William J. Brennan taught for the first time at the Maine Maritime Academy. He served as the Sawyer Professor of Ocean Studies at the academy, from 1999 to 2002.
He enjoyed the experience, being “on the giving as opposed to the receiving end-I spent a lot of time in higher education receiving an education, but that was the first time I had taught,” Brennan said. “I kept thinking, ‘This is really cool stuff.'”
Now Brennan has returned to Maine Maritime Academy (MMA), this time as incoming president. He takes over from Leonard Tyler, who served as president from 1985 to 2010.
Brennan has extensive experience in marine management, serving in many high-level posts, including commissioner of the Maine Department of Marine Resources and acting administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration (NOAA).
But his roots are in Castine. His family moved there in 1966, when Brennan was in eighth grade. His father, Willliam F. Brennan, a graduate of MMA, become Maine Maritime’s second-in-command and Commandant of Midshipmen.
Brennan and his wife, Heather, discussed moving back to Castine at some point, so when Tyler told Brennan he would be retiring, that experience of teaching at the academy led him to apply for the job of president. “It’s payback time,” he said. “I feel I have something to offer a school and a town that have given me so much, and it’s time for me to give something back to them.”
The academy announced the appointment last November; Brennan was picked from over 50 candidates. He starts work in May.
Both Bill and Heather Brennan’s Castine and academy roots run deep. His father was a member of the first class to graduate from MMA. His father’s brothers, Robert and Richard, were also academy graduates.
Of his father’s reaction to his appointment as MMA president, Brennan said, “Dad is just beside himself about this.”
As for his wife’s family’s relationship with the academy, her father, Robert, served 10 years as the academy’s medical officer and in the early 1960s as a member of the academy’s board of trustees.
Her mother, Doris, served with Parker S. Waite, Sr., of Camden (MMA ’54) as co-chair of the school’s eight-year capital campaign, which raised $22 million.
Looking back on his own early interests growing up in Castine, Brennan said, “It’s a demonstration that the circle of life is unpredictable” and calls himself, “a poster child for education being a life-long experience.”
Brennan spoke of his unusual, circuitous educational path to the MMA presidency. He went into the merchant marine right from high school. He admits that he was not a stellar student in high school.
He did not do well the first time he went to college (as a fine arts major), and after the school offered him “the opportunity to find ‘alternate education,” he went scallop fishing with a couple of Castine fishermen. “Through that experience,” he said, “I realized a love of the ocean, of the things that live in it and are supported by it, and in the rigors of a life associated with making a living from it.”
This led back to college, where he majored in marine biology at the University of Maine. After graduating, he took a job at NOAA’s Woods Hole laboratory on Cape Cod, which included doing research on Russian factory trawlers as part of a joint US-USSR fisheries research program.
In turn, that experience led him to want to learn more about the policy of marine resource management, which led him to a master’s degree from the University of Rhode Island’s Marine Affairs School.
Brennan remembers his graduate school years fondly as ones of competing with his three children for grades, with parent and kids putting their report cards on the refrigerator.
Brennan spent the next four years in Washington, D.C., as then Congressman John McKernan’s fisheries legislative assistant. When McKernan became Maine’s governor, he appointed Brennan Department of Marine Resources commissioner, an office he held for the next eight years.
After leaving the commissioner’s office in 1994, Brennan and his family continued to live in Topsham while he started his own Portland-based consulting firm in marine and environmental policy guidance. During this period, he served on the New England Fisheries Management Council and several other environmental boards.
It was his experience as commissioner that made him realize he wanted to learn more about what drives people to make collective decisions about the use of resources like fisheries, which, in turn, led him back to school again for a doctorate in ecology and environmental sciences.
In June 2008, Brennan was confirmed as Assistant Secretary for Oceans and Atmosphere at NOAA. He then became NOAA’s acting administrator in November 2008, in charge of a $4 billion-dollar agency with 12,500 employees. The kid who had been just “all right” in high school and who didn’t graduate from college till he was around 27 really hit it out of the park.
“It all comes down to engaging with people,” Brennan said. “How to motivate people is what being a manager is.” He went on to say that motivating people is a life endeavor. In his new role of MMA president, he said, “I can guarantee that I’ll work damned hard and because Maine Maritime is part of my heritage, and thus, he said, “I’ll work to ensure that it grows and thrives.” He also sees that MMA is an important part of the town and said, “Working to help the town thrive is in the best interest of MMA, too. They are symbiotic; and both organisms have to work for both to thrive.”
Sandra Dinsmore is a freelance writer who lives in Penobscot. She writes the Lobster Market Report for Commercial Fisheries News.