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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.

Darron’s Human Ecology Essay, Take 2

Darron’s Human Ecology Essay, Take 2

Going through papers recently, I came across my 1992 Human Ecology essay and didn’t think much of it, so I took a second crack at it and expect there will be a third and fourth editions to come …

My daughter Maggie and I have gotten completely sucked into the Discovery Channel show Alaska: The Last Frontier.  After a day of romping in the snow, we love nothing more than to enjoy hot cocoa and watch the Kilcher Family survive the much colder climes of coastal Alaska.  The Kilchers are an extended family of homesteaders whose ancestors got away from it all in the 1950s.  If you haven’t read McPhee’s Coming into the Country, I highly recommend it; if you have, you also have a pretty good understanding of what ATLF is all about.

I hear the snide, snarky comments about sensationalism, Hollywood, naïve, romantic visions of what is really a miserable existence, etc.  I get it.  Maggie has said more than once, “Dad, if a bear comes after them, the camera crew is right there – they’re not going to let the bear eat Atz Kilcher and just sit back and film it all.”

Recognizing that ATLF is first and foremost entertainment that appeals to low brows like me, the show has inspired fun, interesting, and marginally educational experiences between father and daughter: canning apple butter, making what I consider to be an impressive snow fort, and debating vegetarianism.  I’ve suggested a moose hunt, but Maggie hasn’t taken that bait quite yet.

The rationale for introducing my fascination with the Kilcher family isn’t about the merits of reality television; it’s about my intellectual wrestling with self-reliance.  Reading McPhee, watching Discovery Channel, building snow forts, and writing a recent grant have brought my thoughts on self-reliance into focus and have even got me thinking about the subject as a pillar of the COA curriculum. 

As a context-setting introduction to a recent grant, I put the following paragraphs together:

Energy generation – how we harvest food and power  – poses the most pernicious threat to the ecological integrity of the planet.  Over the past century, we have become increasingly disjointed from – and ultimately ignorant of – the origins of these two sources of human fuel.  As such, we have naively accepted the myth that we can buy or consume our way out of the problem: “Just purchase this or that green product and you can feel good about yourself and the fate of the Earth.”

At College of the Atlantic, we feel the path toward sustainability begins by re-connecting to production rather than consumption, by becoming intimately aware of the costs and benefits of our food and power choices, and by uniting two intrinsically connected movements.  

I took a few liberties with the first line of the second paragraph and may have stretched “I” into “we,” but I feel good about that generalization and those paragraphs. 

Many of us have intellectually and practically toyed with self-reliance in the form of the back to the land movement, which reached an apogee in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  That movement focused primarily on reconnecting with food, saw science and technology as inherently evil, leaned on a naive nostalgia that hoped to “roll back the clock to a time where man and nature existed in harmony,” and, in the end, was a movement that affected only the fringes of society. 

I’m certainly not proposing the tenets of back to the land as the or even a cornerstone of our academic setting.  But there’s a new, not-entirely-unrelated movement unfolding that does seem relevant and useful to COA.  I hate the thought of hitching a wagon to what might be seen as trendy, but, in my eyes, there’s something important and revealing about what’s typically labeled the maker movement.  Like the back-to-the-landers of time’s past (or, present, in the case of the Kilchers), this maker movement begins with the assumption that sustainability requires making more with less, that sharing knowledge is important, and that using old materials or ideas for new purposes is inherently good.  But unlike back to the land, today’s makers/hackers balance these beliefs with a realistic but optimistic vision of the power of science and technology, they don’t cut the world up into what’s “human” and what’s “natural,” and they want to extend the power of making and creation beyond the realm of food and into all forms of production: digital, creative, and entrepreneurial endeavors seem right at home with work on food and energy.

As such, I imagine the blend of the back to the land movement with the emerging maker movement as Back to the Land 2.0.

Self-reliance is central to BTTL 2.0 and seems like the most intellectually and practically important commonality between coding a computer program and pruning an apple tree.  It’s about developing a sense of intimacy in knowledge acquisition.  It’s about empowerment, experimentation, and learning from re-inventing the wheel.

