Students and Faculty Remember Professor Phil Kannan

This Monday, Colorado College abruptly lost a beloved professor and friend when Phil Kannan, Legal-Scholar-in-Residence and fixture of CC’s Environmental Program, passed away. There was a moment of reflection held in Shove Chapel on Monday as the community braced itself to endure the loss of Kannan, who’d become a student favorite since he began teaching at CC in 1997.

Photo courtesy of Catalyst Archives

Howard Drossman, Professor of Environmental Science and Director of the Teaching and Research in Environmental Education (TREE) program, said, “I am quite sure that no one at Colorado College has taught more EV students than Phil Kannan. I estimate that in EV Policy alone, it is likely that Phil taught more than 750 students since we started offering the class as a requirement in 2000.” Drossman added, “I am also sure that no one at the college has inspired more students to pursue law than Phil has, but I won’t hold that against him.  We lost a lot of excellent science majors to law because of Phil’s inspiration.”

Kannan was known for his eccentric characterizations and improvisations in class that he’d use to help clarify otherwise obfuscated environmental laws and regulations, making them understandable and compelling to students. Senior environmental sciencemajor Cory Page began a document of ‘Phil-isms’ when he took Environmental Policy with Kannan saying: “His charisma around the material and the inclusion of these random little snippets that sort of help personalize very impersonal policy briefs and whatnot. I think [that] made Phil who he is.”

Jonah Seifer, a project specialist with the State of the Rockies Project, also took down notes when taking class with Kannan, amused by the comedic quips alongside otherwise dense environmental policy. Seifer furnished an example one of Kannan’s favorite tricks saying, “Phil was also tickled by telling the same ‘razorback [animal]’ joke over and over again. Not all endangered species are as charismatic as pandas or whales, so Phil would constantly attempt to spice up more mundane animals, like the vole, by adding ‘razorback”’to the beginning.”

One of Page’s favorite ‘Phil-isms’ from his four-page document of quotations is, “Chemists, those energetic little beavers, are out there creating new hazardous air pollutants…way to go chemists!” This bears a trademark of Kannan’s quips, often beginning in a playful tone, and ending sardonically or with cutting irony that would leave entire classrooms in stitches.

At the moment of reflection on Monday, students and environmental faculty alike reminisced about another Kannan quirk: his diagrams. Kannan was a fan of illustrating riparian systems or maps in his class and would frequently take to the whiteboard to draw completely illegible maps. Page said, “I mean, the way he draws the United States. Good Lord. Half the geographers roll over in their graves.  I don’t even think Florida [and] Texas make the cut. It’s just like a square with a little blip for … Maine.”

Aside from all of the laughter and levity Kannan brought to sometimes draconian environmental policy, his most enduring legacies at the college will be the inspiration he provided to students, the willpower he showed in his career and personal life, and the passion that he showed up with every day.

Kannan was notorious for his dedication to students, even students he only taught for a single block, saying ‘Hello’ as he passed them on campus during his daily walks with his wife Kay, or emailing back with relevant case law within minutes of being emailed a newspaper article.

Out of all the quotations and quips collected in Page’s document of “The Wonderful World of Phil Kannan: Comments, Quotes, and Other Memorable Moments,” his favorite is, “Environmental Policy doesn’t need more spectators, it needs participants.” Kannan was gifted at not leaving students with a doomsday feeling in his teachings of the environment; he always sought to preach a message of empowerment.

Page added, “I think it’s…really difficult to go through this profession, especially in today’s day and age, and not be discouraged. And it seemed like there were very few days besides when he was tacking up some sort of sassy article on the board, where Phil was discouraged. He was always ready. He was always fired up to utilize some law from…way back in the day to put the hammer down…So I think [we’ve] got to take some notes from Phil.”

Remembered for his tireless advocacy and sense of humor, Kannan will be sorely missed by current EV program students and alumni. This was Kannan’s third career incarnation. Prior to teaching at CC, he received a degree in mathematics University of North Carolina Chapel Hill, and taught mathematics at several colleges and universities before returning to school at the University of Tennessee College of Law, Knoxville where he went on to get his J.D.  Kannan then went on to serve as Counsel for the Department of Energy, and as General Counsel for Lockheed Martin and later M4 Environmental Management Inc., where he also served as Vice President. At CC, Kannan held the title of Distinguished Lecturers and Legal-Scholar-in-Residence.  Kannan is survived by his wife Kay Kannan.

Students wishing to pay their respects to Kannan’s memory should contact Sharon Johnson at The Environmental Program is developing plans for alumni and current students to honor Kannan’s life and professorship here at CC. 


“Phil Kannan was a remarkable human, and for our interdisciplinary environmental program, a vital polymath we could all count on. He had both a strong legal-policy background, which helped countless students and colleagues (myself included), and a surprisingly mathematical-statistical mind. He could discuss ethics, sustainability, probability, and EPA Superfund policies, in a single five-minute sweep of time. Phil was also generous, selfless with his time, and was truly devoted to his teaching. I will miss him dearly, but it’s what Phil did for students and countless alums that will be his enduring legacy. It’s a deep loss for the college.”

– Eric Perramond, Professor of Environmental Science & Southwest Studies


“Phil was one of the most positive people I know.  Anytime I asked him how his class was doing, he always said, ‘Oh, it‘s going great!’  He loved teaching and loved his students. Phil loved the law and believed that it was an effective tool to achieve environmental and social justice.  He taught Gender and Civil Rights Law to the Women’s Studies [now Feminist and Gender Studies] Program.  He taught important decisions in Education Law to MAT students in the summer.  Native Americans under Federal Law to the Environmental Program.  And of course Environmental Law.  He inspired so many students to go to law school and work to make a better world. He made Colorado College and the world a better place and we are all poorer without him.”

– Babara Whitten, Professor Emeritus of Physics


“Phil Kannan played a pivotal role in the EV Program throughout his two decades at the college.  I’ll always remember his thoughtful and ardent contributions to our faculty discussions and his dedication and commitment to students.  Phil mentored generations of students, encouraging many to pursue careers in environmental law.  He established connections with law schools and internship programs, opening up numerous opportunities for students in EV.  In the classroom, he was admired as an inspiring teacher with deep and wide ranging expertise.  His dedication to teaching was unwavering.  Do you know how they say that you should never get between a mother bear and her cubs?  With Phil, I’d say, ‘Never get between Phil Kannan and his classroom!’ That was the place he really loved to be.”

– Marion Hourdequin, Associate Professor and Chair of Philosophy Department


“Phil has served as an amazing mentor, scholar, and friend to many students and faculty at the college. His knowledge and passion for the environment was infectious and seemingly bottomless—something that we all appreciated. I have heard so many stories about Phil from students—it is clear that his love of his job came through in everything he did—from teaching them the ins and outs of reading case law to advising independent projects focused on natural resource management.  Personally, I saw this passion when he introduced his students at their theses presentations, when we would talk about current events, and even at faculty meetings. One of my favorite memories of Phil happened my first year here. Phil had just learned that I had taken a few law classes during graduate school—he was so excited. This resulted in many long conversations about the archaic laws that govern our public lands, where I did my best to hold my own, but mostly just nodded along. One day he told me about a project he was working on and later that day sent me the latest draft of the manuscript. At the time I remember thinking—how can I help this legal scholar? Looking back I realize that this was Phil’s way of telling me that he valued me as a colleague, his way of making me feel accepted in my new home.  I am so grateful for that.”

– Becca Barnes, Assistant Professor of Environmental Science

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