Standing in the library of the College of the Atlantic, watching the sailboats and lobster boats on the blue-green waters of Frenchman's Bay, problems of institutional survival seem very remote.
Yet the Bar Harbor, Maine, college -- and other small colleges throughout the United States -- are facing problems that threaten their very survival.
My host was Dallas Darland, vice president for development and external relations for the college. We were continuing a discussion we started earlier in the day, when we were joined by the college president, Dr. Louis Rabineau, or "Doctor Lou" as he is called by students and staff, and Steve Thomas, director of admissions.
Small, private colleges, they note, will be facing some thorny challenges in the '90s, partly because of federal cutbacks and the steady decline in the college-age population.
The loss of real income among middle-class families also makes it tougher to send children to private colleges. And for a private, liberal arts school such as College of the Atlantic, recruiting students is an even greater challenge because of its distinctive ecological curriculum and focus.
College of the Atlantic is perched on an exquisite Maine waterfront, surrounded by the biologically rich water of Frenchman's Bay and the granite mountains of Acadia National Park. The park draws about 5 million visitors a year, more than five times the population of the entire state of Maine.
The conflicting demands of Maine's pristine resources and human use lend themselves well to the college's only degree offering: human ecology. This interdisciplinary approach to environmental and social problem-solving makes the college unique in the nation.
College of the Atlantic is among the growing number of specialty colleges that are creating intense competition for a limited pool of students.
A savvy colleges today recognizes the need for progressive marketing strategies that enable the institution to tell its story to those it wishes to influence, such as students, faculty and donors.
"There are a couple of areas that are key for a college's marketing," Dr. Rabineau suggested. "The nature of the college itself is critical. A good faculty, good students and good alumni are the best salesmanship."
The 1-to-10 faculty-student ratio -- 25 faculty members and 245 students -- would be the envy of any public university professor. Students are on a first-name basis with their instructors. And some of the faculty members are important contributors in their fields. Dr. Steve Katona's research on marine mammals, for example, makes him one of the world's leading experts.
A strong board of trustees is important, too. "We have an extraordinary board of trustees, and we've really been blessed by some wealthy donors who recognize the special ecological mission of the college. But, with today's economic climate, we're concerned with broadening our base of support, too," Mr. Darland said.
To respond to that concern, the college has begun long-range planning to address issues, such as marketing, that often are neglected by colleges.
One advantage College of the Atlantic has is its small size. Though it lacks many of the resources that characterize larger universities, the college is able to examine issues more readily, mobilize resources quickly and act. There are fewer bureaucratic layers to put up roadblocks. Communications flow faster and with much less formality.
The college makes extraordinary attempts to understand its students and their preferences, a key requisite for marketing a college. That is obvious in the healthy self-criticism it fosters among all its constituents. It is also evident in the biweekly All-College Meeting. At these always dynamic, sometimes raucous gatherings, students, faculty members and staffers share all decision-making on governance issues. One tends to ++ find out quickly about student and faculty preferences at open forums like these.
Small colleges have specialized marketing needs, especially when compared with their larger, public-university cousins. In next week's column, we'll look at some additional small-college marketing needs and how College of the Atlantic is struggling to position itself solidly for the '90s.
Les Picker, a consultant in the field of philanthropy, works with charitable organizations and for-profit companies.