A Tiny College Nurtures Big Ideas

Michele Stapleton for The Chronicle

Darron Collins, Class of '92 and current president of the College of the Atlantic, talks with Ed Kaelber, the founding president, who still lives nearby. An ecology-focused college founded 43 years ago, COA has lasted longer than other such experiments.
October 29, 2012

Jordan Motzkin graduated from the College of the Atlantic in 2010 with a passion for growing lettuce. It's not what you think. Given the groovy reputation of a place like COA—a college founded in 1969, where students sport dreadlocks, natural fibers, and outdoorsy attire—you might assume that Mr. Motzkin wound up as an organic farmer somewhere in Maine. So many past graduates have done something like that.

Instead, Mr. Motzkin, dressed in business casual, meets me at his office in an architecture firm in New York City's garment district. His venture—started through COA's latest pedagogical experiment, an entrepreneurship program called the Hatchery—could turn industrial agriculture on its head: growing crops hydroponically in warehouse spaces near food-distribution centers, cutting down on the land, chemicals, and fuel needed to put romaine on people's plates. He already has formed a partnership with the nation's third-largest food distributor and has entertained offers in the millions from venture-capital firms.

"The thrust behind the business is, how do we disrupt or change the massive agribusiness system and create a form of industrialized agriculture that is actually smarter?" he says.

The company, Big Box Farms, is about experimentation, disruption, and reinvention, all for the common good. Mr. Motzkin's business goals match the educational goals of his alma mater in all but one respect: He wants his company to grow large enough to take on the agribusiness giants Dole and Chiquita. But the College of the Atlantic—330 students and 43 faculty members ensconced on Maine's remote Mount Desert Island—has resisted growth, seeing smallness as key to providing an unusual education that cuts across disciplines, rejects academic conventions, and takes a highly personalized approach to teaching and learning.

"What I learned is how to do more with less, and as someone who is now an entrepreneur, I find that extremely valuable," Mr. Motzkin says. "It's about really being able to adapt and change and apply knowledge. In the future, that's going to be critically important."

The emphasis on smallness runs counter to the national frenzy for reinvention in higher education, which seems fixated on going online and scaling up in an effort to mass-produce knowledge (or at least degrees). Offbeat and experimental colleges like COA—think of Bennington, Goddard, Hampshire, or Unity—are often overlooked and fragile. But they bring new perspectives and techniques to higher education, in part because they are small and nimble.

These colleges provide "a kind of biodiversity in the whole system of higher education," says L. Jackson Newell, an emeritus professor of educational leadership and policy at the University of Utah and a former president of Deep Springs College, a tiny work college in California. "Keeping these institutions alive and healthy is a way of keeping the ideas behind these institutions alive, which I would say is critically important for the health of higher education as a whole."

In forging ahead, COA will have to find a delicate balance between changing with the times to keep itself financially sound and maintaining its intimacy and iconoclasm. Darron Collins, the new president of the college, is thinking radically—considering, for example, how COA might become tuition-free or how it can become a model for higher education.

"We have got a relatively unique niche that is becoming more and more useful and more recognized in the 21st-century creative economy," says Mr. Collins, sitting in his office in a worn 19th-century mansion, once a summer home for the wealthy families who vacationed in Bar Harbor. He notes that a group of German academics are trying to start a European version of the college. "What we do seems really quite applicable to the future that we are heading into."

'Lead Yourself'

Certain ideas were baked into the College of the Atlantic at its founding, 43 years ago, and they seem to have found a currency in the discussion today over what to do about higher education. Critics talk about academics in silos, toiling on obscure research. At COA, there are no departments, and with only one degree—human ecology—students and faculty members form a culture that encourages teaching, interdisciplinarity, and pursuing one's intellectual interests. Pundits wonder whether college classes are watered down and whether degrees lead to job skills. COA's programs emphasize hands-on learning and real-world interactions; grades are optional, participation in running the college is encouraged, and internships are required. And as people worry about climate change, collapsing ecosystems, and socioeconomic inequality, lessons at COA start with sustainability.

The college attracts students with crunchy values and those skeptical of traditional education. Mr. Motzkin transferred from Connecticut College, which he felt was "an extension of high school." Before transferring, he met with Davis F. Taylor, an economics professor at COA, who gave him an unvarnished perspective on what he might find there. He would be free to roam academically, Mr. Taylor told him, and pursue whatever studies he was interested in. But there were downsides, too. Mr. Motzkin was told that some students were living in tents because of a lack of student housing—perhaps not such a problem for students who love the outdoors.

More seriously, "you really have to lead yourself here," Mr. Motzkin recalls the professor saying. "It's not for people who walk around aimlessly. It has a high dropout rate compared with other schools—they don't like to talk about it." Connecticut College's four-year graduation rate hovers around 81 percent, while COA's four-year rate is 58 percent and its six-year rate is 71 percent.

It was just what Mr. Motzkin was looking for, and he found his calling in the college's new business incubator, the Hatchery—an example of the kind of twist on learning that happens here.

