental economics, property management, accounting forensics and Alaska Native business management, attendees will be able to experience CBPP's innovative offerings firsthand.

Networking will be a signature piece of the showcase. Last year, chance encounters turned into job opportunities. This year's event is going bigger and better with a dedicated networking space in the Spine between Rasmuson Hall and the Avis Alaska Sports Complex featuring music, ambient lighting and a dedicated bar with a specialty drink. In a nod to the college's collaborative approach, UAA Culinary Arts students will assist with catering and serving during the event.

The event also serves as a fundraiser with proceeds from ticket sales and a silent auction supporting CBPP student programs and scholarships. Throughout the night, guests can bid on unique experiences and packages, such as dinner with Chancellor Parnell, fishing with Dean Nofsinger, a personal tour of the Port of Alaska and two round-trip Alaska Airlines tickets.

Brett Motyka mentors students
2022: Brett Motyka participates as a mentor during CBPP's Speed Mentoring event. (Photo by Brett Rawalt / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Looking ahead to the next 50 years

As the college celebrates fifty years of excellence, it looks forward to shaping the leaders of tomorrow and making lasting contributions to the field of academia and beyond.

"Business education is tied to technology. We teach students to use the most up-to-date business software and techniques. We also teach students using the latest technology tools. Fifty years ago, we didn’t have personal computers, spreadsheets, email or the internet. It is unlikely people from the past could imagine how we do business (and teach business education) today," said Dean Nofsinger. "Given the rapid evolution of technology, it’s challenging to predict what business education will look like in another 50 years. However, it is likely to be more personalized and involve virtual and augmented reality technology. Education itself could become more continuous in nature rather than the traditional fixed-duration model. It sure will be exciting to see how business and business education evolve!"

Join the UAA College of Business and Public Policy at Rasmuson Hall on Friday, Oct. 13, for an engaging evening celebrating new endeavors and five decades of quality education. Tickets are on sale now!

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