What to Bring to College of the Atlantic this Fall

What should I bring to COA?

On a long, early morning run I pondered my own first days at the College of the Atlantic and was therefore well-prepared when a recently admitted student asked for a list of what things to bring.

Footwear. A strange item to list first on a list like this, perhaps, but hiking boots would be a great investment. This is a practical and philosophical recommendation that has little to do with being “outdoorsy.” Practically and philosophically, we spend more time than other people doing things and such doing will invariably bring you into Acadia National Park, a planning office, an historical society, a mine, a boat, an outcrop of granite, a restaurant, a tree, a roof, a field of grass, a field of mathematics, a business, a forest. You need footwear that can accommodate that diversity. Bare feet are great on the lawn, but they tear easily on the 600 million year old Ellsworth Schist that is our bedrock. From personal experience, if you had to have one pair of shoes, I’d recommend hiking boots.

Other clothing. I’m not the most elegant dresser (see above), but, if you had the chance to invest in one additional piece of clothing, I’d suggest an impermeable outer layer. It need not be fancy, expensive, breathable material because we’re more interested in keeping the moisture out than your perspiration in.

The practical: winter. It’s cold. But it’s absolutely beautiful. Come with the mindset of embracing winter by getting outside and you will adore the ten-week winter term. That shell layer is key, even if it’s a five-dollar nylon poncho. You can borrow layers from friends or from the Free Box; you can purchase them from Bar Harbor Barter and Swap, thrift stores, or Cadillac Mountain Sports.

The philosophical: think of this as a reminder to develop thick skin. Constructive criticism – even on the tail end of passion and hard work – is crucial for any successful human ecologist.

Cooking gadgetry. Food is a very important part of the COA experience. The food served up in TAB is excellent and thoughtful, but we’ve purposefully kept Saturdays and Sundays off the meal plan in order to force you to think about consumption, food, and community cooking on at least those two days. There will be students from approximately 35 countries and 40 states at the College next year and food is a great way to explore that geographic and cultural diversity. You don’t need to buy or bring any cooking gadgetry because the kitchens in campus housing have gear and you should be thinking about packing efficiency. That said, if there’s that special garlic press you just can’t live without, by all means bring it.

Postcards. When my mom dropped me off here in the fall of 1988 she cried like a baby and left me with several dozen self-addressed, stamped post cards. This was before the miraculous and disastrous invention of the mobile phone. In most cases the separation between the modern parental unit and child can be difficult.   Mobile phones have exacerbated the problem. There will be times where you’ll be cold, confused, hungry, scared, challenged and otherwise uncomfortable – physically and metaphysically. That’s the point. Let your folks or guardians or whomever know how you’re doing by all means, but write it down on a post card and resist the urge to call or text.

A map of MDI. You are about to embark on a collegiate adventure that is situated on one of the most beautiful places on Earth: Acadia National Park, which makes up about 65% of the 105 square mile Mt. Desert Island. Explore it. No car? There is a trailhead directly across from the Community Garden on campus and you can get everywhere from there. No excuses. Yes, many classes will get you out and about, but this is your president telling you to find time to stop thinking and stop working and just enjoy the outdoors. I feel so strongly about this that we’ve bought all of you maps, so don’t go out and buy one.

Willingness to interact with people you don’t know. I’m not saying everyone needs to be an extrovert. Introverts are great. I consider myself one. But one key element of doing human ecology is doing it with others and engaging with humanity in all of its forms. I’ll never forget the day I walked into a convenience store in New Orleans with my best friend (and later, best man in my wedding) and he started a long conversation with the cashier – a dreaded stranger, egads! – that lasted into the night, that had everyone involved rolling in delightful and illuminating laughter, and forever reshaped my conception of self and other. Human ecology is an alembic for turning strangers into colleagues. Plus, life is so much more fun when you engage.

Gumption (or, in my own parlance, scrappiness). From Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance (bring the book if you have it. You can borrow my copy if you don’t): “A person filled with gumption doesn’t sit around dissipating and stewing about things. He’s at the front of the train of his own awareness, watching to see what’s up the track and meeting it when it comes. Gumption is the psychic gasoline that keeps the whole thing (a motorcycle in need of repair, for instance, or any other project) going.” Bring what gumption you have. Prepare to gain it and use it on some of the world’s most difficult challenges. That’s what we do here.

Your sense of adventure. It’s ok if you don’t have hiking boots – we’ll find a work around. It’s ok if you’re quiet – you’ll gain confidence in speaking with others. But, without a sense of adventure or at least a willingness to cultivate one, you will find it difficult to succeed here. And I’m not talking about the adrenaline junkie sense of adventure (although that can be good too), I’m talking about the passion and curiosity for pushing your understanding of yourself and the social, natural, and built environment you operate in – that’s human ecology and that requires a hunger for adventure. The adventures you’re about to embark upon are of mind and of body and, most of the time, both. Bring a sense of adventure and other things will fall into place.

See you next fall,


28 Hours of Extraordinary Human Ecology

From 4:10pm on Tuesday, November 18th to 8:10pm on Wednesday, November 19th I moved through human ecological paradise and thought a short photographic essay describing those hours would be well worth the effort.


4:10 PM, 11/18 — The last Human Ecology Forum of Fall Term featured two of my heroes: Eric Jackson and Jessie Stone.  The combined talk spoke to extreme whitewater paddling, malaria eradication in Uganda, and living adventurous lives. Thanks to COA faculty member John Visvader for managing the Human Ecology Forum!


6:00 PM, 11/18 — EJ and my daughter Maggie heading out to dinner at Blaze in Bar Harbor.


8:25 AM, 11/19 — COA faculty member Dave Feldman’s Differential Equations class.  Students presented their final projects over the course of the day.  Here’s COA student Ellie Oldach discussing models of predation in salt marshes.  Stunning work.