Jay Friedlander, a business professor who founded the Hatchery, says that while other colleges long ago started business programs (often as cash cows), COA had resisted doing so, in part out of a widespread skepticism of industry and capitalism at the college. COA's entrepreneurial alumni, who were out starting software firms and organic farms, came back to the college saying that they wished they had business training. After Mr. Friedlander and other professors came up with the idea for the Hatchery, he had it going within six months. For academe, he says, "that is like light speed"—made possible by the size of the college.

The Hatchery, like the college as a whole, emphasizes exploration, sustainability, and interdisciplinarity. Students come up with an idea and have 10 weeks to build a prototype—the most compelling ideas get help with a $5,000 grant from the college. During those weeks, students meet in classes to learn about pitching, marketing, budgets, and other basics. Students whose graduation coincides with the end of the 10 weeks are still allowed nine months to use the college's resources, phones, computers, lawyers, and faculty expertise. Students often work in teams that mix various interests: One of the Hatchery's past businesses—Gourmet Butanol, an effort to ferment the island's food waste into fuel and compost—started with a student who was interested in chemistry and brewing beer, one who was involved in renewable energy, one into community activism, and one whom Mr. Friedlander describes as a "radical composter."

"If you had had a chemistry student alone, they would have never come up with this," he says.

The mixture of projects is also unusual. Some are straightforward businesses, in a shade of green. Christian Wagner, for example, is trying to start a business making high-end hammock chairs using natural materials and an ancient method of weaving that would employ women in impoverished parts of Mexico. But other projects use business techniques for goals other than making money. Luke Madden, a photographer and filmmaker, studied ways to promote his independent film about a hit man who suffers from a form of narcolepsy. Ben Hitchcock and Margaret Fetzer-Rogers pursued a plan to found a nonprofit community center in downtown Bar Harbor.

"Usually in the business school, for-profit and nonprofit never meet up," and only large-scale projects are considered valid, says Mr. Friedlander, who taught business at Babson College before coming to COA. "We have had both high-scale and low-scale projects." Mr. Friedlander also has a flexible definition of success. Many ideas have not panned out, but he believes that it's better for the students to try and fail in the shelter of college.

Gourmet Butanol might stand as an example. Nick Harris, the beer brewer of the team, says the original idea of producing fuel for the island was ultimately a "washout" because the business couldn't compete against cheaper gasoline.

But in the process, "I can't tell you how much we have learned," says Mr. Harris, standing in a small room in COA's science building, near an anaerobic chamber and a tangle of other equipment key to his work. He and his friends had to write business plans that evolved as the numbers changed. COA's tiny science department did not have the equipment they needed, so they wrote grant proposals to buy $12,000 in equipment that would cultivate bacteria in an oxygen-free environment. They studied microbiology, biochemistry, and chemical engineering, with help from Don Cass, one of just two professors at the college teaching chemistry.

Gourmet Butanol still exists, but now Mr. Harris and his business partner are working as consultants, helping companies and institutions like Colorado Mountain College design biofuel systems.

"A big part of education—and really, science—is that you go with an idea, you find out that it doesn't work, and you readjust," he says.

College for a Radical Time

The College of the Atlantic actually started out as an effort to resuscitate Bar Harbor. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mount Desert Island had been a getaway for America's wealthiest families. (Nelson Rockefeller was born there in 1908.) But a drought in 1947 led to a fire that burned 17,000 acres on the island, including more than 60 mansions, along with hotels and scores of cottages. Their Gilded Age riches diminished by the Depression and taxes, many of the wealthy families simply abandoned the island community.

Shortly after the fire, locals kicked around the idea of starting a college to bring people back. But the idea languished until the late 1960s, when two old friends, a Roman Catholic priest and a local entrepreneur, decided to run with it. They roped in other friends—a local school principal, a motel operator, a customs officer—and came up with a plan to form a college for a radical time, one that mixed liberal arts and natural sciences with an eye to the environmental challenges of the future.

In 1970 they hired Ed Kaelber, an assistant dean at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, as founding president. Now 88 years old and living in a small house in the woods just up the street from COA, Mr. Kaelber says he plotted a future for College of the Atlantic in part by studying the failures of other experimental colleges: Franconia College, which opened in 1963 in New Hampshire, "hit the drug scene" and "didn't have a strong Board of Trustees" and closed in 1978. New College, in Sarasota, Fla., "turned its back on the local community" and was absorbed by the state system in 1975. Black Mountain College, which was open from 1933 to 1957, went down in part because "they couldn't contain all the prima donnas."

"Antioch College," he adds, "tried to do everything."

His own impoverished start-up college could never support departments full of faculty members. So it focused on teaching rather than research, and its interdisciplinary approach became as much strategic direction as necessity.

"The idea was, if it's a really important problem, no single one of you is going to solve it," he says. "You have to figure out how to talk to other people to solve it. It was radical at the time." But it was pooh-poohed by mainstream academics. In the early 1970s, Mr. Kaelber recalls going to see Nathan M. Pusey, who was then head of the Mellon Foundation after leaving his post as president of Harvard University. Mr. Kaelber hoped he would give the college money, but Mr. Pusey turned him away, saying that COA would attract only failed academics and "rich kids who will pay anyone to take them in."

