One-course town with a teaching model the world wants to copy

College of the Atlantic focuses on human ecology and lets students lead the way. Jon Marcus reports

October 24, 2010

Graham Reeder steers the tour of his university campus in Bar Harbor, Maine up the stairs of a student residence hall to show off the composting toilet.

It is an odd source of pride for the undergraduate from Vancouver, but it is one of the things that have put the tiny, remote College of the Atlantic on the international map.

Less than 40 years old, with only 349 students and 39 faculty members, the school offers a degree in only one discipline: human ecology, the interaction between people and the natural environment, which is in particularly rich display in its surroundings on a rugged island on the far northeastern coast of the rural American state.

This put the college daringly far ahead of its time for most of its short history. Indeed, the campus came close to shutting down several times because of financial problems, governance disputes and a large fire in its biggest building.

But the world has now caught up. Applications have soared by 48 per cent since 2005, and enrolment jumped 13 per cent this autumn – a spike so significant that, for a while, the campus kitchen kept running out of food.

College of the Atlantic is now among the top five liberal arts universities in the country in terms of the proportion of students from overseas, and a respected survey of 600 universities puts it among the top 10 per cent for student-faculty interaction and for teaching critical and analytical thinking.

The first university in the US to become carbon-neutral, using wind and hydropower for electricity and wood pellets for heat and hot water, it is also rated the greenest in the world by the environmental website

Much larger institutions are now scrambling to add interdisciplinary programmes in such similar fields as sustainability, and to create small “honours colleges” that follow College of the Atlantic’s unconventional teaching model, which lets students chart their own academic curriculum instead of following a rigidly prescribed set of requirements.

Scholars in Europe also have proposed two campuses in Germany based on the model, and one in Switzerland. “We’ve put ourselves on the map,” said Mr Reeder.

Opportunities for the taking

Under the human ecology umbrella, the college has faculty members specialising in art, art history, anthropology, creative writing, economics, environmental science, film, international policy, languages, philosophy, music and other areas.

This semester, Mr Reeder is studying statistics, climate change and African-American literature. He also spent a year immersed in the science and application of composting, accounting for his interest in, and knowledge of, the toilet.

At the University of Toronto, the only other institution he considered attending, Mr Reeder said, “I would have been put into a geography department where I wouldn’t have been able to study literature or film. Here I can do all those things.

“Most schools, if you think about their educational mission, are concerned about what they give the student. College of the Atlantic gives the student the opportunity to take.”

At larger universities he has visited, he said, the only questions students asked were about what material would be on the exam. “Students here challenge and they question.”

The result, according to David Hales, the college’s president and a long-time environmentalist who served in the government under presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, is that “what we were founded to accomplish is emerging as the model for the honours colleges at every university in the country”.

That is, as Dr Hales described it, “following the students’ questions”.

If students at a conventional university wanted to learn to ride a bicycle, he said, “they would take a lot of courses that had nothing to do with riding a bicycle, starting with the history of the wheel. When they show up here, we put them on a bicycle.”

He added with a smile: “Of course, that analogy is dangerous because now people will say, see, those hippies are taking credit for riding bicycles.”

But Dr Hales said there was a serious lesson to be learned from College of the Atlantic about the limitations of the way most other universities still teach.

“Humans do not learn that way,” he said. “Most of the material we think the student needs to learn will not be retained by the student. That’s incredibly inefficient.”

At College of the Atlantic, he said, “if you’re interested in sustainable development, we know you’re going to need economics, we know you’re going to need communication skills. It’s putting that package together around your interest in sustainable development that makes it useful to you.”

At other institutions, “most good students will find ways to cobble that together, but they have to overcome the culture of the university to do it, and sometimes they can’t”.

Thanks to its small size, almost everyone at the college is on first-name terms. Even the president greets students by name, and academics know their students’ areas of interest, said Ken Cline, who teaches environmental law and policy and serves as associate dean for faculty.

“I think about who is in my class and try to shape my teaching to touch on their interests,” he said.

Much of higher education elsewhere, Mr Cline said, “is like industrialised fishing or industrialised farming. It follows that type of assembly-line model. But you’re educating complex individual human beings.”

Role model

College of the Atlantic has one other asset unrivalled by almost any campus: its location on a stretch of the Atlantic coast so beautiful it has long been a summer destination for the rich and now draws fleets of cruise ships during the autumn when the Maine foliage becomes a tourist attraction.

Several of the university’s buildings are former summer mansions, including the one built by a 19th-century railroad magnate in which the administrative offices are housed.

The nearby 47,000-acre Acadia National Park attracts millions of visitors, including, this past summer, President Barack Obama and his family.

But when the cruise ships that Dr Hales can see at anchor from his office depart, the island’s year-round population of about 4,000 settles down for tough, cold, quiet winters.

The university was begun, in part, by a priest and a local businessman, to provide off-season jobs. Its students move into houses that in the summer are rented out to tourists, and spend a lot of their time reading, Mr Reeder said. There is no athletics programme, although somewhat incongruously there is a cricket club, as well as the occasional toboggan race.

Despite its relative youth and small size, College of the Atlantic has produced prominent alumni including a member of Congress, the president of the national Alliance for Biking and Walking, a National Geographic photographer and a prominent Costa Rican climate-change researcher.

Now other institutions are turning to the college for inspiration. The Deutsche Gesellschaft für Humanökologie wants to base new schools on its model, including a College of the Baltic on the island of Rügen, a College of the Wetlands south of Brandenburg, and a College of the Alps in Switzerland.

Dr Hales said he believed it would be easier to reproduce his university’s teaching model in small clone institutions than by growing larger itself, and that these new projects could succeed anywhere, from an inner-city location in the US to a rural area in Africa.

Regardless of the setting, he is adamant that the model is worth reproducing.

“You can’t understand human societies today without understanding the nature of our interaction with the environment,” Dr Hales said.

“If you ignore that, which many of our universities do, you’re committing yourself to business as usual.”

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