9:02 AM, 11/18 — Still in Dave’s class.  Here’s Will Greene, MDI High School Senior, son of the late Craig Greene, great human being.  His work examined population models of deer on MDI.


12:00 PM, 11/19 — Lunch in TAB. Food made and consumed with love.


1:30 PM, 11/19 — That’s COA faculty member Davis Taylor in the foreground, putting his back into it.  ACM today was dedicated to leaves.  What a day.


2:30 PM, 11/19 — Elmer Beal!  Need I say more? Elmer’s first day on the job at COA was September 1, 1972. He’s retiring this year and gave the trimester’s final Human Ecology Core Course general lecture.


5:00 PM, 11/19 — COA faculty member Dru Colbert’s Installation Art class finished off the term with a gallery opening at Artemis Gallery in Northeast Harbor. Spectacular.


6:30 PM, 11/19 — My daughter Molly (on left) presented her final project, “COA’s Composting System,” at Conners-Emerson School, the culmination of an amazing farm-to-school program run by COA students and supervised by COA faculty member Bonnie Tai.

Wow. I need some shut-eye.

SHE Conference Opens at COA

The 20th Society for Human Ecology conference began last night on the College of the Atlantic campus.  The conference is named “Ecological Responsibility and Human Imagination.” These were my remarks.

Good evening everyone, my name is Darron Collins.  I am the president and an alumnus of the College of the Atlantic.  I am incredibly proud and honored to host all of you and the Society for Human Ecology here on the COA campus.  Before saying one more word, I wanted to thank Ken Hill and Rich Borden for leading from this end — I cannot believe 18 months have passed since Canberra, when we hatched this idea.  Though many dozens of people pulled together to make this happen, Ken and Rich led the charge.

College of the Atlantic is one of approximately 2500 private, non-profit, four-year colleges in the country.  It is an incredibly competitive landscape.  When we describe ourselves in this landscape — to prospective students, parents, faculty, the media, whomever — we land on three things that define us within that great amalgam of institutions:

1) Our size.  We are strategically small.  We have sought to create a community of teachers and learners here.  Being part of the community and helping to continually reinvent the community is key to the learning and teaching experience.  You will, hopefully, feel that over the next few days.  Our students — although only 350 strong — are some of the most dynamic, creative, and passionate in the world. They come from 35 different countries and carry many perspectives.  They will be joining this conference over the next several days as Thursday and Friday classes were canceled.  Better said, Thursday and Friday classes are this conference.

2) Our place.  We are who we are as a college because of where we are as a college.  Many of you have experienced this first hand in trying to get here.  At least there’s a bridge to the island.  Though we seek to take what we learn here and find relevance for it in the wider world, it is part of our mission as an organization to bring the focus and the power of the human ecological perspective to the humanity and ecology of the Maine coast.  With our front yard in the Gulf of Maine and our back yard in Acadia National Park, we are a college that has imbibed the local.

3) Our curriculum.  Our curriculum is centered on the teaching, the learning, and the practice of human ecology.  Human Ecology is what we teach; it is how we teach; and it is why we teach.  What: we seek to understand the broadest spectrum of relationships between human beings and their built, their social, and their physical environment.  How: we teach human ecologically, by affording our students the power to design their own curriculum around what interests them; by asking students to think beyond and between the narrow confines of departments; by asking students to learn actively, using a better balance between hands and mind, to learn by doing. And, finally, why: we practice human ecology because we believe that the world could be better than we currently find it.

And it is on this last note that I would like to conclude these opening remarks and leave you with a thought that might stay with you throughout this conference. When we — and I mean the collective we of the college and the participants in this conference — look at the world, we tend to see it as a world askew or broken.  We sometimes default to the position of understanding the world as a cluster of very complicated problems. Our role as human ecologists, we tell ourselves, is to fix these problems.

As human ecologists we may stretch; we my think and act from an interdisciplinary perspective; we may think holistically, long-term; we may embrace complexity.  These are good things and significant advances over reductionist times.

But I lose sleep over the thought of understanding the world as a bunch of problems.  It’s at the same time naïve and arrogant. I find myself, talking with prospective students, using the phrase — we take a “problem-solving” approach — to differentiate what we do from a classroom-centered, abstraction. Though it’s a metaphor that young students can get their mind around, it’s just not quite right.

As human ecologists, we’ve given short shrift to the “non problem-centered” or “non utilitarian approaches” within the sciences, the humanities, and the arts; short shrift to detailed, thoughtful observation as in natural history; short shrift to understanding the power of the written word to tell stories and to learn from such stories; and, most problematically, short shrift to the arts as a fundamentally unique way of interpreting the world.  I think that’s one reason we wanted to make sure that term imagination rang loudly at this conference.

I’d ask that you keep that notion in mind during this conference.  Specifically, of all the things you do here at the conference, please visit the Blum Gallery and see the work of Ashley Bryan.  Ashley Bryan — an artist, storyteller, a brilliant observer — is the type specimen human ecologist.  His work and the man himself are not to be missed.  Ashley will be in the gallery on Thursday afternoon and will be joining us for lobster dinner.  His work helps me unravel this koan of “how do we continue to reinvent and improve the world without seeing it as a cluster of problems.” I think he can do the same for all of us.

Thank you for your time.  Thank you for being here.  And welcome to the 20th annual Society for Human Ecology conference at College of the Atlantic.

My 2014 Convocation Address

On September 10th, 2014 we began the 43rd academic year at the College of the Atlantic.  The highlight of the celebration was the talk given by COA alumnus John Deans, ’07.  What follows is the original text of my own talk.  For the actual talk, I boiled this written piece down to notes and then used those notes as a guide during my improvisation.  If I had more time I would find a way to include creatively the mugs, the walking stick, and When the Levee Breaks into this blog.  You’ll have to read on to see how those things are relevant.  