For the maker community self-reliance is not the same thing that drives someone to join a militia in the panhandle of Idaho.  For today’s makers, the value of making comes from knowledge gained and knowledge shared.  It’s a compassionate, community-focused self-reliance, not an “I know this, so I can survive an apocalypse; I don’t need your help, now go away” approach to the world.

To me, this compassionate, community-focused self-reliance feels like it should become a core component of how, what and why we teach and learn human ecology at COA.  I’m not exactly sure how to do that, but I think there’s enough interest and expertise within the faculty, staff, trustees, students, and – importantly – the MDI community to figure it out.  Plus, my intention is to engage this guy in the thought process as well:

I just got off the phone with Marcin and I’ve got a good feeling about that connection.  Stay tuned.


A Eulogy for my Father, James Francis Collins

My father died on Saturday, July 6 2013 after a thankfully short second battle with an extremely aggressive cancer. I gave this eulogy on Tuesday, July 9 at Christ the King church in New Vernon, NJ.  Maybe something like this should be kept personal, but I feel like sharing it.  As a kid, everyone called my father “Franny,” which he despised.  As a teenager, a group of friends came across the baseball card for the lefty first baseman of the Yankees and from that point onward he would be “Joe.”  Until he got to Guatemala…

The '62 Card for the Yankee First Baseman, Joe Collins

The ’62 Card for the Yankee First Baseman, Joe Collins

Before I say one word in praise and honor of my dad, I want to thank my Aunt Mary, Judy Baker and the entire Baker family, and Suzy Moran for making dad as comfortable as possible during the last months of his life.  I honestly don’t know what I would have done without their help.

It feels like the world’s made up of simple and complex people: not in terms of intelligence, but in terms of how easy or hard it might be to understand a person’s motives and true thoughts and beliefs.  My dad was undoubtedly a complex person – and that’s neither good nor bad, it just is what it is.  On the complex side of the coin there are those who are talkative and open, ones you can come to know rather quickly through their loquaciousness despite their complexities versus those who are quiet and guarded and tough to get to know.  My dad fell into the later category.

He was a great man and someone I hope my own children will forever look up to, but he was definitely a quiet, complex character and it took me my entire 43 years to have a better idea of what made that guy tick.  I loved my dad’s complex character and I think it’s important we all remember him with his complexities.

It would be easier, of course, to just focus on the last decade of his life and praise him for his work in Guatemala.  That work, without a doubt, deserves praise and is an achievement that will always be remembered from other writings and from the continued efforts of the institution he founded and loved, “From Houses to Homes.”  Dad’s death, in keeping up with the decades, has gone viral. Thousands upon thousands are now posting and blogging and tweeting about his passing.

But, although I don’t think he was particularly proud of them, there were a full six decades of complex life before he could even point to Guatemala on a map.  I myself can only speak to a few of those decades, but obviously dad was first a son and sibling.  Whether he’d admit it or not, his brother Michael and sisters Mary and Peggy shaped him like a ball of clay.  And, lest we forget, he lived under the roof of Michael Collins Sr. and one of the most remarkable women who has ever walked the face of this earth, my grandmother Josephine Collins.

Dad with his mother, Josephine Collins, circa 1985.

Dad with his mother, Josephine Collins, circa 1985.

Dad was also a husband, two times, twice divorced, and it would be easiest to dance around what might be called failed relationships.  I certainly will not hold them up as model relationships, but I know there was tremendous love and adoration in both of them and they resulted in, well, me and a lasting and important friendship.  I like to think of those things as fundamentally good.

And dad was, of course, a father.  Yesterday I took a run in the sweltering NJ heat and ran through my childhood neighborhood, past my Aunt Peggy’s house, around the Parsippany Hills high school football field, and ended at the baseball diamond of Littleton elementary school. I‘ll never forget jumping into his arms after the last out as my team, the bottom-of-the-league Green Hill Cleaners, squeaked by the much-favored yellow team to win the little league championship. I may not have lived my first eighteen years with dad, but he was and will always be my third base coach.  When I think of the “how-to’s” of fatherhood for my own girls, that’s the memory I will always land on.

Dad was ashamed of his perceived failures as a father.  I hope he feels no shame now.  He also didn’t think too highly of his stint as a United States Marine but, for whatever reason, whenever I spoke of dad to others I spoke of semper fidelis and the transformations that occurred during his basic training at Parris Island.  I loved and was proud of my dad as a Marine and always thought I myself would have made a great one.