Mr. Kaelber took it as a warning. He focused on hiring the best faculty he could—early professors had credentials from and jobs at Harvard, Yale, the University of Chicago, and so on. And he assembled a strong Board of Trustees, which included, among others, Elizabeth S. Russell, a geneticist from nearby Jackson Laboratory; Ted Sizer, the education reformer from Harvard; and René Dubos, the Pulitzer Prize-winning microbiologist often credited with coining the phrase, "Think globally, act locally." Thirty-two students—some transferring in from colleges like Amherst, Williams, and Yale—showed up for the first year, starting in 1972.

Skeptics of interdisciplinarity still inhabit higher education, but in recent years the idea has gotten more favorable attention. It has a champion in Mark C. Taylor, a Columbia University professor of religion, who called for dissolving academic departments in a 2009 New York Times op-ed. Given its size, the College of the Atlantic has no choice but to remain interdisciplinary, but that approach also attracts students and teaching talent.

Ken Hill, COA's academic dean, says he has been able to attract "top-notch" faculty members who don't want to be put in silos and "want to be part of starting something."

Molly Anderson is one of them. She founded a graduate program in food, agriculture, and the environment at Tufts University, but went to COA two years ago because she wanted to work somewhere that valued teaching and "the student as a whole person."

"Tufts was interested in bringing in big research grants even when there was no student involvement," she says, "and it took faculty away from interacting with students. For some of the faculty, teaching was onerous."

Last semester she consulted the college's art professors and designed a course that merged history, art, literature, and agriculture. She wanted to challenge the students' romantic assumptions about farming. "That is a course that I would not have been allowed to teach at many colleges and universities," Ms. Anderson says, "because people would have jumped up to say, What are you doing, teaching visual arts and literature?"

Wolfgang Serbser, a German sociology professor who has taught at the Technical University of Cottbus and the Technical University of Berlin, is part of a group of academics who want to start a European version of COA. Raising money in a culture that has no tradition of higher-education philanthropy will be hard. But the city of Emmendingen, in southern Germany, has shown interest in supporting a college near its community, and Mr. Serbser may set up a pilot program next summer.

Germany faces major, shifting environmental and social challenges, like climate change and an aging population. "If you look at the programs at the College of the Atlantic," says Mr. Serbser, who first visited in 2005, "this really is a program to educate agents for transition."

The German universities—"these huge vessels, like the Titanic"—have dense but rigid curricula, he says. "That is what we call in Germany the Nürnberger Trichter"—or the "Nuremberg funnel," the notion that you make wise people by pouring a bunch of information into their heads.

"Of course we need these huge universities," he says, "but we need these small ones as well to explore what's new."

Isolated and Obscure

Generally in higher education, people talk more about the disadvantages of being small. Faculty and administrators at COA feel those drawbacks as well. Ms. Anderson, along with other faculty members, says the college can feel geographically and professionally isolating. Unless you are consciously trying to stay current, she says, "it's easy to become disengaged from what is happening in your field."

Mr. Hill notes that the college sometimes struggles against obscurity. "Whenever we apply for grants, a lot of the granting agencies say, this is a wonderful idea, but it doesn't have any impact. We say we want to serve as a model and get the word out for other small institutions or components of big institutions to do the same thing."

And like many small colleges, the College of the Atlantic operates on a relative shoestring and has struggled with money in the past. With a $28-million endowment and an annual operating budget of around $14-million, the college projects a $250,000 deficit over the next couple of years, mainly the result of a financial hit from the recession.

If all students paid full price, the college would bring in $12.5-million in tuition, but it gives out $6.5-million in financial aid, which administrators say is unsustainable. Deferred maintenance is also a big burden; one official estimates the total at $50-million. The college's iconic administration building alone needs $4-million in work.

In recent years, the college discussed growing larger as a way to provide a stronger financial foundation. But the community resisted, worrying that larger numbers of faculty would clump together in quasi departments and compromise the transdisciplinary spirit.

Administrators now say that the college will probably have modest growth, to 350 students in the next several years. It will try to maintain intimacy by having some of those students attend over the summer or by sending the students to various colleges that have formed partnerships with COA, like Alaska Pacific University and Green Mountain, Northland, and Prescott Colleges. The partnerships allow COA students to attend those institutions for a time while remaining on COA's rolls.

The most ambitious idea for securing the college's financial future is purely speculative and definitely long term. Mr. Collins, the president, will enroll with other students in the Hatchery program next spring and work on a plan to make the college tuition-free in the next 20 years. That would probably require raising hundreds of millions of dollars. But Mount Desert Island is still home to considerable wealth—half a dozen billionaires and many other residents with fortunes valued at more than $100-million, by some estimates.

It may just be possible because the college is small.

"There has always been this entrepreneurial spirit, with both students and faculty recognizing that we are in an experiment here and we like the way that feels," Mr. Collins says. "We should try to continue to push the boundaries of what higher ed should be."