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Inaugural Remarks of President Stephen Mulkey: A Call to Service and Innovation
Inaugural Remarks of President Stephen Mulkey

Thank you Jesse and Bill for your kind words. Welcome and thank you all for being here today.  Thank you to the members of our administration who have worked so hard to create this special day for Unity College.  As you know, we have a graduation ceremony later today, and the logistics of putting on both events have been demanding.  Thank you to the Board of Trustees for their stewardship, vision, and hard work to preserve and guide Unity College through the past, and into the future.  Thank you to the Chair and Vice Chair of the Board, Bill Zoellick and Margo Kelly, who have helped and advised me on over the last few months.  Thank you to my senior staff, who all have performed far beyond the call of duty as we have created a new administration.  I offer my special thanks to the faculty for their willingness to move forward with change.  And thank you to the citizens of the township of Unity, whose continued support is as important today as it was when Unity College was founded in 1965. Please join me in thanking these folks.

I would especially like to thank my partner, Michele Leavitt, who daily challenges my fears and keeps me grounded in reality.  Michele is former trial lawyer, and as you have heard, she is also a poet.  If you think about it, this is a scary combination because such a person has the skill to win every argument, but also the humanity to make you feel good about it. 

Nothing is more satisfying than losing myself in commitment to something far bigger than my personal concerns.   I speak for Michele too when I say that we wake up each morning grateful to have this opportunity to serve.   Unity is a great place to be alive, and we’ve both had a lifetime of places to compare.

This will not be a typical inaugural address because my purpose today is not to merely affirm the values and vision of the College, but to invite each of you to be of service to our future and to the mission of this unique environmental, liberal arts college.  In America and much of the world the ride has been a bit bumpy lately.  Although ongoing for several years, global economic instability is only recently affecting academia.  It affects an industry that has not fundamentally changed in America in over 200 years.  Higher education is primed for disruption and innovation.  Indeed, I am certain that the economy and environment will deliver even more jolts and surprises to higher education as we move down the road.  

I hope everyone here today will understand that Unity College is entering a period that will challenge our perseverance and require us to change in many significant ways.  I am absolutely certain that our mission is relevant and needed, and I have absolutely no doubt that we are up to the task.  I believe that a decade from now, Unity College will be widely seen as a guiding light for those seeking the tools to respond to the environmental and sustainability challenges of the 21st century. 

I have never before been a college president.  It seems like only a heartbeat ago, I was a faculty member complaining about my university’s unreasonable president. As you might imagine, today I have a bit more sympathy for the presidents of my past.  Today I know that many choices are not easy and that the president cannot simultaneous satisfy all members of the community while steering the ship.  Before I took this job, the previous president, Mitch Thomashow, told me I would have more power than I thought, and less than I needed.   He was right.  Because like any human I am limited in my power and insight, today I am asking for your help to build the brilliant future that I see for the College.

Unity College is a uniquely inspiring institution of higher learning, with values and traditions that are not only relevant, but also crucially important to the success of our graduates. Unity College is a great place to live and learn.  The Washington Monthly, a journal that gives credit for institutions that produce good citizens as well as good scholars, ranks Unity College among the top 50 baccalaureate colleges in the United States. Because of our emphasis on sustainability, the Princeton Review has ranked Unity College among the top green institutions in the U. S.

Many small and grand things characterize us, and one can observe these daily in the activities of our faculty, staff, and students. 

  • Our faculty: In every person’s life there is that special teacher who showed him or her the doorway to the future.  The faculty of Unity College epitomize student-focus. These dedicated professionals are concerned about not just the students’ minds, but also about their lives.
  • Our staff: Unlike many larger, more impersonal institutions, our staff members are personally concerned with the well-being of our students.  Some staff members provide essential day-to-day support; others help students plan for the future; still others insure that college operations function smoothly for the benefit of everyone.
  • Our culture: At America’s Environmental College, we embrace a variety of environmental perspectives and opinions.  The standards of civility and inclusiveness at Unity are the highest of all of the institutions in my history. Unity College is a place where everyone knows your name, and you are a part of rich and embracing community.   It is community that makes us resilient, that makes us the little college that could, and did. We were environmental before environmental was cool.  We embraced sustainability before sustainability was cool.
  • Our students:  By far our greatest assets, our students are characterized not only by outstanding scholarship, but by their dedication to service, as recognized by our place on the President’s Higher Education Honor Roll.  Students here learn through scholarship and through experience.  At Unity our boots are muddy, our hands get dirty, and our best laboratory is outdoors. Our students are good citizens as well as good scholars.