Welcome to the 43rd academic year of the College of the Atlantic.

You saw my email message yesterday about the MAP process? We’re going to be spending time on a plan for what we want this college to look like at the start of our 50th convocation, which will be September 5th, 2021.

I’ve talked with loads of people about what the process and the product of this MAP should look like and in more than just a few of those discussions I’ve had people say to me “Darron – don’t take this the wrong way,” (you know, when anyone says such a thing, you should brace yourself) “I think one of your greatest strengths as president is that you are a good listener; but at the beginning of this process, I don’t think it would be a bad idea at all to come right out and say what you would like the college to look like in 2021.”

So, for this address, I’m taking their advice.

The hardest part of this task for me is that I look at what we have here – our teachers, staff, the incoming group of students, our balanced budget, our endowment, even the superficial but important US News rankings, the campus including farms, and islands, commitment, the passion, the news, our partners, and say, “amazing” – just think of how far we’ve come from when I was an incoming student and sat at convocation September 7th, 1988, just five years after the majority of the college burned to the ground! Why change a thing?

But there’s loads of room for improvement. Who doesn’t want to get better at what you do? There’s a whole string of obvious needs: salary increases; the need to plan ahead for retirements; how to increase our name recognition. But every college and every college president wants those tings. Without minimizing those and other key areas of improvement, I’m going to focus on eight things that I believe can uniquely bring us to a place of absolute excellence.

Number 1: Internal Communication and Language

I’m not a Luddite – I love playing with gadgets and new technologies – and I’m not being nostalgic, but the way we use email is tearing apart the very social fabric of the College of the Atlantic community.

I’m likely the worst culprit here. We are 253 days into the calendar year. I’ve written 9,752 emails since January 1. That’s unsustainable and has created more work than it has solved. I’m going to reduce my email production by half.

But it’s not just email – it’s language in general.

On Sunday I had the opportunity to welcome the new students to COA – I was allotted 15 minutes. I went on for 45. Though I was enthused, Sarah Luke was not. I had really thrown a huge wrench into her day.

And then there is the tight linkage between quantity and quality of language.

In the email I sent out on Monday afternoon, I made two typos. Neither made a material difference to the meaning of the text, but both were blatant red flags that I wasn’t paying full attention.

SO, by 2021: I want to see us individually and collectively decrease the quantity and increase the quality of language we use, both written and spoken. I want to have a higher proportion of interaction be face-to-face or voice-to-voice. That will have big consequences.

Number 2: Collectivism

(Cue the TAB flatware prop) Mugs. Bowls. Plates. Spoons. Knives. Let’s think about mugs. I’ve just corroborated this figure with the kitchen – we have 185 mugs in circulation. Let’s assume we might lose 15% to breakage. We’re going to count the mugs at the end of week five – let’s shoot for at least 150 mugs still in circulation.

Of course we are and we aren’t talking about mugs. What we’re really talking about is the struggle between living as an individual and living as part of a community.

This struggle rears its head all over the place. Think of it – smoking? My mom has battled addiction to smoking for sixty years, so I have a bias against people doing it and have thought about introducing the idea of a smoking ban. But, one could argue it’s a personal freedom. But cigarette butts? Throwing them randomly about the campus is not a personal freedom.

Art materials missing from the studio?

Paying attention to arriving on time?

And what of the basic respect between two people, either in the library or having a first intimate experience – it’s got to begin with a sense of respect and awareness of the other.

This is not meant to come off as me, the disappointed, scolding father, because I’ve left my fair share of mugs scattered over the campus. But it’s a call to become more aware – just like with language. So, by 2021: I want us to be aware of collective living and learning and spend less time thinking of ourselves as separate realities. I want to get to a point where the material nature of this campus and people’s time is sacred. With every decision we should be asking ourselves: what’s the impact on this place, other people, and other peoples’ time?

Number 3: Making

I believe very strongly that people learn about themselves and the material world around them through developing an idea in their head and making it come alive. (Cue the maple walking stick and tools prop –ad lib on design and production)

“We can achieve a more humane material life, if only we better understand the making of things.”—Richard Sennett.”

Specifically, by 2021 I would love to see an emphasis on making things and the crafting of quality reflected in the interests of the kind of students we attract, in the academic curriculum itself, in what we do outside of the classroom, and in the infrastructure of our very campus. And, whether you’re talking about making a wooden walking stick for an elderly friend, or Linux based piece of code or biodiesel or sodium pentothal, you need space to do it.

SO, by 2021: I want to see us individually and collectively making more things in workshops, studios, and labs – with brushes, hammers, soldering irons, and computers – and I’d like to see those things taking place in a newly created arts and studio center and in renovated lab spaces.

Number 4: Writing and Communicating

No Child Left Behind has had devastating consequences to the way students in the United States learn and has diminished drastically the emphasis placed on writing during high school. Don’t take this as a personal attack on your abilities as writers, but we can and must all improve our writing.

No matter what you wind up doing, I promise you that you’ll be a lot better at it if you can apply craft and quality to writing and if you can communicate your ideas orally. Writing and speaking – and the analytical thought associated with the craft of the written and spoken word – is absolutely essential. We tend to do these things well here at COA. We are a language-intensive program.

But, by 2021, I don’t think anyone should be able to graduate from this college unless they can write a well-constructed text and also demonstrate significant improvements in the ways they deliver a message in voice.

Number 5: From rules to culture

I want more people to participate in the crafting of this college – faculty, students, and staff. That’s a distinctive value proposition for us as a college, being able to shape the very nature of the school. But I do not want the leading edge of that participation to be in the creation of more rules and policies, which sometimes feels like the default mechanism here.

