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Presidential Welcome Address 2014

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The Great Work of our time is the development of a sustainable relationship with the Earth.  The environmental challenges of this century are, I believe, even more perilous than those faced by my father’s generation. 

By Dr. Stephen Mulkey, President of Unity College:

When I was a kid I asked my older brother what I needed to be happy. He assured me that three things would fix me up: a home to live in, folks to love, and meaningful work to do. As I matured, I learned that this little recipe involves some complex elements, not the least of which is how to define “meaningful work.” As part of my homework for this address to you, I pondered how to define this, and eventually I did what any great scholar would do:  I took the issue to my Facebook community.  Of several answers, the one that I think best captured the essence of “meaningful work” is “The work that you are meant to do lies at the intersection of your greatest passion and the Earth’s greatest need.”

For most of my early professional life, I believed that finding this intersection meant understanding how living systems function, and I trained as an ecologist, spending 20 years developing my passion for understanding the function of forests.

For many of the same reasons, you have chosen Unity College as your springboard to meaningful work.  Regardless of your particular course of study, ecology and environment are at the heart of your intentions.  Surely, these are the central elements of the Earth’s greatest need, and you are passionate about this. 

About two years ago, the faculty and the Board of Trustees of Unity College voted unanimously to embrace sustainability science as a framework for our academic programming.  This way of problem solving has been accepted by the US National Academy of Science and by an increasing number of scholars around the world, and it makes Unity College virtually unique among the world’s colleges and universities. The primary goal of sustainability science is to empower you to solve environmental problems by integrating knowledge from multiple disciplines.

You are the one of the first classes to have been exposed to these concepts, and you have acquired attributes that many of your peers who attended other institutions do not have.  These intangibles are the stuff of a successful life and they are prerequisites for meaningful work. 

  • You have learned that you are not alone, but instead you are a member of an extended family, the family of Unity College.  Collaboration and mutual respect are our family values.  We will always be a part of your life, and we hope that you will always stay connected with the College as your journey progresses. 
  • You have acquired considerable skill at communicating through writing, speaking, and various forms of media.
  • You are a trained problem solver, with practical hands-on experiential learning. At Unity our boots are muddy, our hands get dirty, and our best laboratory is outdoors.
  • You are also a synthetic, critical thinker with the ability to understand environmental problems from a transdisciplinary perspective, using multiple disciplines to understand the tradeoffs inherent in solving these problems. 
  • You have learned that environmental issues are not black or white, but usually ethically complex. You have learned that the future of humanity depends utterly on how we address these issues.
  • Because active learning is the core of our curriculum, you are well equipped to be a lifelong learner during an era of increasingly rapid change. Studies tell us that you will hold as many as seven job titles during your working life, and thus your college education should prepare you to be flexible by giving you transferable skills.  Alvin Toffler states “the illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who can’t read or write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.”  Thus, our goal has been to equip you with the skills sets that will serve your first career as well as your seventh.  

Many institutions are only just now waking to the need for this kind of curriculum, but Unity College has been teaching sustainability for many years.  Because of this, I am convinced that your Unity College degree will increase in value to you and to society as this century unfolds.

I believe that you will play an important role in the transformation to sustainability that must occur if we are to renew civilization.  Every generation has what Thomas Berry has called their Great Work.  My father went ashore at Normandy during WWII, and I know that he viewed this, and the rebuilding Europe, as the Great Work of his time. 

The Great Work of our time is the development of a sustainable relationship with the Earth.  The environmental challenges of this century are, I believe, even more perilous as those faced by my father’s generation. 

Often someone of my generation will stand at the podium and charge new graduates with creating the change necessary to secure the future.  This is, I believe, manifestly unreasonable.  We are all in this together, and the fact that you are much younger does not absolve me of my obligation to foster this change.  If my generation continues with business as usual and the maintenance of the status quo, then your generation will literally inherit the wind.  I believe that our esteemed speaker, Celine Cousteau, will have more to say about how we can continue to invest in you and your future.

It is deeply satisfying to me that Unity College is, more than anything else, a compelling agent for hope and change.  I am grateful that as you leave here you take with you some of the tools to participate in The Great Work of your generation.  

Finally, I offer you a quote from Martin Keogh, editor of a remarkable volume entitled Hope Beneath Our Feet. 

“When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren't pessimistic, you don't understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren't optimistic, you haven't got a pulse.”  

Congratulations graduates.  I wish you Godspeed and good luck. 

Monday, May 12, 2014