Dad, boot camp, Parris Island, South Carolina, 1958.

Dad, Boot Camp, Parris Island, South Carolina, 1958.

Part of why dad didn’t find pride in his years in the Corps revolved around the fact that he chose the Marines over college.  He beat himself up again and again over that and could never really eliminate the burdensome cargo from his shoulders.  But, like with the marines, I found a lot of pride and confidence in dad’s lack of a college education.  He was the ultimate experiential learner and his ability to get things done – his scrappiness – was fantastic.

More than his generosity, his love and dedication to the poor in Guatemala, more than anything else, my favorite quality in my father was his awe-inspiring can-do attitude.  Stop the whining, stop the fussing, and just get ‘er done.  As a complex person he could navigate the world’s complexities like no other and that made him a tremendous success as the co-owner of an Irish Pub, as a real estate broker, as an addict in recovery, as a private investigator, as a founder of a non-profit, and as a human being.  I loved that about him.

It was a curious thing, finding a school for me and working through that process with someone whom always kicked himself for not going to College.  There was the father-son college tour that started at Rutgers where I didn’t need to get out of the car.  Afterward, we headed north to Brunswick, Maine and visited Bowdoin that, in my dad’s eyes, was everything he’d expected in a college – the lawns, the kids in kakis, the ivy-covered buildings, etc.  But it wasn’t for me and so I coerced him to keep driving three hours further up the coast to this small school that few had ever heard of.  We arrived, I got out of the car, stood face-to-face with this whale skull and said “This is it” and he said “this is what?  What the heck is this place??!!”

The Whale Skull (a fin whale) at College of the Atlantic.

The Whale Skull (a fin whale) at College of the Atlantic.

He was skeptical of the College of the Atlantic at first — it didn’t match his mental image of College — but he did trust me and my decision and came to love that school almost as much as I love it now.  I hold that piece of trust as sacred.  That my last days with dad were at the College of the Atlantic is not insignificant.

And, of course, there was Guatemala.  Dad came down to visit Karen and me in the small, rural, and isolated village of Santo Tomas Chajaneb.  It was the rainy season and my Q’eqchi’-Maya friends and I dragged him and his stuff through the mud to get to our home.  Let’s just say that he was way out of his comfort zone.  Dinner was an adventure.

We all will remember my dad’s strangely complex preference for extremely simple food where a spaghetti and meatball dinner was wildly exotic.  Well Dad’s visit to Santo Tomas Chajaneb was a huge celebratory event that involved lot’s of food – an oily but tasty chicken stew, some tamales, beans, and tortillas.  You would have thought they had served monkey heads.  But, I’ll hand it to him, he smiled, was incredibly gracious, and finished every last spoonful of the stew and would be always remember as “Qawa Nim Jose” –Mr. Big Joe – in the village.

Dad and I at a Build Session for From Houses to Homes in Pastores, Guatemala, 2009.

Dad and I at a Build Session for From Houses to Homes in Pastores, Guatemala, 2009.

Dad and dad’s work changed thousands of lives in Guatemala and he also inspired a tremendously large and exuberant fleet of foreign volunteers and From Houses to Homes staff who would come to move mountains for the poor in that country.  But none of that work – none – would have been possible without the trust and friendship and brilliant dedication of Oscar Mejia.  Oscar, my dad loved you like a son and, though we’ve only been in each other’s shadows a handful of times, I’ll forever love you like a brother.  You are a model human being we can all learn from.

Dad’s complex life was too short.  Who knows what could have been accomplished with another 15-20 years.  He certainly preferred free will over fatalism. But without his relationships with all of you, without his own personal battles, without his disappointments, without his failures, Qawa Nim Jose would never have been Qawa Nim Jose.

Dad, I love you.  Our world is less without you but better through your work.

On Sunday, June 30th, College of the Atlantic memorialized the life and contributions of Father Jim Gower, the College’s co-founder.  This was my introduction to that ceremony.

