I sent the following communication to students, staff, and faculty on the heels of a new year. I thought you might like to read it as well. DC
Welcome to winter term and, for those of you who were away, welcome home.
The COA community, although small in number, is made up of a fantastic array of people. We come from more than 40 countries and nearly all 50 US states. We come from a wide range of socio-economic backgrounds. We’re straight, gay, queer, bisexual, transgender, or gender indiscriminate. We worship different Gods or no gods. Most importantly, we bring many worldviews to the things we’re passionate about. At COA diversity is not about a feel good or check-the-box statistic; it’s a critical element of our approach to education. Our intent is not just to understand the world, but also to improve upon it and, with that approach, a commitment to diverse perspectives is absolutely necessary.
In this “Welcome Back” I want to re-emphasize something we may sometimes take for granted: at College of the Atlantic we are committed to fostering an inclusive, nondiscriminatory, diverse, secure environment to learn, think, and grow.
I was reminded of how essential these elements are on the day before Thanksgiving when I invited students staying on campus to my home for a simple meal. A frigid night descended on us, so we ate chili and lit a fire. There were about 30 of us there gathered around the fire, including with my wife Karen, my two daughters, and my dog Lucy. It was a tremendous evening and one that exemplified the diversity, the learning, the openness to having difficult conversations, and the real sense of community at our college.
We spoke about the Baltic War, the effect of climate change on Maine’s maple syrup industry, the upcoming winter ecology class, the devastation in Aleppo, the impact of fungal infections on bats, the skyrocketing costs of health care and their impacts on how we manage the college, the seasonal shifts of cranberry harvesting, SEC Football, Colson Whitehead’s novel Underground Railroad, and, well, the list goes on. I did more listening than talking and found myself thinking “What an amazing experience for my young daughters to be part of this!” and just as quickly understood that these kinds of experiences and conversations can be transformative for everyone.
The conversation drifted to the 2016 election. No matter what your personal politics, this election exposed an ugly rift here in the US and has shaken the very fabric of our country. The language, the media-inspired frenzy, the attempt to whittle complicated matters into Twitter posts, and the discussion of a “post-truth” universe were infuriating for me. But, to those who have long been marginalized in society, there was outright fear that the decades of progress around inclusivity would be turned back, that those on the tails of many bell curves would be shunned or persecuted.
I want to tell you now that we here at COA will continue to work our hardest to make sure that this will never happen here. To the best of our abilities, we are working to make sure that it doesn’t happen anywhere. At COA you will no doubt be tested and you will be uncomfortable — perhaps physically as you climb across the Knife Edge of Mount Katahdin, perhaps intellectually as you confront material you either do not understand or do not agree with, perhaps socially as you discover that your beliefs do not align with those of a close friend. But you will always be welcomed.
Now more than ever we need a diverse group of doers and thinkers, and now more than ever this college is ready to stand by its commitments to support, challenge, and advocate for our students. Our own alumnus Khristian Mendez ’15 may have said it best: “The values that COA stands for and the education we received were made for this moment.”
College of the Atlantic is a place to work on “wicked” problems. Those problems —like environmental justice, deforestation, racial violence, water scarcity, meth addiction in rural America, meeting energy needs in the face of climate change, the causes and consequences of migration, the homogenization of native languages and cultures, industrial agriculture, the role of technology and artificial intelligence, poverty and population, the loss of traditional ecological knowledge — these problems demand integrative thinking, they demand open minds, they demand creative, entrepreneurial, adventurous thinkers and doers. They demand a diverse set of human ecologists.
So winter is here. The days are growing longer and our 108 square-mile island feels more like a rural Maine hamlet than a Mecca for leaf-peepers (but who can blame them for wanting to be here in the fall). And, whether this is your first or fiftieth Maine winter, we find ourselves in what one might call very different and quickly changing operating conditions.
In such a climate I went to one of my intellectual heroes, former COA faculty member Bill Drury. You’ve likely run into his quote:
“When your views on the world and your intellect are being challenged and you begin to feel uncomfortable because of a contradiction you’ve detected that is threatening your current model of the world, pay attention. You are about to learn something.”
So true. But today more than any other day of our collective past a corollary of the quote is worth meditating on:
“When your views on the world are being challenged and you become dogmatically comfortable with your own views and you find your immediate peer group is no longer threatening your current model of the world, pay attention. Learning something will require you reach out to those who make you uncomfortable.”
Seek out those uncomfortable, precipitous, Knife Edge-like climbs. Test your own preconceived notions and, with the highest focus on respect, probe the notions of those with whom you don’t agree. I want you to feel challenged and challenge yourself, but also know that we will do everything in our power to ensure you can thrive here, regardless of your point of view and regardless of the national or global political situation.
There will always be room around our fire.
 While looking for the exact wording of the quote, a Google Search yielded this hit from COA alumna Heather Candon ’99 – it’s about Roller Derby, being uncomfortable, wearing protective gear and the like. Enjoy the relevant read.
Great commentary, Darron! Communication IS the key! How will we learn if we don’t tackle the uncomfortable?
Excellent observations, Darron! Communication IS the key! How will we learn if we refuse to face the uncomfortable?