There are ways to engage in the creation of a culture and an institution beyond the creation of rules. In this respect, I love the four-word personnel manual – the policy manual for employees – of Nordstrom’s: use your best judgment. I realize we are not a high-end clothing store and living by judgments was a lot easier to do that with 36 students and six faculty – but I believe should do whatever we can to make that practice the default rather than a new policy.

Number 6: The Outside and coming to know Place

We spend too much time inside. We disproportionally favor the human-dominated social experience. I recognize not everyone who comes to the College of the Atlantic wants to do a record south to north hike of the Appalachian trail or climb El Capitan; I recognize that some folks actually are uncomfortable being outside. I’m not interested in creating a culture of rock jocks who climb only for adrenaline, but I am interested in promoting a culture where everyone comes to discover more about themselves and about the world around them by learning and being outside and has:

  • Overnighted on Great Duck and Mount Desert Rock;
  • Learned to tie a trucker’s hitch and row a dory or pilot a zodiac;
  • Found their way to Conners Nubble and Maple Springs on foot, bike, skis, and snowshoes;
  • Figured out how to survive the night in a snow cave, start a fire in the rain, and un-lose yourself with map and compass;
  • Discovered the difference between a Romey and Katadhin sheep; a ginger gold and honeycrisp apple; a Norway maple and a red maple; an alewife and an elver.

and has done so neither because it’s macho nor because of a belief we should all live like Neanderthals, but because the ability to do those things is a very, very strong indication that you value and you’ve come to know place. And I believe very strongly that who we are as a college has a lot to do with where we are as a college.

Being outside isn’t about recreation – this is about re-creation.

In order to help with this cause, I will be leading a north to south trans-island hike a week from today, leaving from our community garden and ending up in Seal Harbor; I’ll be joining you in the Bar Island Swim; I’d also like to establish a winter- and spring-time ritual along the lines of the Bar Island Swim. And we’re creating a College of the Atlantic Hike for Mike team in support of the Acadia Family Center.

Number 7: Field Courses

This week 16 COA students of all backgrounds will join faculty member Jay Friedlander and our Director of Energy Management Anna Demeo on Samso Island, an island about 60 miles east of Copenhagen, of about 45 square miles and 4000 people. They’ll be joined by COA alumnus David Camlin, staffers from our partner institution The Island Institute, five community members from islands peppered throughout the Gulf of Maine, and hopefully a New York Times reporter. It’s part of a monster class where the first three weeks are spent there learning how Samso moved from diesel dependence to a fossil fuel free island that exports sustainable electricity to the mainland; and the last seven weeks are spent back here implementing energy projects on MDI and the outer islands.

There are a whole slew of courses like this – let’s call them “field” or “place-based” courses. But this one is nicely emblematic. It brings faculty together who haven’t worked together in the past; taps into staff expertise as well as faculty; incorporates community members into the teaching and learning elements of the course; touches the wider world but is rooted to the right here; is project-based and the project is meaningful to the wider community; it incorporates alumni; it incorporates the expertise of partners; it utilizes the leadership and knowledge of a fourth-year student, Nick Urban in this case; it is interdisciplinary; it will spawn internships, senior projects, group studies, the students all have a firm background in either energy or entrepreneurship.

But managing a whole flight of these kinds of courses is tough: they’re expensive; faculty and staff are off campus; they’re loads of fun but loads of work. Managing the balance between these courses and foundational courses is key. But finding that balance is absolutely essential for us as a college.

Number 8: Re-invention-asking and answering; More Led Zeppelin

It was 6th grade-1981. Just finished a massive, epic Dungeons and Dragons campaign. I’ll never forget the walk to K-mart down on Rt10. I had discovered records with my buddy Brian Frumolt. He bought Magical Mystery Tour. I bought this album that didn’t have a title. I put it on the turntable and my life was changed.

(Cue Led Zeppelin, When the Levee Breaks, loudly)

This past June, there was an absolutely fantastic record review written in Slate. The review concerned the re-release of the first three Led Zeppelin albums. (Let it be known that in any course that I ever teach that review and those albums will be required material.)

The centerpiece to the story is how the band completely revolutionized rock and roll by reinventing itself, all the while remaining true at some important core. So, with each album, people said – “That’s Led Zeppelin.” But they also said, “That’s Led Zeppelin?” That pulling the rug out effect is important and by doing it again and again really changed the world. Author Jack Hamilton wrote:

“Rock didn’t start with the Beatles or Bob Dylan, it started with Led Zeppelin.”

In terms of higher education, such shaking-up and reinvention is crucial. I don’t want to coast through to our 50th this decade on this set of wheels. I want wings and I want to build them and test them out together.

That’s going to require more Led Zeppelin. More reinvention. That’s what the MAP is all about. I think these eight things will get us our wings.

Modern higher education didn’t start with Harvard or Williams; it started with College of the Atlantic. And we’re just about to release the fourth album.

With that, let the 43rd academic year begin.

Reversing Brain Drain in Maine: INBRE and the MDI Biolab

One of the strongest elements of the COA experience is in the number and kind of partners we have as an institution. Not only are we conveniently wedged between the Gulf of Maine and Acadia National Park, we are also flanked by two world-class private laboratories: the Jackson Labs and the MDI Biological Laboratory.  Last week I had the privilege to participate in a press conference at the MDIBL where we collectively celebrated the $18.4 million dollar INBRE partnership.  I also published the following Letter to the Editor in the Mount Desert Islander on August 7, 2014 and I wanted to share it with a wider audience:

To the Editor:

These days, “crisis” always seems to be attached to the words “higher education.” So it’s nice to hear about a truly exceptional, positive, and progressive educational force happening right here in Maine.

The Maine IDeA Network for Biomedical Research Excellence (INBRE), an NIH-supported network of 13 Maine institutions, strives to strengthen Maine’s capacity to do cutting-edge biomedical research. It is a perfect model for “learning by doing,” and it’s a model we need to shout from the rooftops in Maine to help our state continue on its path as not only a leader in science, but as a leader in progressive education.

