COA professor of literature and writing Bill Carpenter shares his humorous take on the history of COA at the 2016 Laurel Ceremony for graduating seniors.COA professor of literature and writing Bill Carpenter shares his humorous take on the history of COA at the 2016 Laurel Ceremony for graduating seniors.

It was just 44 years ago this month, when the ancestral faculty, still 50% Neanderthal, made their way across the receding glacier for their first gathering - the third weekend of June 1972. There was an old Catholic seminary that had once been a villa of the gilded age, whose crumbling stone archways still remind us of the grace and beauty of the unsustainable. Their task was to repurpose it into a brand new college, unencumbered by tradition or affiliation, starting from zero, with every aspect of higher education on the table. The summer of ’72 was already heating up with a presidential election just we are today. George McGovern was starring in the role of Bernie Sanders, while the elephants once again rolled out Richard M Nixon, whose level of deviousness would make Donald Trump look like Mahatma Gandhi. And that was back in the time when deviousness really meant something, unlike the meaningless deviousness you see today.

So the first COA teachers were cracking open a beer and getting acquainted at Ed Kaelber’s home on Somes Sound and starting to hatch their plans for the new college; and meanwhile, on the very same evening, June 16, 1972, down in Washington, the committee to reelect Nixon was breaking into Democratic headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. We didn’t know it, of course, you never do, but that night saw the simultaneous birth of human ecology and its evil twin. The acronym for Nixon’s reelection committee was CREEP, and the main achievement of the Watergate plumbers was to get the president impeached; while the COA event was the first of 19,800 committee meetings that have led to the extremely refined state of human ecology we now enjoy. Nixon was on COA’s enemies list from the beginning, and if he ever knew what we were up to in Bar Harbor, we would have been on his.

COA professor of literature and writing Bill Carpenter.COA professor of literature and writing Bill Carpenter.John Dean’s Watergate memoir was called Blind Ambition , which he wrote during an 4-month incarceration at Fort Holabird. The CREEPs were products of American education at the highest level: Charles Colson was Brown University, 1953, John Ehrlichman, Stanford Law School (he should have known better), H. Howard Hunt, Brown, 1940, Jeb Stuart Magruder, Williams, 1958; all those lectures on Aristotle’s Ethics and Plato’s idea of the Good, and every one of them wound up serving time. It may be impossible to define what human ecology is, but blind ambition is a good definition of what it’s not. If a COA education teaches you anything it is to enter the world with both eyes open, all three of them if you’re so equipped. At COA we don’t measure our alumni by their zip codes and salaries but their capacity for experience and their impact on the rehabilitation of the earth. It is almost unbelievable that Barack Obama, an otherwise competent president, has called for a ranking of colleges not by their graduates’ social contributions but by their annual income, six years after graduation, when many of us are still working on our senior projects. Give us a break. If you monetize education, there’s no sanctuary in the world.

The point of creating a new college on a beautiful distant island was to escape the pathology of acquisition and consumption that had become an unspoken goal of American universities even at the top. The intention of COA from the beginning was to give students an alternative system of meaning and aspiration, noncompetitive, non-departmental, nonhierarchical, based on aesthetics not avarice, a closeness to nature, and an open and intimate intellectual community. The COA revolution could not have taken place anywhere near the shadow of establishment academia and it still requires 24/7 vigilance to maintain our immunity. It’s been suggested that we should put a sentry on the bridge; for budgetary reasons, maybe that could be combined with the HR position. They say there are plans in the COA MAP for an urban campus but I understand it’s going to be in Ellsworth. It takes an island 57 miles from the nearest Starbucks to clarify your perspective, and if that’s not enough we have Great Duck which is almost out of sight of materialistic values, and if you really want to put Facebook and Twitter over the horizon we have the Rock.

“Every one who touches this community even briefly leaves their indelible handprints and changes each one of us forever.”

This spring we were blessed with the amazing voyage of the Greek hero Odysseus across the COA campus from the rope swing to the Turrets lawn. Odysseus was the first known human ecologist with the exception of God, and I’m not 100% sure about Her. Odysseus is quintessential COA. The other Trojan War vets took the straight way home but Odysseus takes the alternative route. So what if he doesn’t graduate in four years. Penelope has her weaving; she can wait. You make a ship out of duct tape and beer cartons and sail into corporate headquarters with a biodiesel hybrid wooden horse concealing 50 more human ecologists that jump out and capture the CEO. You spend a gap year on the island of Circe the drug goddess who turns your fellow sailors into pigs; but you’ve got the sacred vegetable in your pocket so you stay human and instead of making you a pig, she falls in love. You defeat the cannibal cyclops of one-sided vision and nonstop political anger, then visit the underworld of Turrets basement where they bury the old teachers and you meet the great ghosts who are remembered in these awards, Dan Kane and Craig Greene and Dick Davis and finally the ghost of Bill Drury who gives you instructions for the journey: When your views of the world and your intellect are being threatened and you begin to feel uncomfortable, pay attention. You are about to learn something.

