College of the Atlantic president: ‘Listening is an enormous responsibility’

New College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins sits in his office Monday afternoon at the COA campus.
Bill Trotter | BDN
New College of the Atlantic President Darron Collins sits in his office Monday afternoon at the COA campus.
Posted Sept. 05, 2011, at 8:16 p.m.

BAR HARBOR, Maine —- Darron Collins says he can remember the excitement and nervousness he felt in the fall of 1988 when he first arrived in Bar Harbor from New Jersey to start his freshman year at College of the Atlantic.

Collins, now 41, is excited again about the new academic year getting under way at COA, but this time his experience will be slightly different than it was 23 years ago.

Collins, who is seven weeks into his tenure as the new president of the school, is the first graduate to hold the post and the first president to have been born after COA was founded in 1969.

Seated in his office in the school’s Turrets administration building, Collins said Monday that he plans to tell the COA community about some of his experiences as a student when he speaks Wednesday afternoon at COA’s convocation, the ceremony the school holds each September to officially kick off the new academic year.

One thing he doesn’t plan to do, however, is lay out a vision for the school, mainly because he has not developed one. Collins said that despite his familiarity with the school as an alumnus, his initial task as president will be to visit with the school’s faculty and students and to learn from them about what the school has accomplished in the past couple of decades.

“Listening is an enormous responsibility for an incoming college president,” Collins said. “Of course, I have ideas. I am not a blank slate. I’ve got a good understanding [of COA], but at the same time 20 years have gone by.”

Collins said the college’s mission of emphasizing the environment in its human ecology curriculum is as important now as it was at the time of its founding.

The college’s distinctive waterfront location on the Gulf of Maine, its programs on Great Duck Island and Mount Desert Rock, and its Allied Whale research group, which was founded in 1972, continue to offer COA undergraduates unparalleled opportunities for field research, he said. The dead minke whale that washed up last month on Sand Beach in nearby Acadia National Park and then was dissected by Allied Whale researchers is a good example of that, he said.

“Most undergraduate students have a hard time getting shoulder-deep in a whale carcass,” Collins said.

But the world has changed in recent decades, he said, and the school’s programs have grown to reflect those changes.

Collins recalled how decades ago the “private sector” was viewed as being at odds with efforts to reduce the impact humans were having on the environment. But now, environmental interests and economic interests often are seen as one and the same, he said. Protecting the environment now is viewed as good business practice because no business can be sustainable if its environmental practices are not.

“It’s in the mainstream,” he said. “It’s not a peripheral consideration.”

That societal realization, he said, has created new educational opportunities for COA students that did not exist when he first arrived as a student in the late 1980s, he said. The college now has a sustainable business incubator that provides opportunities for students to develop viable business concepts that help address environmental issues, he said.

The college’s acquisition of two farms on Mount Desert Island is also an example of teaching students about practical applications for good environmental practices and policies, Collins said.

At Beech Hill Farm in Mount Desert, which COA acquired in 1999, and Rockefeller Farm in Bar Harbor, which was given to the school in March 2010 by David Rockefeller, students can learn how to produce environmentally friendly food in an economically sustainable manner.

“The economics are a key part of learning for the students,” Collins said.

Collins said he hopes the two farms will serve as models for the future of agriculture in Maine.

“How do we feed ourselves without destroying every square acre of forest?” Collins said. “We’re going to have to figure out how to do more with less. I see that as something extremely important for the state.”

On Wednesday, 97 freshman will attend COA’s convocation along with more than 200 upperclassmen, Collins said. Of those new freshman, about two-thirds are from outside of New England, including nearly 20 freshman that are from outside the United States. That also represents a change from the COA that Collins attended as a student, he said, when maybe 1 percent of the student body was not American.

“Now we’re rubbing up against 20 percent” international student enrollment, he said. “That’s a huge transformation.”

Collins said that despite the changes at COA and in the world around it, one thing will not change on Wednesday. As part of the school’s convocation tradition, students and some staff members swim from the school’s pier to Bar Island and back.

He said he plans to make the swim.

“I did it as a student. I definitely will do it as president,” Collins said.

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