INBRE is a model for the kind of learning it champions — students and researchers working in the field with muddy boots — but it’s also a model for how it’s championed partnerships between students and faculty, between public and private universities, between private laboratories and institutions of higher education. The combined intellects of College of the Atlantic, MDI Biological Laboratory, the Jackson Laboratory, and the other INBRE institutions, are a great example of a whole being much greater than the sum of parts.

INBRE is also a model because of its dedication to the long term. Immediate results for big ideas are often forced results, and too often become failures. INBRE bucks that trend, and the long-term nature of INBRE funding has been instrumental to our combined successes.

Since 2002, more than 100 College of the Atlantic students have had opportunities to work in classes and do research with investigators at MDI Biological Laboratory and the Jackson Laboratory under the INBRE program. We’re a small school — so that’s more than 5% of our entire alumni pool.

At COA, 17% of our students are from Maine, but over 30% remain in this great state. We are a perfect example of reverse brain drain and INBRE has been an important engine behind that.

We celebrated $18.4 million in new INBRE funding Monday at MDI Biological Laboratory. U.S. Sen. Susan Collins was among dozen of people lauding this proactive program that’s providing Maine’s college students with unparalleled scientific research opportunities … right here in Maine, right here on Mount Desert Island.


Darron Collins, Ph.D.

President, College of the Atlantic


Scarlet(t): A Pecha Kucha Presentation

20 Slides, 20 seconds each. Here’s the transcript:

1. Hello. My name is Darron Collins. I’m the president at College of the Atlantic. I’m a resident of MDI; husband to Karen; father to Maggie and Molly; master to my dog Lucy; and I’m hopelessly, pathetically in love with another woman named Scarlett. But let me clarify …

2. …my wife is only mildly disturbed by this because Scarlett is a 1985 Toyota Land Cruiser FJ-60; with a straight six 2F engine, 3-inch Old Man Emu spring lift, 33-inch tires, and many other modifications.

3. Scarlett is actually more orange than Scarlett. But fading paint is just one issue – she has rust, dents, bumps, bruises and warts. But this patina adds to her charm as the second most beautiful woman in the world (after Karen, not Scarlett Johansson).

4. My love for Scarlett turns to unbridled lust when she’s used for what she was built for – adventure. She’s been the platform for adventures of all kinds. Scarlett is a bedrock of my recreation – or, what I prefer to call my re-creation.

5. Keeping this to the suggested PG rating, Scarlett is also a loving member of the Collins family; a complacent dog that can be climbed on without insult or retaliation; a brute than can pull you from the thickest mud and deepest snow; a bear that can carry the world on her back.

6. My family rolls their eyes at Scarlett and her blemishes and prefer the modern conveniences of mom’s car. That is, until a “friend that is a boy” in one of my daughter’s classes shows his own affection for Scarlett with a card like this.

7. Scarlett doesn’t fit in at the parties and ceremonies I attend in my role as president. Here she is at the Pot and Kettle Club, chumming with a fancy friend. The mocking crowds only make me love her that much stronger.

8. I love people. You’ve now learned that I love inanimate objects. It’s probably no surprise that I love institutions as well. There’s no institution I love more than the College of the Atlantic. I loved it as a student in the late 80s and early 90s and love it even more today. It’s a very special place.

9. I can ignore party-goers and, to a lesser extent, my family, but I must answer my COA colleagues who question my love for a vehicle who burns 11 miles per gallon on a good day, threatening polar bears and planetary ecology in one fell swoop.

10. As president, I’m supposed to represent the ethos of the organization. The faculty say “Hey Darron, the COA president should drive a smart car.’” I think it’s funny to say “Scarlett eats smart cars for breakfast” but I have more thoughtful explanations.

11. To the artists I speak of lines, curves and colors; Or I don’t speak at all – I just ask the artists to relish in aesthetic perfection. Lets take a minute to do that ourselves.
12. To the historian, I talk of the post World War recession in Japan and its effects on the development of the Land Cruiser. Here’s the original BJ20. I describe the role the Land Cruiser played in exploring six continents.

13. To the field biologist I warn of lesser vehicles. Never ever call a Land Cruiser a Jeep or, worse, a Land Rover. Only the Land Cruiser provides the biologist with access to the most inaccessible places for research.

14. In terms of energy, a Prius’ nickel battery is mined in Canada, shipped to China, and is a disposal nightmare. The car’ll last 100,000 miles and cost three bucks a mile to build with externalities. Scarlett’ll last forever, so with mileage approaching infinity, I think of her as free.

15. The only way Scarlett will last forever is through love and a forever relationship. Ours began when we hit a stalled car on the interstate going 65, top speed. I owe my life to her. I’m not sure I would’ve survived the wreck in a Prius.

16. I’m not much of a mechanic and was born with a strange block to the practice. The accident with Scarlett coaxed the craft from the deepest recess of my being. And the importance of craft is what I speak of most often to the COA faculty and the world.

17. Through Scarlett I’ve learned the harsh discipline of a hack saw and the patience of drying paint. Through Scarlett I bridge the gap between the theoretical and the applied; I teach the knowledge in the grip of a screw and the wisdom in steel.

18. It’s been four years since that crash and I’m only a slightly better mechanic. But I’m a more patient craftsman and I evangelize about the brilliance of men like these, true masters of craft. I now live by the tenet: if your hands aren’t dirty you’re probably wrong.

19. Scarlett reminds us the world’s a more complex place than it seems; that unraveling complexity requires the artist, humanist, and scientist in one being; that true knowledge comes through the use of brain and body together. These things define human ecology and the ethos of College of the Atlantic.