Thank you all for coming to celebrate the life and work of Father Jim Gower.  My name is Darron Collins and I’m the president of College of the Atlantic and an alumnus from the class of 1992.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have the opportunity to get to know Fr. Jim all that well, neither in my role as president nor as a student two decades ago.  By the time I’d arrived on campus the second time around, Fr. Jim’s health had already began to fail.  I’ll never forget my first summer here though, less than two years ago; it was about my first order of business to call up Ed Kaelber and pay a visit to Fr. Jim at his home in Birch Bay.

Tired and a bit distracted, Fr. Jim’s eyes lit up like a flame when Ed walked into the room and that’s when I came to know — however briefly — the smile that he was known for.  Indeed, it was a magical smile that spoke of brilliance, compassion, love and all the other characters that will be discussed today.

And the smile widened even more once we spoke of the College.  Ed said, “Jim this is the College’s new president, and he was a student there too.”  “Wonderful!” — he said. “I love those students.”

Fr. Jim’s love in that moment both reflected and embodied the purpose of College of the Atlantic — it’s all about the students.  Though his faculties may have started to fail rather quickly, it was brilliantly clear from that first visit, and the half dozen or so that followed, this College held a very special place in his heart.  I’m honored to have been shaped so completely by his and Les Brewer’s brainchild, and am also honored to have the opportunity to help steer the college into the future.

Part of my commitment to this school will be to rekindle the discussion and influence of spirituality as a part of the curriculum and experience of attending the College of the Atlantic.  I’ve been told time and time again about how, in some of the most desperate or difficult times at COA, Fr. Jim — in the kindest, gentlest, and most non-denominational way — would ask for a certain modicum of spiritual reflection.  Similarly, as our students face a world of human ecological problem solving, there can be no doubt that many, many actors operate within a spiritual or devoutly religious framework.  In both cases — for the operations of the College and the operation of the world — religion and spirituality have utilitarian value for an institution like ours.

But it goes beyond that.  I want our students to be comfortable with the idea that this world does have un-knowable qualities and quantities; that immersing oneself in the un-knowable is neither egotistical nor immature; that reflection on the un-knowable somehow produces new understanding of what it means to be a human on this planet; like science, like the written word, and like the arts, spirituality helps us make sense of complexity, helps bring life and hope into a world that too often feels lifeless and seems hopeless.

I owe that — and we owe that — to the man that helped breathe life into this absolutely incredible institution.

Father Gower

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Human Ecology: A Grand Experiment

Last month a group of COA faculty and I attended the International Society of Human Ecology (SHE) meetings at the Australian National University in Canberra.  280 people from 28 nations attended the gathering. I decided to focus my talk on College of the Atlantic’s understanding and approach to Human Ecology — not as a body of knowledge, but as a way of knowing and problem solving.  The talk and the event went really well.  SHE’s next gathering will happen on the COA campus in October 2014.

Branding Human Ecology for Higher Ed: A Talk at the Society for Human Ecology Conference

By Darron Collins ’92, PhD, President, College of the Atlantic
February 5, 2013 – Canberra, Australia

Thanks to Rob Dybal and all the conference organizers for putting this spectacular event together. It’s my first SHE conference and I’ve been looking forward to it since I began my new job at College of the Atlantic. Thanks also to ANU for hosting. And, finally, thanks to my colleagues at COA, especially Rich Borden, who’s helped me think through many of these ideas.

Wow, the Pacific Ocean is big–so big, I had the opportunity to fiddle with my title and insert the word branding in my presentation somewhere miles above New Caledonia. I’m aware the word “branding” makes academics queasy. But brands can be powerful things.

My reason for coming to this conference is that I’m concerned about where higher education is going in the US (and here I’d like apologize for my US-centric perspective and also point out that when I say “college” I mean “university”)

I want us to imagine a role for Human Ecology in helping steer toward a new future and I think branding just might help out. Rosie the Riveter changed hearts and minds: Human Ecology can as well.

I’m hoping to play a role in all this from my position as the president of the College of the Atlantic. Just a bit of history to start:

COA wouldn’t be what it is in the context of any other location: we are blessed with beauty and inextricably linked to place. We’re on the coast of Maine, five hours north of Boston, on Mount Desert Island. MDI was once a thriving summer community in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The country’s most influential artists, intellectuals, politicians, and entrepreneurs all came up to MDI in the summer among year-round lobstermen, scallop and ground fishermen. The summer community was torn apart by the depression, the Second World War, and a devastating fire in 1947.

