Until recently, almost no one had heard of a tiny school called the College of the Atlantic. Located in Bar Harbor, a small town on Mt. Desert Island, which is about halfway up Maine’s coast, the campus is far away from just about everything. But this past year, a flood of media attention washed away its cozy anonymity. It was the subject of a New York Times feature, received praise from Hillary Clinton and was listed by the environmental news website Grist as the greenest university. The school, with only 35 full-time faculty members and fewer than 300 students, has been held up as the national model for environmentally-committed institutions of higher education.
It is hard to imagine a more perfect outdoor classroom than Acadia National Park, which is just steps away from the campus gates. The college owns an organic farm, where students learn about sustainable, local agriculture—while they harvest fresh vegetables for the dining hall. In May 2007, COA became completely carbon neutral, meaning that the college will, as COA’s president David Hales put it, “stop the emission of greenhouse gases in an amount equal to or exceeding the emissions that we create.” And the emissions they take into consideration are not just those from heating buildings or running computers; they also consider all travel to and from campus, including faculty commuting and parents’ and prospective students’ visits. By 2015, the college will meet 100 percent of its energy needs through renewable sources.
Contractors have already broken ground on a $4.6 million dorm that will have composting toilets, solar panels, state-of-the-art insulation, and wood-pellet heating. When completed in fall of 2008, it will be one of the most sustainable dorms in the country. “We have institutional values,” says COA president David Hales. “And caring for the planet is one of them; it always has been. We want to demonstrate that even in a small place with limited resources, you can live sustainably.”
But these days, College of the Atlantic is not alone in its goals—sustainability is quickly becoming part and parcel of university culture. David Krueger, a professor of managerial and corporate ethics at Baldwin-Wallace College, recently spent a sabbatical year studying the greening of American campuses. “In the last few years, sustainability has begun to move through colleges and universities in America in a very serious way,” says Krueger. “It’s really taking hold. Students are demanding it in a way they would not have ten years ago.” Harvard’s Green Campus Initiative office employs 14 staff members who ensure that the university uses state-of-the-art green building practices. Yale’s new engineering research building was awarded LEED Gold status in 2006, and the university recently spent $40 million on the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which will be the most sustainable building on campus when it opens next year. The University of Pennsylvania bought 112,000 megawatts of wind energy, which accounts for about 30 percent of its overall energy needs. Carnegie Mellon requires that all new buildings conform to a minimum of LEED silver standards. And the list goes on.
In thinking about low-impact living on campus, COA definitely had a head start. Environmentalism was a founding principle at the college more than 30 years ago, and it’s still at the center of campus life. But in the past few years, other universities have caught up to COA. If campus environmentalism hasn’t already become the status quo, in the next few years, it most likely will. And as the number of sustainable colleges grows, I wondered whether COA just might get lost in the crowd. But having traveled to the campus for several days, I began to see that an environmental ethic underpins every facet of the school. Their commitment to sustainability goes far beyond architecture and at its heart stems from a particular way of looking at and interacting with the world.
When I arrived at COA on a sparkling, windy day in mid-April, I met my student host, sophomore Jasmine Smith, and we set out on a quick tour. The 35-acre campus is stunning—classes take place in hundred-year-old buildings, and the lawns roll down to the rocky shores of Frenchman’s Bay. Cinder-block student housing was completely absent; the bay windows of one “dorm” I visited (actually an old estate home) opened up onto the harbor. I followed Jasmine to her first class, “Whitewater/Whitepaper.” Jasmine explained that the class met three times a week: twice in a classroom, and once in canoes, paddling down local rivers. (According to the course description, students are graded “on problem sets, role-playing exercises, contribution to the class, and paddling skills.”) This, Jasmine told me, was fairly typical of COA classes—a mix of classroom and experiential learning.
COA doesn’t have academic departments. And students don’t agonize over choosing a major, since everyone majors in the same subject: human ecology. If you ask 10 different students what human ecology is, you just might get 10 different answers—and that’s how the faculty intends it. In fact, in order to graduate, every student is required to write a personal definition of human ecology, usually in essay form, though in 2006, the definitions ranged from a sci-fi story to a scientific equation to several long poems.
