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.


2 thoughts on “My 2014 Convocation Address

  1. Bravo, Darron! Excellent points! What makes this work is that you first point out a problem and you then offer a solution, as opposed to just whining. And you offer yourself as the leader of the improvements movement with specific goals.

    I hear you, with regards to the email bloat. Since I have been unemployed for 2+ months, I have set about the task of cleaning up the overload of emails in my inbox and sent box, some of which date back to early 2012. They definitely got out of control. And this is the stuff that I want to deal with in one way or another: I delete the junk every morning. From nearly 2000 emails, I am now down to about 400, so I am gaining. It takes more time than one usually thinks, since each needs to be opened, determined what it is I want to do with it, and then do it, whether it is engaging in a specific task prompted by the email, or filing it in an appropriate folder, or whatever. I hope I won’t let them get the better of me again!

    I talked with Bill Carpenter a couple of years ago on writing issues – he read one of the late drafts of my novel – “Bead of Sand” – and gave me some good comments for improvements – and I mentioned to him that COA ought to start its own publishing firm, because so many people in the COA community write and have written everything from human ecology essays and senior projects to novels and books of poetry. He said that the idea has rumbled around campus now and again. Maybe your initiative will get that launched.

    May this academic year be the best ever!

    Sally Morong (’76) Chetwynd

    Brass Castle Arts

    P.O. Box 1916

    Wakefield, MA 01880

    781-224-0530 (home)

    781-548-9519 (cell)

  2. Great words, Darron!!

    I like the vision you’ve draw out in the map video and here in this address. I find the more I continue to study, the more I dive into by requisite the philosophy and study of place. Also, props for dropping a D&D reference on the sly!

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