In 1968 a local businessman and a very progressive catholic priest conceived the idea of a college. The businessman wanted to revitalize the summer and year-round communities. The priest had said too many funeral masses for boys coming home from Vietnam and was at the same time frustrated by the environmental devastation unfolding in front of his eyes. COA was founded in 1969 to take on these social and environmental challenges.

The first class arrived on MDI in the fall of 1972. They were an amazing group of intrepid explorers: half-a-dozen staff, a half-dozen faculty, and about three dozen students looking to expand the boundaries of higher education. Faculty from that time say there were as many dogs in the class as students—and the dogs were also very attentive.

Ed Kaelber, a former dean at the Harvard School of Education, led the group as president. Ed wrote a prospectus for the college and I refer to it all the time. The lines that jump out at me are these:

“The term experimental college has much currency. It is unfortunate that we have to resort to this phrase; it should be a redundancy. Any college that is not constantly seeking new ways of doing things is only half alive. College of the Atlantic expects to be experimental in the best sense of the word. We will not be bound by tradition nor will we make the assumption that because something is different it is automatically better.”

Given today’s higher education growing pains and the tremendous price that’s being charged for tuition, there’s an unfortunate tendency for colleges to equate “maturity” with becoming rigid and unresponsive.

One of COA’s biggest successes as an institution has been avoiding that pitfall for four decades. One of my biggest challenges as president is to continue to innovate and experiment.

We’ve remained experimental by staying small (we have 330 students now), staying department-less and tenure-less, by demanding a flat hierarchical structure, and insisting upon continuous self-assessment.

We’ve also continued to innovate by maintaining our curricular center of gravity on the practice of Human Ecology. Human Ecology can improve upon how higher education evolves. Coming to more of a consensus around a definition and a brand will make it more powerful.

COA students, almost invariably, arrive on campus thinking about Human Ecology like this: as an area of study, like Russian or Botany, and often land on human ecology as “the relationship between humans and their environment.”

Up until this point, life for too many students has cemented the idea that you come to college and declare a major, graduate after a bucket of knowledge has been passed to you by experts in a field, and then you go off using that bucket of knowledge in a job for forty years, and then retire.

The world doesn’t work like that. So, though students find their own meaning of Human Ecology, it’s important that students first unlearn the idea of Human Ecology as a discipline. But for many reasons (including parents and donors), it’s not enough to say what Human Ecology isn’t. We’re asked to define it honestly and without dumbing it down. That process helps in branding.

We’re landing on a working definition that’s a platform for our work at COA and helps communicate our ideas to the outside world and more suspicious audiences:

“Human Ecology is a perspective that cultivates self-direction; a method of problem solving that emphasizes transdisciplinarity; a way-of-knowing that balances hands-on with minds-on learning; and an educational philosophy that inspires purpose and values.”

For this talk I’ve interviewed four COA alumni. Each one helps me flesh out one of the four elements and shows how—as artists, scientists, humanists—they are also human ecologists and highly effective practitioners of their own craft.

I’d like to start with Amy Toensing. Amy graduated in the early nineties and is now a successful photographer. Although she shies from the title, she’s a National Geographic photographer and will have a new story coming out in the magazine this June, on Australia. I’ll admit, part of why I chose Amy was because there was a time in my life where the idea of being a National Geographic photographer was about the coolest idea in the world. I also knew that if I choose Amy, I could feature her brilliant photographs.

When I interviewed her she told me that, more than anything else, at COA she learned to be a storyteller and that no matter what you do in life, storytelling will be an essential element of success. I’d go even further and agree with my colleague John Anderson and say storytelling is elemental to being human and therefore storytelling puts the human in human ecology. Here, Amy tells a story of two brothers on the isolated island of Monhegan in Maine, each with a portrait of the other hanging over their bed.

Another of Amy’s photos tells of a man from Papua New Guinea who tells his story by the flowers in his beard. Amy developed great skills as a storyteller, but for her COA was exceptional because it cultivated self-direction, even though her direction was circuitous. She was encouraged to poke and prod at her own passions and interest and develop a curriculum around those issues working with a team of advisors.