The idea to start a college in Bar Harbor began percolating in the fifties. Until the middle of the last century, most of the town’s revenue came from rich Bostonians who owned summer homes in the area. But a fire in 1947 destroyed many of the old estates, and since few owners rebuilt their properties, the economy faltered. A college, local businessmen thought, would revitalize the town. With the help of a Catholic priest and local leaders, they got in touch with a few young Ivy League professors who had become disillusioned with what they saw as an increasingly rigid educational system, and in 1969, COA was founded.
Bill Carpenter, a creative writing professor and one of the founding members of the college, described the process of starting COA as a new beginning—creating a philosophy of higher education from scratch. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, published in 1962, was important from the beginning. “Here was this book that combined ecology, biology, literature, and legislation,” said Carpenter. “We wanted students to see the connections, and that book was a perfect example. One of the major founding themes was interdisciplinary study—a truly practical education.” The founders decided that the college wouldn’t have any departments, and instead, students would follow Carson’s model and study relationships among different disciplines—thus “human ecology” was born.
I asked Carpenter whether he and the other founders had any hesitation about founding the college at (and I cringed as soon as I said it) “the ends of the earth.” “At that time, we thought of American cities as ‘the ends of the earth,’” he said. “Urban areas were in a state of decay. We came up here to start over.” But with the ‘80s and ‘90s came the age of urban renewal, and the back-to-the-land spirit with which the college was founded became quickly outmoded. In order to keep up with the times—and to stay faithful to the concept of “a truly practical education”—COA started to encourage students to expand their world by exploring the world—and by bringing some of the rest of the world to COA.
In 2001, COA began accepting a number of international students who had attended United World College, a prestigious chain of two-year post-baccalaureate programs all over the world. Through a special grant, United World College graduates can apply to a number of American colleges, COA among them. If they’re accepted, all their expenses for four years—tuition, room and board, books, and everything else—are paid for through the grant. Because of this program, COA’s international contingent makes up an impressive 20 percent of the overall student population.
During a “coffeehouse night” at COA’s dining hall as a bluegrass fiddler played in the background, I met Oliver Bruce, a freshman from New Zealand. At 20, Oliver is a little older than a typical freshman, and he seems it. Articulate, friendly, and eminently comfortable in his own skin, Oliver hit the ground running at COA. During his first semester, he got a grant to attend a green business conference in San Francisco. Over spring break, he traveled to South Asia to speak at two United World Colleges. “If you look at what we’re all doing and where we end up, we end up everywhere,” he said. “COA is a springboard for all of that.”
In fact, COA students are so cosmopolitan that it’s easy to forget that they’re college kids—until they start talking about the politics and drama of campus life. At dinner, over a plate of coconut-crusted shrimp, red-lentil dhal, and organic greens, I met some seniors who told me they were just about ready to leave COA. One particularly jaded student, Andres Jennings, who had just come back from Brazil, complained that some students at COA were “lazy.” He told me about a class discussion about a Henry David Thoreau text. A student—who clearly hadn’t done the reading—“started talking about robots.”
And, he said, people had a tendency to get all worked up over “the stupidest stuff.” A few years back, he had been walking around town and noticed a flag raised at half-mast because Pope John Paul II had died. He got to thinking, and decided that COA should have a flag at half-mast in honor the people who have died in the Iraq war. But there was a problem: In order to fly a flag at half-mast, COA needed a flag. He introduced the idea on a campus list serve, but students balked. They also complained when a new college sign looked “too institutional.”
Andres described the All College Meeting, which takes place every Wednesday, and is open to the entire community, as “boring.” On the day I attended, “All College” seemed like a stretch—only a few dozen people showed up. There were endless reports from all kinds of subcommittees, and heated debates over the wording of a new statement about admissions policies. I could see what Andres meant.
COA doesn’t groom its students for any one career path. About two thirds of alumni have gone on to graduate school, but the programs they choose are diverse, as are the fields that they eventually enter. It’s perhaps unsurprising that 20 percent go into natural sciences, but another 13 percent choose business-related jobs. The most popular field is education (22 percent), and the least is engineering (1 percent).