20. So, in fact, there’s no better vehicle for a COA president than Scarlett. I’ll never trade her for a Prius or Smart Car. But I may add Rose to my fleet, a stunning ’64 Land Cruiser FJ-45. What a physical and intellectual mountain to climb that will be. Thank you.

COA Graduation – 7 June 2014

The Class of 2014 graduated yesterday on an absolutely beautiful day.  Elmer Beal, who will be retiring in the fall, was the Grand Marshal.  Dr. Wade Davis received an honorary M.Phil. in Human Ecology.  Mary Harney ’96 gave a tremendous commencement address. Sean Murphy graduated!  And, par for the course, the student presentations shook the tent to tears.  My address played a relatively minor role in the day (frankly, it could have been a tad shorter), but here it is.


Thanks very much Will and welcome everyone.

So, I’d like to pick up where I left off at last year’s graduation and continue on with a theme. In all seriousness, I’ve given a lot of thought to what I said at last year’s ceremony and have refined my ideas a bit. This isn’t going to help the class of 2013 much, but I’ve seen a few of them on campus here to celebrate today. I’ll ask them to pass on the news.

Last commencement I played around with this funny word: “scrappy.” I used scrappy to describe a unifying thread running through the graduating class and through the College as a whole.

The word can have negative connotations and call to mind an unkempt dog, so I carefully defined it as having the qualities of being expert at getting things done; of breaking through bureaucratic barriers; of not being held back by the fear of failure.

I still believe the word is spot on for our students and our community. I’m reminded of the concept every time I walk past faculty member Jodi Baker’s office. She has a great poster on her door; it’s called “The Cult of Done Manifesto,” which nicely gets at this idea of scrappiness. My favorite line says “people without dirty hands are wrong.”

But, walking by Jodi’s office one day, it hit me that the term scrappy unduly emphasizes action over thought. And that gave me pause.

I emphasize action over thought, as my brain seems to be wired that way. I’ve seen the good and bad of that quality and I have to work at patience. My wife says our black lab Lucy has a longer attention span I do and she’s probably right.

The more I thought about this dichotomy between thought and action, between theory and praxis, the more I considered it an existential crises of our age. On the one hand, the modern world worships the 140-character twitter feed; we’re constantly asked to develop rapid prototypes; we force complex ideas into simple, elevator speeches. Moore’s Law is law and fast is king.

But there’s also an emerging movement, thankfully, for slow and thoughtful: the slow food movement emphasizes contemplatively grown, prepared and consumed food over fast food; the slow money trend, which is about reconnecting finance back to doing good for people and for place; long reads are an increasingly popular format on the internet and serve as a good counterbalance to twitter feeds. There’s a rebirth of Natural History, which emphasizes patient observation. And there’s even slow TV – in Norway, there was a slow TV program that one in five Norwegians watched one evening – it features burning firewood in a hearth, for twelve hours. The black lab in me thinks that’s taking contemplative a bit too far. There’s got to be a happy medium.

If I could get a do-over for last year’s graduation, I’d refine my message and say that the thread running through all COA students and through the school as a whole is not just that we’re scrappy, but that we get the balance right between thought and action. Hitting this balance I’ll call contemplative scrappiness.

Learning contemplative scrappiness is learning to drive a stick shift. And I’ve got to credit my assistant and advisor Kate Macko for that metaphor. Kate said, “Yeah, it’s developing the feel between clutch and gas, shifting into first gear on some steep San Francisco side street.”

Knowing this group of graduates as I do, I’m 100% confident they’ve got the feel. Their training began with being thrown into and managing a self-designed curriculum. Requiring them to build their curriculum invokes contemplative scrappiness.

  • Ben mastered it by first reimagining Shakespeare’s Othello and then by producing, directing, and performing in Othello
  • Yuka patiently considered the structures of a diabetic’s struggling kidney and then got in there and tried to make an improved kidney at the Jackson Lab
  • Gabi sought an understanding of modern femininity and then created works of art that help explain the concept to her own self and to others
  • Chloe studied the impact of mammals on vegetation of offshore islands and then measured and tested those impacts herself in the field

At COA we emphasize what I like to call expeditionary learning. That often times means manually extracting the brain and body from the classroom. But, clearly, the most meaningful expeditions are both mental and physical and, again, what we get right is the balance of approaches whether we’re in a classroom or not:

  • From contemplative natural history and thoughtful observation, to the proactive and experimental quest for new knowledge of the world around us
  • from understanding law and policy, to the use of activism to promote change
  • from the analysis of economic drivers and economic hurdles to the creation of new and better businesses
  • from the theory of color to the utility of color, and so on.
  • We’re not heavy on requirements here, but we do require you swim in both the pool of knowledge and the pool of action; again, of theory and praxis.

Most importantly, what makes us especially good at promoting contemplative scrappiness is our dedication to mentorship.

At COA the great mentor is not the one who transfers information from their brain to yours. The great mentor is he or she who helps you work through failure; who pushes on those uncomfortable weak spots of your character and brain to identify weakness; who helps cultivate passions; and, most importantly, who suggests when it’s time to pull back and slow down, and when it’s time to run and get things done. It’s the sometimes-annoying parent or friend in the passenger seat yelling “gas, gas, gas!!” or “clutch, clutch, clutch-excellent job!!”

Our mentors – faculty, staff, trustees, fellow students, partners here on Mount Desert Island – those mentors and our commitment to the process of mentorship. That is what we do better than anyone out there. That is the value proposition of COA I’d ask all of you to scream from the rooftops. That is the piece of our pedagogy, which cannot be replicated, in a massive open online course or in a lecture hall filled with 1000s.

To slow down and balance this presidential optimism, I looked toward less biased sources and found them in the New York Times and the Gallup Poll. A few weeks ago, on May 7, Times columnist Charles Blow wrote a piece called “In College, Nurturing Matters.”  Blow wrote that nurturing – or what today we’re calling mentoring – is the key indicator of both success in finding engaged work and in finding a sense of well-being after graduation.