In a final photo of Amy’s, Somali refugees in Maine, tired of following hijab, escape to a department store and don dresses, never leaving the changing room.

Amy started at COA as someone who wanted to be an outdoor educator; her interests evolved into biology and then agriculture. During a class with a faculty member in biology, during a pot-luck dinner at that faculty member’s house, the two were discussing food security on an island further off the coast. Amy spoke of an image she had from that island, when the instructor said, “Go photograph it.” The real magic occurred when her biologist advisor then encouraged her and provided direction for Amy to continue her exploration of photography. There was no turf war and no typical jealousy or ego on the faculty member’s part. Amy’s story also explains that “following passion” is not a random, willy-nilly taking of this and that class, but a thoughtful, guided, example of self-direction.

A second aspect of what we’re doing when we do human ecology revolves around transdisciplinarity, and for this, I interviewed a public school teacher named Ben Macko. Ben teaches eighth grade math and here we see Ben graphing equations with a group of students. Ben works in the context of a public middle school – which is particularly challenging and inflexible. Ben will also eventually be my own daughter’s math teacher, so I thought interviewing him would be a great way to scope him out.

Ben graduated ten years ago and is quiet, smart, and very thoughtful. It may be a less sexy job, but it’s every bit as inspirational as Amy’s and he’s equally as accomplished. In Ben’s interview, he focused on how the college cultivated his passion for kids and for art. Here’s a sculpture by Ben. Where Amy followed a segmented but singular path, Ben followed two paths simultaneously and was encouraged to do so.

Ben requires his students to think of mathematics outside of the context of math. An equation for a golden spiral becomes a golden spiral from the world around us. Ben emphasized to me that there’s nothing new about using art or nature or every day life to discuss the application of mathematics. We all remember “word problems,” a painfully boring example of that.

But Ben’s approach goes beyond that: For Ben, art and mathematics are iterative. He asks students to toggle between the methodologies of math and art. He actually begins the process of acquiring mathematical concepts by cultivating student curiosity in art. You can see student projects hanging in the back where he began the year asking students to doodle; to draw; to let their mind wander.

Eventually Ben guides students to understand art through mathematics, understand mathematics through art, and discover new knowledge entirely. The importance the US gives to standardized tests makes it very difficult for other teachers to work like this and they wind up teaching to the test.

Ben’s students excel as people and excel on exams because Ben and his students discover new depth in the subject matter and new ideas through transdisciplinary thinking. There’s a lot of talk these days about the importance of STEM education—both in Ben’s classroom and at COA we want to move that acronym to include art and make it STEAM.

Third, there’s the importance of hands-on learning in human ecology. Greg Stone graduated in 1981 and is currently the executive vice president for oceans at Conservation International. Greg grew up wanting to be Jacques Cousteau, much in the same way I grew up wanting to be Indiana Jones.

Greg’s love for the ocean was spawned in the ocean and when it came time for college he was one of those kids who said, “I want to be a marine biologist” and started out at a large university known for that subject. After the first month, Greg hadn’t stepped foot in the Atlantic, was confined to the classroom, and promptly left and left frustrated.

During Greg’s first COA class he found himself in a boat designing a piece of humpback whale migration research using fluke patterns. His frustrations dissipated. Classes weren’t generally in class; there were no textbooks but sets of peer reviewed papers; faculty members weren’t talking at you, but were thinking through problemswith you. Greg said to me, “It felt like a graduate school for undergraduates because it was so problem-focused.”

But what Greg kept hammering on during my interviews was how important the “doing” was. There was a craft involved in his work, not unlike an arborist or blacksmith. Some of that craft is mental, but a lot is kinesthetic—like diving, small engine repair, building, landing a boat, storing specimens, drawing, doing what might in essence be called field work.