Unity College has an ethical obligation to our students – present and future – to raise awareness about the environmental crises unfolding on our planet.  A child born today faces the prospect of living in a diminished world unless we, as a species, are able to transition towards sustainability.  Human caused climate change, and as you will hear from Cynthia Barnett this afternoon, acute shortages of fresh water, are the defining environmental challenges of this century. Unlike most private liberal arts colleges, we are not merely engaged in preparing students for jobs and enlightening their minds.  We have a clearly defined mission focused on sustainability.  We are literally in the business of helping to save civilization by training those who will preserve and reconstruct the ecology of this planet. 

Grandiose? I think not.  The time for small thinking is over, and that is why I have asked our community to embrace Sustainability Science as a framework for our academic programming and operations. This new paradigm integrates the humanities and social sciences into those scientific disciplines that address environmental problems.  Sustainability Science is a framework that will make the College and its graduates highly distinctive and valued.  

While this new paradigm will provide a strong foundation for the intellectual future of the College, it will not fully address the underlying economic uncertainty that has beset higher education at large, and Unity College specifically.  There is irony in this. Presently our books are balanced and today we will graduate the largest class in the history of the College.  We are also deeply grateful to have received last July an anonymous gift of $10 million for our endowment.  Many of our financial and academic indicators are better than ever before.  So how can there be a shadow on our future?

The foundation of American higher education has been undermined by economy-wide shifts in the availability of funding for students, families, and institutions.  The leading indicators of our enrollment show us that the expense of a private liberal arts college, even one as moderately priced as Unity College, has become too high for middle-income families.  This challenge is deeper and more extensive than any similar challenge in the history of higher education since WWII. Federal funding for the Pell Grant program is unsustainable and likely to remain so.  Our national student debt burden is now so large that it is a major factor affecting the national economy, exceeding $1 trillion. There are profound implications of a generation that, because of this debt, may lack the capacity to buy a home.  At the recent meeting of the Association of Governing Boards in higher education, a speaker noted that leaders in higher education have frequently claimed that the sky is falling, but “this time they really mean it.”   

These economic issues affect not just Unity College, but are a major concern for all but the most well endowed elite institutions.  At some point, we as a society must determine if we value higher education sufficiently to ensure that it is within reach of all who are intellectually capable.  We are in the beginning years of a major shake out, and by the end of this decade there will be many fewer traditional colleges and universities left standing.   I am certain that Unity College will not only be among the winners, but we will be viewed as a model of success.  To accomplish this, we have some urgent work to do.

When I was younger, a teacher of mine, a man that I deeply revere, was trying to teach me something that would turn out to be invaluable for my life.  Because I thought myself a smart fellow, as he patiently described this process to me, I stopped him repeatedly to tell him my thoughts and feelings.  Finally, he looked hard at me and said, “Stephen, I don’t care what you think, I don’t care what you feel, and I really don’t care what you have to say.  The only thing that I care about is what you do.”

Pretty harsh, I thought.  In fact, he had it right.  The study of neuroplasticity shows us that actions literally change the form and function of relevant parts of the brain.  We change our thinking and our feelings by changing our actions, not vice versa, as our instincts would suggest.  We act our way to a different, often more productive, perception of reality.   

Does this little adage scale from the individual to the organization?  Do colleges, businesses, states, and even countries transform through action?  I believe history shows us that this is so. Unity College is now involved in a strategic planning process, and it is obvious to me that this will be a plan for effective action.  It will notbe a document that gathers dust on the shelf, as is true for so many such plans.  More than this, it will also be a plan that fosters innovation in ways that will allow us to fundamentally change our approach to teaching and learning.  It will be a plan that launches the College into the national and international scene as a major player in sustainability education.

We will respond to the economic realities of this century in ways that will challenge many of our assumptions.  When I arrived at Unity College it became clear to me that, like most colleges, some stakeholders are very attached to the way things are.  The news for these individuals and groups is that we must change. Careful, thoughtful, collaborative, and deliberate change, but change we must. As the president of Wesleyan University, Michael Roth, wisely stated in his commencement address the year my son graduated, the status quo is unacceptable.  It simply will not work in this new environment. (Andrew, is sitting here in the front row.  I must say that one of my proudest moments as his dad was to see him illustrate Roth’s thesis as he strode across the stage wearing a hat that was, shall I say, totally outrageous. No status quo for Andrew!)

The seminal educator Richard Demillo writes that in the face of uncertainty the formula for success in higher education requires us to clearly define our values and focus on what differentiates us from other institutions.  We must also establish our own brand that is a distinct, clear, strong note in the cacophony of the higher education marketplace.  He cautions us to not romanticize our weaknesses by claiming that they are a virtue.  For example, it is true that our campus is rather humble, but in specific ways this is not a virtue. Most importantly, he calls on institutions to be open: open to new diverse clientele, open to new ideas, open to new programming, open to new alliances, open to new technology, and open to new business models. 