Blow based his theory on a Gallup Poll of six questions, which together characterize this concept of nurturing. He concluded that more than a college’s selectivity; or ranking in the US News and World Report; or size of the library and endowment; or the number and novelty of labs, strong mentors, consistent interactions within a community, and long-term, team-based projects have the most profound, positive impact on a graduate’s career.

I then flexed my own contemplatively scrappy muscles and conducted an experiment with the people sitting patiently in these rows. Unaware of my intentions of using these data in today’s ceremony, they filled out a similar questionnaire and, sure enough, COA more than doubled the national average on every single question – a strong indicator that our approach to mentoring is both felt and working.

So, after this slowing down, I’m now doubly confident that a self designed curriculum, a focus on learning in a community as we do here at COA, expeditionary teaching that balances active and contemplative work and our dedication to successful mentoring has given these 74 individuals the firmest footing possible for taking on the challenges of a tumultuous world; it’s given them a great starting point for a life dedicated to improving the condition of humanity, nature, and themselves.

COA is a citizenry based on contemplative scrappiness and this group of graduates, now growing tired with my long-windedness, is ready to take the world by storm. We’re ready to let ‘em go, celebrate, and move mountains.

Today is our 41st commencement ceremony and today we will graduate the 2000th alum – somewhere about 2/3rds of the way through the alphabet. They will join an alumni group that began with our first graduate, Cathy Johnson from the class of ’74.

Do you know she was ¾ of the way through her degree at Yale when she picked-up and left and transferred to COA, then a start-up school of 36 students, half a dozen faculty, a handful of staff, and a herd of dogs; still unaccredited and unsure of what would happen in 1975. Her parents were skeptical. But she, like all of you, was contemplatively scrappy. Now Cathy is a senior staff attorney for the National Resources Council of Maine and is a leader in the struggle to protect the ecological integrity of Maine’s Northern Forests.

In joining Cathy and all the others, I’ll ask you, graduates, to find time in your busy, adventurous lives to be that mentor in the passenger seat, to advise on action and thought, on doing and thinking, of slow and fast and to help future cohorts of COA students realize their own dreams

Thank you all and, graduates, welcome to the family.





Zodiac Experience – I’m an Aries

When I was a kid in the 70s I dreamed of chasing whale-killers from the bow of a screaming zodiac, fists and jaws clenched.  As a staffer at World Wildlife Fund I befriended Greenpeace’s then director John Passacantando who gave me an insider’s view of the boathouse that held the organization’s zodiac fleet.  Magical.

But not nearly as magical as my first two lessons with the college’s inflatables, led by COA’s boat captain Toby Stephenson.  No whales, no tankers, but my jaws still clenched as I struggled with forward and reverse, with the prop tilt, and with all things relating to rope and knots.  I’ve spent loads of time around kayaks and canoes in freshwater environments: but a powerboat in the ocean is an entirely different animal.

And it’s an animal that so many of the College’s students have become intimately aware of; a platform for experiential learning that is really hard to match.  In just a few years here as president, I’ve watched so many students really blossom in the midst of boats and oceans and engines and ropes.  I was tired of watching.

The first successful landing - you can't see the 8 foot swells in the background ;-)

The first successful landing – you can’t see the 8 foot swells in the background ;-)

Toby is the best person imaginable for guiding people as they grow with such experiences. One of his best insights: piloting a boat is, as much as anything, a psychological experience — there’s just one pilot and oftentimes many judging, anxious onlookers.  Confronting those minds is as much a part of the learning as is technique and Toby is the perfect blend of technician, sociologist, and psychologist.  During a launch or landing, he noted to “Watch the waves; listen for the calm among the sets; be patient; and don’t be afraid to tell people to chill the %^**^^% out and wait for your command.”

I hope as many COA students as possible get to experience our boats, our waters, and our islands. Combined with the people who manage them, they are truly one of the most extraordinary resources we have to offer.

The Electric Car

I borrowed the College’s Ford Fusion, an all-electric vehicle that’s been generously leased to COA in return for good will and good PR.  I am predisposed to despise this vehicle.  I love old, large, trucks – specifically Toyota Land Cruisers – and this pale blue shiny box I’m now driving is the antithesis of that ideal.


My image of an electric vehicle: That’s my niece in hers.

My love for old Land Cruisers stems from the aesthetics of the LC design and the practicality the vehicle offers for lugging gear over all kinds of roads and in all kinds of conditions.  But, most importantly, my love for the vehicle – my particular vehicle – comes from my fascination with tinkering.  A 1985 Land Cruiser requires serious tinkering and I’m not afraid to admit that my mechanical, electrical, and body work skills are sad and are the reason I’m forced to borrow this Ford in the first place.

That's Scarlett: I'm trying to 'burp' her to get the heat working better.

That’s Scarlett: I’m trying to ‘burp’ her to get the heat working better.

Even on a good day when my tinkering works, my truck (Scarlett) is not a comfortable, efficient vehicle: it (she) takes a fair amount of pedal-pumping to wake up in the morning; she’s porous, which means I have to scrape the outside and the inside of the windows on a cold morning; she burns loads of gas and leaks loads of oil; she’s difficult to climb into for anyone under 5’6”; she’s a bit stinky.  But for me, those issues are a palette of tinkering prospects and I revel in the complexities of my relationship with the truck and her relationship with the wider world.


That’s the Ford — a tremendous car.