Greg’s success comes from his experience as a maker, a doer, a builder of tools, techniques, and thoughts for tackling the challenges that plague our oceans. But it gets lonely on the ocean floor. Greg’s good at what he does also because he recognizes that success in marine conservation depends as much on social science as marine science. He also “does” marine science as social science. Luckily he is as much at home working on the ocean floor as he is working with this man, the president of Kiribati in the Phoenix Islands—who is himself equally adept at fishing with a hand line as he is with running a small island nation. Greg’s skills as a doer and a human ecologist have helped drive the creation of the Phoenix Island Protected Area, which, with an area of 408,250 km2, is the largest marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean and the world’s first deep water, mid-ocean marine protected area.

Fourth and finally, we approach the more nebulous element of our definition, which centers on the cultivation of purpose and value. For this element I used myself as subject matter, because in addition to being COA’s president, I’m also an alumnus from the class of 1992. (I believe strongly that self-deprecation goes a long way in a presentation and if there was ever a self-deprecating photo, this is it.)

My story began as a high school student and as the first kid in my family of Irish immigrants to go to college, it begins with my dad and me making that trip of college visits. We started at Rutgers, the state university of New Jersey, and I didn’t even get out of the car. We went to Princeton – that would have made Dad very proud, but it wasn’t for me. We went to Bowdoin in Maine because we had both heard it had a great outdoors program. It was a beautiful school, but something just wasn’t right. I turned to Dad and said, “There’s this other school I’d really like to see – it’s three hours further up the coast. Can we go?”

I’ll never forget the moment he dropped me off at COA. It was magical. Almost immediately I could tell something was very different about the place. One of the most important differences was that everyone—students, faculty, staff, trustees, wanted to be there at COA; nowhere else. They had their own sense of mission, and a very definite sense of purpose.

It was obvious that students weren’t at COA as a right of passage their parents or peers coaxed them in to. Students arrive at COA predisposed to a certain kind of value- or purpose-driven way of life, but the experience itself cultivates purpose.

I came across a good example of this just before the holidays when I had the chance to take these students and drop them off on an Island 20 kilometers southeast of MDI. They wanted to understand the ecology of offshore islands in winter and were worried about the impacts of offshore wind development. The idea didn’t come from the faculty; it came from them. They were giving up Christmas and New Year’s holidays to do this, and they were excited to brave some serious conditions out there.

Here they are on drop-off day. We tried to hang around, but they were ready for us to get on and leave them to their project.

I received this letter a few days after Christmas from one of the students. It concludes with:

“The adventures we are having have been so enriching, experiential and magical. We are constantly learning new things. I just wanted to say thank you so much. You are such a supportive president and having you excited and involved with our journeys is so wonderful and helpful. It means so much to us.”

I don’t read that to pat myself on the back (although it’s been the proudest moment of my presidency so far), but I read it to demonstrate the degree of thoughtfulness and purposefulness there.

As a human ecologist and president, I’ve discovered my own purpose: first, build on what we do best at COA and second, take what we know really works and inject that human ecological thought and practice elsewhere, in other institutions.

I’ll never forget a discussion I had with a mentor when I first started the job. He asked me about goals and I immediately spoke of the quality of our graduates.

“There are over 4,000 universities in the US and I bet every single one of them has at least a handful of great graduates. Graduates are a given. What else?”

I then told him about this four-part curriculum, but ended with, “Hey, it’s not for everyone.”

He almost jumped out of the phone: “No, no, no!! Never say that. It needs to be for everyone. This curriculum is in fact what as many people as humanly possible need. ”

And he was absolutely right.

So when you look at the current situation in the US, there’s a lot of change unfolding. It’s not an easy environment, but it can be an environment that spawns innovation. We’ve seen a trend toward for-profit institutions and the flowering of massive open online courses, MOOCs. The later are being championed because they are free, not because they are great.

MOOCs may help democratize education, but we are in a heap of trouble if they or for-profit schools become the default for higher education. I feel strongly that if we do our job right here at this conference and beyond and begin to think about human ecology in light of a brand which includes these four elements, that human ecology is a far more robust, useful, and critical tool for the brave new world of higher education than MOOCs.

            How we do that is a much more difficult question. Yes, it will take policy change. And it will take new money. And it might take a completely new educational structure. But at the core it takes people and that’s why I’m at this conference.

When we think and act on one of the conference’s themes “re-inventing the future” one of the ways to re-invent must be through getting these four thematic elements of human ecology inserted into a much higher proportion of colleges and universities. Thank You.


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