So, it is in fact good news that we are going to change, and I am moving rapidly to create that change.  I am grateful for the vote of confidence that I have received from the Board of Trustees, faculty and staff.  Yesterday, the Unity College Board approved the use of significant reserve funds to invest in the transformation of the College.  The purpose of this investment is to stabilize and expand enrollment to our maximum capacity, and to lay the foundations for innovative sources of new revenue. Spending will occur over three years and focus on three initiatives. 

  • We will expand our approach and commitment to marketing and communications, and this will help extend our brand to numerous geographic and economic markets.   Marketing Sustainability Science will be a big part of this.
  • We will create new programming to serve specialized markets and diversify our sources of revenue.  Such programming may include specific training for certificates and professional certification, while expanding our reach to international students and delivering unique curricula via the Internet.  One exciting opportunity will begin a few days from today when we begin planning our program for returning veterans through our collaboration with American Greenlands Restoration, Inc., a group that restores the landscape and the health of our veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • We will develop several program enhancements to improve our instruction and expand recruitment by providing competitive infrastructure for teaching and scholarship. This effort will include creation of a defined undergraduate research training program and an honors program.    

While these efforts will expand our enrollment and lay the foundation for new revenue, they are not enough to ensure that Unity College will thrive.   Here are some thoughts about how all of us can work to distinguish Unity College:

  • We must focus on the quality of our products and provide students and parents a higher, more visible value for their investment. We are well positioned to be a bargain among private liberal arts colleges, and our data show that our graduates have solid success in getting jobs. 
  • Unity College must not only join the pack in terms of innovative curriculum, we must lead the pack in our niche of environmental and sustainability programming.  I suggest that we adopt innovative approaches to teaching and learning that place the acquisition of content outside of the classroom, reserving classroom and field time for engagement and experiential learning.  Such programs are rigorous and give students the ability to analyze and solve problems.    
  • While technology must play a larger role in our delivery of curriculum, we must not abandon our face-to-face experiential instruction.  Quite the contrary, we should redouble our efforts to ensure that we offer the highest quality experiential programming available.  We are known for getting our hands dirty and boots muddy, and nothing can replace the value of this experience for our residential students.
  • We must seek additional sources of endowment so that we can offer more financial support for outstanding students with need. 
  • Finally, we must expand the numbers and scholarly breadth of our excellent faculty.  We should seek to create endowed faculty chairs.

Until recently consumers have not held higher education accountable for getting results.  A recent national study of American higher education concluded that large numbers of students do not show significant improvement in skills or knowledge during four years of an undergraduate education.  Moreover, employers frequently tell us that it is hard to find college graduates who can think critically and who have effective oral and written communication skills.  To address this lapse, we must emphasize the humanities as the foundation of Sustainability Science.  This is in contrast to the trend nationwide in which the humanities are increasingly considered irrelevant to the technical job market.  I am not only sure that this is wrong, I am certain that our students are more competitive because they have the intellectual foundation provided by literature, composition, philosophy, ethics, art, and history.

The twin crises of environmental degradation and economic dysfunction provide us with an opportunity for service on a greater scale than ever before in the history of the College.  I believe that Unity College is well positioned to be the best small college in the U.S. to specialize in providing students with the rigorous scholarship and hands-on learning for building a sustainable society.  Now is the time for us to embrace this specialization and proudly point to the unique character of our programming and students.  Because employees with skills acquired in the humanities will be increasingly needed, we should vigorously defend the value of a liberal arts education.  I am convinced that our niche in higher education is robust and that Sustainability Science will come to be viewed as the great intellectual synthesis needed to address the environmental constraints of the 21st century.

I am deeply grateful for this opportunity for service.  Given recent endorsements from the faculty, the staff, and the Board of Trustees, I am more certain than ever that we are on the right track for delivery of urgently needed understanding and services to our students and society.  Again, let me say that no president can do this alone, and today I am issuing a call to service for those of you who believe in the College and its mission.  In the fall I will bring to the faculty and staff suggestions for curriculum and programming innovation.  Now, more than any other, is the time to put aside our individual personal, specific desires, and to step forward and collaborate to ensure the College’s future.  It has been my experience in life that willingness is the key to fundamental change.  Today, I explicitly ask for your willingness to embrace change and work collaboratively to implement meaningful innovations. 

Because of the profound relevance of our mission and our collective, creative vision, we will thrive.  More importantly, so will our students.  I ask you to join me in this great endeavor as we affirm our values and innovate to create the great future of America’s Environmental College.

Thank you.

Saturday, May 12, 2012