The decision to locate the Alaska College of Agriculture and School of Mines near Fairbanks in 1915 was a factor in Fairbanks's survival as a permanent town. The legislation was introduced in Congress by James Wickersham, a steadfast supporter of Fairbanks, who specified a site near the Agricultural Experiment Station, which had been established in 1906. An appropriation from the territorial legislature was not forthcoming until 1917, when the first building was constructed, although there were not enough funds to furnish it.
With the appointment of Charles E. Bunnell as president in 1921, the college received the boost it needed. Bunnell was a dynamic leader, and the college grew steadily. Classes began in 1922, and the college graduated its first student, a transfer, in 1923. By 1925, there were eleven buildings constituting the campus. In 1935, the college was named the University of Alaska.
Set on a commanding ridge, the architecture of the university does not always take advantage of the site. The plan often seems haphazard; buildings are not connected, despite the severe weather, and recent buildings have been constructed in an extended campus a mile away, and joined by a shuttle-bus service. The permafrost that underlies much of the campus renders certain sites unsuitable for building. In addition, the U.S. Geological Survey owns 40 acres near the middle of campus, preventing expansion to adjacent sites.
No major buildings remain from the initial building program, which concentrated on expedient, wood-framed structures. The second generation, from the 1930s, included several reinforced-concrete structures with modified Art Deco detailing. Postwar expansion has had the greatest effect on the campus, and oil-boom buildings of the 1970s and 1980s are some of the best.