A jogger runs past barricades blocking an entrance to College of the Atlantic this past April after the campus was closed to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

The College of the Atlantic has rescinded its invitation to have a conservative legal lobbyist participate in the school’s summer public policy lecture series next week after a group of alumni raised concerns about the lobbyist’s politics.

Leonard Leo, co-chair of the conservative Federalist Society, had been scheduled to introduce Kay James, president of The Heritage Foundation, who will give a talk next Wednesday as part of the Bar Harbor college’s annual summer Champlain Institute, which is being held entirely online this summer because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Leo, who spearheaded campaigns to have John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court, was described last year in a Washington Post story as “the maestro of a network of interlocking nonprofits working on media campaigns and other initiatives to sway lawmakers by generating public support for conservative judges.”

Rob Levin, spokesperson for College of the Atlantic, said Wednesday that the college changed course on having Leo involved “for both logistical challenges associated with holding the Institute remotely and for issues many community members had with his values.” Because Leo was only scheduled to introduce James, and was not scheduled to be a featured speaker himself, people tuning in to hear James speak would not have had the opportunity to challenge or discuss Leo’s advocacy for conservative federal judges, Levin said.

College officials defended their practice of inviting speakers with controversial views or whose policy goals are not shared by many in the school’s community. Some members of the local community objected to James and this year’s most notable speaker, Hillary Clinton, being invited to speak, according to Levin.

The objective of the lecture series is to engage with people of varying political viewpoints, to present people with perspectives with which they might disagree, to have opinions challenged, and to foster dialogue on difficult policy questions, Levin said.

“At the same time, we must value the moment of reckoning our society is going through, and our own work to build a more humanizing human ecology, and understand that we are not functioning in a world of abstract ideas — the policies and actions espoused by people and organizations can have a very harmful effect on members of our community,” he said.

Darron Collins, a 1992 graduate of the college and its president, said that schools across the country, not just in Maine, continuously strive to find the right balance in delving into challenging and difficult ideas while avoiding harmful exchanges that don’t “contribute to the overall cultivation of intellect.” He said there is no universal or precise approach to take in striking this balance because often it depends on the context in which the ideas are presented.

“That said, we will continue to bring diverse voices to campus and the Mount Desert Island community — in the appropriate context — to build a better understanding of the social, ecological, and cultural world we all share,” Collins said.

Lynn Boulger, the college’s dean of institutional advancement, said that by bringing speakers of varying political viewpoints together, the college is trying to counteract the country’s deepening political divide.

“This intolerance is not only hurting the fabric of civil society, our democratic process and any possibility of civil discourse, but is also hurting us personally by dehumanizing us and leaving us with a very distorted understanding of each other,” Boulger said.

In prior years, speakers at the annual institute have included actor and activist Susan Sarandon, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, journalist Eliza Griswold and U.S. Ambassador to Austria Bill Eacho. Speakers the college has hosted for other events include peace activist Koko Tanimoto Kondo, writer Naomi Klein and, at separate times, journalists Amy Goodman, Justin Gillis and Ryan Lizza.

This year’s event is not the first time Leo has drawn scrutiny on MDI from people who object to his efforts to shape the federal judiciary. Last August, protesters gathered outside Leo’s summer home in Northeast Harbor, which he purchased in the fall of 2018, when U.S. Sen. Susan Collins attended a campaign fundraiser there.

Mount Desert Island has long counted influential Washington policymakers and advocates among its summer residents.

Former U.S. Sen.George Mitchell is perhaps the best known among them, but others include or have included C. Boyden Gray, former legal counsel to President George H. W. Bush and ambassador to the European Union; Stephen J. Hadley, who served as President George W. Bush’s national security adviser; Nelson Rockefeller, vice president under Gerald Ford; Zbigniew Brzezinski, who served as Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser; and Caspar Weinberger, who served as Ronald Reagan’s secretary of defense.

Both Mitchell and Gray are among the speakers, or introductory speakers, scheduled to participate in next week’s lecture series at the college. Gray, like Leo, serves on The Federalist Society board of directors.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....