Convocation 2016

2016 Convocation

I love “terms of venery,” collective nouns from the 15th century: a flock of seagulls (also a British synth band from the early 80s), a parliament of owls, a murder of crows, a convocation of eagles.

Today is the 45th time in the history of College of the Atlantic that we gather as a convocation to open the academic year: 350 students from 43 countries and 41 states; 40 faculty and lecturers; 70 staff members; One community. Welcome back!

Today is also the first time we’ve swum the Bar Island Swim before all the public speaking. Let me tell you that 30 minutes in sub-60 degree water is not a good tonic for said public speaking. [Improvisation because BIS was postponed due to fog.]

And I’m sore as a dog from this wicked hike I did on Monday – across MDI with a COA board member, Winston Holt. How great is it to have a job where your boss, a member of the COA Board of Trustees, joins you on a trek of 31 miles and 20 peaks across 16 hours.

My intention was to bring this little, black notebook and write my talk along the way I was going to use the walk as a metaphor. But by the time I was on top of Bernard Mountain, just 90 minutes into the walk, I realized that using a metaphor was a very bad idea and would quickly devolve into something that would make your eyes roll.

I may not have physically written a word in my book, but I did in fact write my talk on the journey. I kept coming back to the physics of work and the Joules of work I was expending against gravity. It also happened to be Labor Day. That line of thought about work kept with me and, by the time I was on Beech Mountain up under the fire tower, I arrived at the conclusion that the most pernicious threat we face as a planet is not climate change, is not habitat loss or deforestation.

The most pernicious threat is our own gluttony and indolence; our laziness and our penchant to want to be entertained into a deadening lull – our quest for an Infinite Jest; our desire for immediate gratification. The sustainability we seek and talk about, as individuals, as a COA community, and as a world requires we buck this trend and will require hard, hard work.

Unfortunately, the rallying cry for “hard work” conjures nostalgia; it conjures parents and grandparents talking about walking to school in deep snow. My opinion is not that difficult work is better, but that we should all be very, very cautious about “easy” things and “easy” decisions.

I started thinking about a modern, refined concept of “hard work,” which would have three lenses and come to embrace a physical hard work, an intellectual hard work, and a social hard work.

In term of our own sustainability as an institution, think about it:

Changing our habits and behaviors; thinking about and working with discarded resources; reducing our reliance on energy; taking care of our bodies as a kind of individual sustainability, all require very physical kind of hard work.

Striving to understand complex issues, recognizing the danger of easy answers, developing a sense of the long view over the short term: these things necessitate a kind of intellectual hard work.

And the need for collaboration, the need for empathy and altruism, thinking beyond the self: all this requires a kind of social hard work.

In short, sustainability requires that we embrace a new, evolved work ethic for the 21st century and College of the Atlantic can be and needs to be the laboratory for building that ethic.

Winston and I crossed Somes Sound in kayak and climbed Norumbega Mountain whose western flanks are being devastated by a red pine scale. It was there that I began to prioritize the collective work the college needs to take on this year. There are of course different roles and responsibilities here between student, faculty, staff and such, but at COA we take on big things collectively.

We’ve got loads of collective work to do: challenging but really exciting work.

I mentioned we were today celebrating our 45th convocation. Fall of 2021 will be our 50th. We have our MAP, our plan for getting there and answering questions around what we want our school to look like including scholarship, raises, and this idea of a new building we called the new arts and sciences building. At this point I am officially renaming that endeavor. “Arts and sciences” sets up a real terrible binary. Yes, we need to meet the spatial needs for teaching arts and sciences, but the real question is how can a new structure embrace and enhance what is absolutely crucial to this college? How can a new building inspire the collaboration and project oriented nature of the work we do here? How can it help us do human ecology? The process of answering those questions is going to be hard, but essential. The New Building will do that.

We also have to continue the excellent however hard work and progress we’ve made around sexual violence – something that’s thankfully and appropriately on the mind of colleges and universities all across the country. Ensuring that everyone understands the meaning of consent and continuing to refine and strengthen our policies and procedures, these things require hard work, incredibly important, hard work.

