Return to Earth College
I’m not much one for reunions at my alma mater. But I did have a 25th reunion last month at one of my journalistic alma maters, so to speak, College of the Atlantic, the small, environmentally oriented, alternative liberal arts college located off the coast of Maine. It was one of the colleges I covered during my first tour of duty as a freelance education writer during the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Like most of the stories I did during my early, gallivanting days, the one I did about COA began with a hunch. The little information I had about this remote, decade-old, solar-powered cousin of Bennington, Goddard, et al., was that COA offered a bachelor of arts degree in something called human ecology, and that staff and students spent a lot of time observing and tracking whales. I was intrigued.
And so, armed with an assignment, off I flew to Bar Harbor, Maine, for what turned out to be one of my most memorable assignments covering academe. I was immediately taken with the college’s Noah-like president, Ed Kaelber, and his vice president, Sam Eliot, whose environmentalist passion was leavened by a self-deprecatory sense of humor.
What moved COA’s founders to establish their college-cum-environmentalist colony back in 69?, I asked Eliot one blustery evening, as we huddled over coffee in his office in the college’s Ark-like wooden administration building. "Basically, we came out here to save the world," Eliot said. “Now,” he said with a grin, “we’re concentrating on Maine.”
And saving Maine the earnest eco-missionaries of COA were, via such inspired stratagems as a dead minke whale that had washed up near the college and had been converted into a mobile mammalian biology diorama for the benefit of the local populace. Whale on Wheels, it was called. COA students were largely responsible for preserving Maine’s Great Heath, an ecologically unique bog. The college’s Harbor Seal Project had helped rescue many abandoned or stranded seals. And the Department of Interior thought highly enough of the biologist Steve Katona’s course, Whales of the North Atlantic, to award his class a contract for the Mount Desert Island Whale Watch. With 180 students and 15 faculty members, classes at the spare, island-based campus were small, education an intense, hands-on affair. I never saw a faculty as inspired and committed as COA’s.
For the most part, classes at COA were as intellectually rigorous as anywhere, if not more so. Some people might have difficulty defining exactly what human ecology meant -- "it's … a seagull" said one misty-eyed student -- and yet COA students were making real connections between man and nature. Here, in December 1980, as the new materialistic morning of Ronald Reagan was dawning, was a college really dedicated to changing and, yes, saving the world.
To a sixties survivor that was bracing to behold. "If the deterioration of the environment keeps going the way it is now," in the prescient words of Glen Berkowitz, one of the many dynamic, clear-eyed students I met during my fascinating sojourn in Bar Harbor, "people will have to use COA graduates." He was right. (In fact, Berkowitz, who graduated in 1982, went on to become a senior consultant with Boston’s massive Big Dig project, where he advised the builders on the human impact of the dig, and is now involved with a wind power project for the city’s harbor.) He's but one of the many COA graduates who have used their unique education to do social and environmental good. Others include Chellie Pingree, head of Common Cause and Bill McLellan, a University of North Carolina research scientist who National Public Radio recently described as the federal government’s “go-to guy on marine mammal research.”
I had planned on a visit of several days. Instead I wound up staying for several weeks. My subsequent dispatch about “Earth College,” as I good naturedly dubbed the place, reflected my affection for the spunky laboratory school. "To be sure, the college needs a gymnasium and a student center," I reported. "But the College of the Atlantic is alive and well. That in itself is something to celebrate."
Privately, I wasn’t so optimistic. The future for alternative or experimental colleges, I well knew, was increasingly grim, having recently reported the demise of one of COA’s experimental siblings, Eisenhower College, whose lofty minded World Studies program and holistic educational philosophy was not unlike COA’s.
Hence my delight and surprise, upon recently visiting the college on the Web, to encounter an institution that, at least on the evidence of its kaleidoscopic site, was thriving. But Web sites can be deceiving. It was time to check out College of the Atlantic again.
And so, last month, just as I had a quarter of a century before, I set off for the college’s rustic, coastal Maine campus, next to Acadia National Park. Once again I found myself auditing classes, hanging out with COA students and faculty in the main dining room, listening to the swooning sea gulls, just as I did long ago.
My green reunion. Best reunion I ever had.
To be sure, I learned from some of the veteran COA faculty I met up with again, COA did wind up having its own Sturm und Drang period in the early 80s, including a civil war pitting faculty and staff who wished to keep the college as a college against another faction that wanted COA to become more of a think tank. The former won. However, enrollment at the beleaguered campus dropped to a mere hundred. "We almost lost the college," one teacher said.
Nevertheless, under the leadership of Steve Katona, the college’s savvy whale-watcher-turned president, who has been at the college’s helm for since 1992, COA has survived. Now, with an enrollment of 270 students -- over 20 percent of them from abroad -- and 26 faculty, COA is, indeed, thriving. Shedding the "experimental" label that once put off parents of prospective students, the pioneering institution is competitive with some of the best mainstream liberal arts colleges in the country, while the human ecology concept and educational philosophy that COA pioneered has gained respect.
On the surface, COA is no longer as "crazy" as it once was. The college has an eye-catching logo now, and an expensive viewbook. The food is no longer strictly vegetarian. COA’s ponytail is gone.
And yet, I could see, in the small, intensely participatory classes and laboratories I audited, and the interactions I had with students and faculty, that the college’s essence and mission is unchanged. Here, still, on this remote island, off the coast of Maine, is a community unabashedly committed to saving the world.
One professor, Davis Taylor, is an economist and former Army captain who attended West Point. He said that while at first blush one could hardly think of two institutions more different than West Point and COA, he saw similarities between the two. "Both have a sense of mission," Taylor said, and “both emphasize systems thinking.”
As one student after another, including ones from as far away as Serbia and Seattle, told me, “I came here to make a difference.”
In the best sense, I could see, during the rainy but otherwise mind-and-spirit expanding week I spent in Bar Harbor. It was clear in a horizon-busting class in environmental history, or an impromptu world music session in the college greenhouse. College of the Atlantic is still alive and crazy after all these years. And, for one of its early champions, and as one who believes that the greatness of the American higher education system lies in its multiplicity, that was reassuring to see.
I could also see that original spirit in a hands-on, feet-in conference in riverine planning that I (literally) waded into, where COA faculty, staff and local planners contributed to show journalists how it’s possible to affect a community planning system on an environmental and inter-county level.
So there I was one stormy afternoon hanging out with Bill Carpenter, the novelist and poet who has taught at COA since its founding 36 years ago, sifting the college's saga over strong coffee in his cozy, book-lined office. We had returned from an exciting, syncopated session of “Turn of the Century,” an interdisciplinary class in cultural history that Carpenter teaches along with the artist JoAnne Carpenter and the biologist John Anderson, in which the three professors enthusiastically riff off each other, in between questions from the packed, palpably delighted class of 25 (which for COA is huge).
“So, what was your original vision?” I asked Carpenter, as we reminisced about the college’s wild and woolly early days.
“This was our vision,” he said, with finality.
Here’s to survivors.
Gordon F. Sander, an Ithaca-based journalist and historian has written about higher education for The Times Higher Education Supplement, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The New York Times and many other publications.Â He was recently artist-in-residence at Cornell University's Risley College for the Creative and Performing Arts. His most recent book is The Frank Family That Survived: a 20th Century Odyssey (Random House UK).
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