I will admit, you could get very used to the ease, comforts, and efficiencies of our new Ford.  Doors close with a thwap that perfectly separates interior from exterior space.  Stopped and in motion, there’s an eerie, beautiful silence.  Digital displays, parking cameras, ear-splitting woofers (ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration), and an on button (what!!??) make driving the Ford an extremely comfortable experience.  My kids, having suffered through many long drives in Scarlett, screamed with delight as we quietly and gently sailed down Cottage Street.  With a forty-mile range between plug-ins, this Ford is arguably the perfect vehicle for MDI.  With almost 400 parts per million of CO2 in the atmosphere, this Ford is arguably the perfect vehicle for the planet.

So, I loved the driving experience and, for the record, believe Ford Motor Company has done a superb job with this vehicle.  But despite the massive PR risks of a COA president driving a gas guzzling truck (that’s probably a bit of an exaggeration as well), you won’t find me trading Scarlett in for a Ford Focus – or a Nissan Leaf or a Toyota Prius.  Not gonna happen.  I will continue to tinker.  I will continue to love and drive my truck and develop the ecological arguments around the “reuse” and “reduce” elements of the triple R model.

Part of the “reduce” argument and out of sheer necessity while I try and figure out how to replace the slave and master clutch cylinders?: walking, beautiful, slow, contemplative walking.

Lost so close to home…

I’m a big fan of New Year’s Resolutions; of making them, if not completing them.  But this year I’ve taken one on that I feel really good about: cover 1000 miles and climb 250 mountains in Acadia National Park across the 365 days of 2014 and keep a diary of the journeys.  That’s an average of 20 peaks and 83 miles a month; 4.8 peaks and 19.2 miles a week.  Neither of those goals are physically daunting — covering mileage on Acadian hills that range from 400 to 1500 feet above sea level in what is arguably the most day-hiker-friendly National Park in the whole US National Park System is anything but extreme.  It’s the time management that is the real challenge.  The idea is to complete these challenges while becoming a better college president and better husband and father – no easy fete.  To that greater end, I’m trying to involve family in many of these walks and, on my solo sojourns, meditate on several key questions we should be considering as a College.

I’m about three weeks in and just logged my 14th peak and 35th mile.  Mileage in the winter will be much more slow going.  I find I’m doing plenty of meditating, but I’m pleasantly surprised that on solo walks my mind empties rather than focuses.  That’s probably just as well for my wife, the kids, and the college, quite frankly.

The time management concern is a reasonable one.  Being a president, husband, and father (friend, reader, writer, student of dynamical systems, poker player, angler, Breaking Bad enthusiast, etc.) is anything but a part time gig, but there’s actually quite lot of time in the day and one can cover a lot of terrain and scale many peaks in just 90 minutes or so.  Last week, for instance, I completed a four mile, three peak jaunt over Gilmore, Bald, and Parkman Mountain in 100 minutes door-to-door.  But there have been and will certainly be more days where I’ll have 30 and .  Such a day occurred last night and for such occasions there is nearby Great Hill.

Great Hill is appropriately named.  At about 480 feet above sea level it can hardly be considered a mountain or even a peak.  But it is great in that it looms and feels bigger than it is and changes remarkably as one circumambulates its small granite dome.  It forms the backdrop behind Bar Harbor’s Clefstone Road and is thus a mountain of the town.  But once you leave it to your north heading west out of town it acquires a different, although still looming presence.  It feels of a Persepoline column marking the entrance to Acadia.  It is great.  And it’s three quarters of a mile from my front door.

Halftime of a late NFL playoff game — about dusk at this latitude.  I take off with my dog Lucy, throw on the ice cleats, jacket, hat and all, make the quick jaunt to the Cadillac Mtn entrance at the foot of Great Hill, wait for my watch to find satellites and briskly hop and skip to the top of the southwestern knob on Great Hill.  I snap a picture and then look to the NE where a distinct and obviously higher knob stands out.  Although the light has faded and it is just a hair before solid darkness, Lucy and I do what we feel is necessary.


Last Light on Great Hill

I should be clear: I’ve walked both knobs half a dozen times in the last year and have both what I feel to be a lot of experience walking in the woods and an average “sense of direction.” But all that seemed to fail me this time on Great Hill.  Darkness erased my tracks and shadows obscured the obvious way home.  I could see the gentle curves of Cadillac’s north ridge and the neighboring blackened blobs of Dorr and Champlain, but the angles were all wrong to me.

Knowing that I was less than a mile from home and that I could walk in any direction and would come upon a paved road in under a mile, my heart raced as if lost in an Alaskan endless wilderness.  Lucy bounded on unaffected.  In five minutes I exhibited all of the panic-ridden traits you read about in your typical “lost in the woods” stories: confusion, heart palpitation, time warp.  I reached for my cell phone to call home — not to share my panic, but just to tell Karen and the kids I’d be a bit late and not to worry.  The cold had zapped my iPhone batteries, which pushed me to worry double time, for me and for Karen and the kids.  After circling around and recognizing that I’d made a few idiotic odd loops to nowhere, I picked what seemed to be a logical point in the horizon and walked straight.  Sure enough, I was on the park loop road in under five minutes.

Like I said, the whole endeavor of found to lost to found took all of ten minutes, but seemed like hours.  My watch tells the most hysterical tale.  It’s worth jumping on Garmin Connect and using the play feature to follow my ridiculous path:


With it you can walk with me and see where I’m scratching my head, wandering aimlessly, panicking and eventually returning to some degree of found.  Friends have actually laughed out loud watching it.

It was the perfect, safest place in the world to get lost.  But I can also see how — even in such a place — confusion can lead to desperation which can lead to irrational decisions and even fatality.  Even on little ole’ Great Hill.  Does such a lesson call for an end to solo journeys?  Absolutely not.  But it does call for always having at the bare minimum a compass, a headlamp, and charged batteries.

Now that I’ve had a little time to reflect, I suppose that getting lost, panicking, regaining composure, and then finding your way again — all on a small hill you think you’re completely familiar with —  is great practice for a college president.


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