Third, I thought about the work we have to do in terms of getting the world to know us. The world knowing about us is not a bad thing! Great students, great people, and great resources to do what we do best come to us when the world knows about us. But our message is more nuanced, so telling our story loudly, clearly, and compellingly is more difficult.

But #1 on the list of Sierra Club Cool Schools? Number one – there’s no doubt about it, that’s a great thing. Do we have plenty of work to do? Absolutely. But our #1 ranking emerges because of our commitment across 45 years and because places like Sierra Club recognize that environmental excellence is not about how many solar panels you build, but how embedded sustainability is within the curriculum.

And Japan – this evening we will collect 10 colleagues rom Japan who are interested in creating a College of the Atlantic on the island of Osakikamijima. This recognition is a great thing and demonstrates just how much hard work we’ve put into this place. It is our job to continue to tell our nuanced story loudly, clearly, and compellingly.

But the thing I kept coming back to time and time again, and the work most specific to this year, is the importance of hiring three new faculty: in computer science, botany, and anthropology.

It is crucial we get three tremendous human beings on our faculty – tremendous according to our terms as COA: people who are excited to collaborate, with students, with staff, and with faculty; who are excited to stretch beyond what they know; who want to play a role in the evolution of this college as an institution; who absolutely love to teach, are excellent at it; people who are excited about human ecology.

We did that successfully once last year with the hiring of Kourtney Collum, our new Partridge Chain in Sustainable Food Systems. Welcome Kourtney! We have to do that kind of work three times this year.

By the time Winston and I got to the Tarn, a small pond that’s quickly becoming a meadow between Dorr Mountain and Huguenot Head, I thought about last year’s graduation.

How many of you were there?

It featured a commencement speaker who I always considered a hero: Barry Lopez. It was the most real, gripping, smart, powerful and useful talk I’d ever heard. Not everyone who witnessed it would agree with that assessment, but most would. Importantly, the message he left to those graduates felt and feels every bit as useful here to us now. He concluded with a set of recommendations, all of which require the 21st century work ethic I mentioned earlier. He said:

First, Barry said, “step away from the unconscious confines of your own culture. Learn what others are facing and how they are coping.” Our commitment to expeditionary learning and providing every student here with an $1800 expeditionary budget is meant to do just that: to help you become comfortable with being uncomfortable; to help you think about what ‘other’ really means; and to help you recognize that you can do that “stepping away” here on campus, in Machias, or in Madagascar. Culture does not necessarily equal geography.

Second, he said, “think more often about what might work for everyone instead of what might work for you.” This is the human challenge: the rise to an altruistic existence, the understanding of what it means to be part of an institution, the desire to make all boats rise, at this institution and in the wider world.

Third, Lopez asked, “we read about the lives of those who you admire and take in the meaning of each ones’ flaws. “This need not be purely biographical, but it nicely emphasizes the cerebral, which we want to nourish every bit as much as the corporeal.

Fourth, he said, “be cautious if you feel an urge to become well known.” This is a really hard one, especially in talking about our #1 ranking in Sierra Club. But recognizing institutional fame and hard work feels more refined than the individual fame Lopez was speaking of.

Fifth, Lopez asked, “remember that sometimes reverence and not efficiency is the way to a solution.” I only ask that we also be cautious of the binaries in the world. Reverence and efficiency might unfortunately lead you to imagine the arts and sciences, or artists and scientists, as in the artists have all the reverence and the sciences have all the efficiency. Break out of the binaries.

Sixth, he said, “remember that sometimes it’s more important to be in love – in love with the Earth and with each other – than it is to be in power.” And I don’t have anything to add to that one.

Barry’s last words on the stage sent this riveting wave of power and importance and thoughtfulness and love through the audience, he said:

“For God’s sake, take care of each other.”

As president here at COA the number of things I just get to go ahead and do is few and far between. We make decisions collectively as often as we can. Well, it says on my little agenda for today “President convenes the 2016-2017 academic year” and, with that, I will, for as long as I’m president, officially convene the academic year with this saying

For God’s sake, take care of each other.

Thank you.

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