One alumna I talked to, 29-year-old Kerri Sands, graduated from COA in 2002. While she was at COA, she managed the college’s farm stand, a task that required business acumen, agricultural savvy, and even graphic design skills (for promoting the products). Now, she runs a program called Farms for the Future, which was created to help Maine farmers plan and execute transitions (moving from conventional farming to organic, for example). The program is itself a nonprofit, but it’s technically part of the Maine State Department of Agriculture, and it receives most of its funding through the state. “I work at this interesting intersection of public and nonprofit, and with farmers who are entrepreneurs,” says Sands. “That’s not atypical of COA grads. We end up in these odd, hard-to-explain jobs, which reflect the odd, hard-to-explain human ecology degree.”
In agriculture, says Sands, knowing how to nimbly jump from one sphere to another is particularly useful. “Farming is undergoing a major transition,” she says. “You need to see how one decision impacts all the other decisions. Skills are good, but they’re better when you know how to think.” Learning to think—human ecology style—was the most important part of Sands’ COA experience. But there was something else, she says, that was crucial to her education: not being allowed to remain anonymous on campus. “You can’t really hide at COA,” she says. When it comes to making decisions about the college, you’re going to get asked what you think, and you have to have an answer.”
On my last full day at COA, I met Nancy Andrews, a faculty member who teaches video, puppetry, and animation. When Andrews had given up her position at the Art Institute of Chicago to come to COA, she envisioned a peaceful life in a small Maine town. “The first winter was peaceful, but ever since then, it’s been crazy,” she says. When you get involved in a community, it’s demanding, and you’re always busy.”
Still thinking about what Andrews said, that night, I opened the COA magazine, and I found an essay called “When Professors Change: What I Learned at COA” by Etta Kralovec, a former COA professor. Kralovec writes that when she first arrived at COA, she was turned off by the “closed-door negotiations, debates over knotty moral issues, fights about policy.” But when she left COA in 1999 after a decade of teaching, she began to understand that the very processes that had alienated her were actually the glue that bound the college. “Communities are very hard to live in,” she writes. “It’s not just the natural world that teaches at COA, it’s the community that teaches.”
And as I thought back over my visit to COA, I realized that signs of that community work were everywhere. There were the fun parts of community (dinner at the dining hall, the coffeehouse night), and there were the not-so-fun—but necessary—parts, like the All College Meeting. Even the “stupid stuff” that Andres had told me about—the uproar over the flag and the new sign—these were all part of the work of building a community. Kerri Sands told me that when she was at COA, engaging everyone wasn’t always easy. “I learned a lot about what makes people participate,” she says. “You have to reach them in a zone that resonates. You have to understand why everyone’s there and why there’s value in attending.”
This dedication to community, and a shared belief that it is as integral to environmentalism as green dorms, will forever set COA apart from the eco-initiatives taking hold in other universities. Which isn’t to downplay their importance, but when I asked President Hales why COA had decided to go carbon net zero, he told me it was “first and foremost because it’s the right thing to do.” At COA, “sustainability” is evident in the green buildings and reducing carbon emissions and serving local food in the dining hall, but it’s also about the true meaning of “sustainability”—making sure that what’s built will endure. At COA, students learn that without a healthy community—and people who are invested in sustaining that community, not much else will last.
The work of living together requires each community member to see problems from different perspectives. And when it comes to solving the world’s biggest problems—global warming, deforestation, the decline of species—COA’s model of building bridges among disciplines just might be the most important lesson of all.
A few days after I got back home, I called Oliver, and we talked about human ecology. He still has a few years before he has to write his senior essay, but he’s already formed a few thoughts on the subject. “It’s the notion that every day it’s possible to go through paradigm shifts of how you view things,” he said. “To be trained as an economist, you end up speaking economics; as a doctor, you use medical terms. At COA, you learn to see the connections among these different languages.” And in a place as small as COA, it’s impossible not to see those connections.
Oliver is still not completely sure what he’s going to do with his degree in human ecology. He’s interested in environmental business, but he also wants to make documentary films about human rights issues. And he’d really like to learn Spanish. But while some twenty-year-olds might be worried about narrowing down their interests into a viable career path, Oliver isn’t too concerned. “I’m sure I’ll find a way to do it all,” he says.
Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in "Plenty" in December 2007.