“The point of creating a new college on a beautiful distant island was to escape the pathology of acquisition and consumption that had become an unspoken goal of American universities even at the top” - COA professor Bill Carpenter.“The point of creating a new college on a beautiful distant island was to escape the pathology of acquisition and consumption that had become an unspoken goal of American universities even at the top” - COA professor Bill Carpenter.

These days we are told if we feel uncomfortable we should file a complaint with the administration, If something threatens our world view we shouldn’t go there, that’s not OK, we don’t want to know that. But remember Odysseus, he strapped himself to the mast so he could learn everything; that’s where COA students are different, they’re unafraid of knowledge and have no tolerance for blindness, they don’t flee from the threatening unknown, they witness and interrogate it: Moni’s amazing project this spring was an example. A flag appears and everyone’s inbox fills with confusion. What was the banner of the Islamic state doing on COA’s campus, it’s not human ecological, what will people think, they’re supposed to be the enemy, but wait, could it possibly not be the flag of Isis but a personal vibrator? They’re very similar, someone points out, which if true would go a long way solving the world’s problems; by now everyone’s uncomfortable, even the email server in the basement, but we’re open and curious and awake, we go to the installation in the freezing shed and it’s disturbing and beautiful at once, we don’t turn away from it, it’s not allowed, we’re not just a distant audience, we are complicit, we leave and our own hands are stained with ink. Pay attention, it’s COA, look for the person you came as and they won’t be there.

Searching for a new teacher is the most challenging and exciting event in our universe because they bring the change and renewal that is our life=s blood. We don’t self-replicate; every COA search has an element of the unknown and the dazzling new faculty who come here outstrip the limits of what we thought we were looking for and compel us to grow larger than what we were We seek the finest and most original minds and we offer an intellectual freedom that does not pretend to dictate how they are to think or conduct their classes. By accepting the unpredictable autonomy of each faculty member who joins us, we learn not only who they are but who we are ourselves. Some COA professors blissfully stay here till Howdy finds them mummified in their offices with spider webs to the bookshelves; others are voyagers who graduate with our seniors and carry the COA message into the world. This spring the community says goodbye to two brilliant teachers who stopped by our island and gave freely of themselves, and brought amazing capacities that opened doors and pathways that didn’t even exist. For a brief interval Heath and Nishi also brought the average age of the faculty below that of the Cuban politburo, now we’ll have to await the arrival of Kourtney in the fall. 

“COA students are different, they're unafraid of knowledge and have no tolerance for blindness, they don't flee from the threatening unknown” COA professor Bill Carpenter.“COA students are different, they're unafraid of knowledge and have no tolerance for blindness, they don't flee from the threatening unknown” COA professor Bill Carpenter.

Nishi was one of ours from the beginning and he is heading across the bridge for the third time, perhaps a record. We are always proud when an alumnus returns whether as faculty, staff or admiral, and Nishi’s been able to channel the love of voiceless green things that we knew and admired in his teacher Craig. Nishi will bring the light of human ecology to California where they can really use it. I don’t know if (Maine Governor) Paul LePage fully recognizes the value of COA grads, which is set to replace pulpwood on the list of Maine’s prime exports. Nishi is one of the great researchers of the serpentine, a field which reaches across the disciplines to unite botany, geology, and herpetology. It doesn’t matter if the first serpentine scholar was our old friend Satan in the garden of Eden, we will always love and remember him here on Eden street, he’s contributed hugely to us and to his field, and sent so many skilled botanists into the world, every one of them genetically modified for superior hardiness and flavor.

Heath Cabot has taught and inspired us as friend and colleague and made us critically examine everything we think and practice. If we were struggling to pronounce a difficult new word, like intersectionality, my tongue keeps saying intersexuality, I think it’s generational, Heath was always there to help. When you live on an island you have to watch it that your ideas don’t harden into orthodoxy, cause that’s one of those afflictions you can’t see in the mirror, it must be recognized by someone from the outer world, as candid, courageous and articulate as Heath, and it helps if she has some supernatural qualities too. One winter I had the privilege of carpooling with Heath on Wednesday mornings to a committee that met before sunrise so no one would know what we were up to. I drove this route alone every other day of the week from Ellsworth to MDI, and saw nothing unusual. But each and every Wednesday, when Heath was with me, and only on Wednesdays, we passed a snowy owl, always perched in the same place watching our Jeep go by, and I came to equate Heath with those sightings and with the Greek goddess of wisdom, Athena, protector of Odysseus, in her avatar as an owl, who is leaving us a lot wiser than we were.

Every one who touches this community, even briefly, leaves their indelible handprints and changes each one of us forever. Everyone who leaves takes part of us away like a pollinator and cross-fertilizes everything they touch. So, to Heath and Nishi, and all others in the class of ’16, even if you carry an oar like Odysseus so far from the sea that they ask you if it’s a lacrosse stick, once you’ve been here, you’ll never completely get away.