UNITY, Maine — Higher education nationally may be about to undergo massive change as students struggle with rising debt and increasing college costs, but the 10th president of Unity College is sure that his school will continue to be a leader in sustainability education.
Stephen Mulkey, who will be inaugurated Saturday just before the 42nd annual commencement exercises, said this week that one of his favorite aspects of the college is that faculty and students there are willing to embrace what he calls a “transdisciplinary” way of studying environmental problems.
And the ecologist, who has spent years doing research in tropical forests in Central and South America, said that those problems are numerous.
“My entire worldview is around the ecological devastation unfolding around us,” Mulkey said Thursday afternoon. “I’m not an alarmist, but I’m very alarmed.”
Before taking the top post at Unity College, Mulkey had served for several years as director of the University of Idaho’s program in environmental science. He also worked as a tenured faculty member at the University of Florida’s botany department, was a research associate for the Smithsonian Institution’s Tropical Research Institute and co-founded the International Center for Tropical Ecology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis.
Although Unity College is far from the steamy jungles where Mulkey worked, it is at the forefront of something that the scientist and educator said is crucial: the developing field of sustainability science. The school also excels at bringing humanities into that field.
“It’s the human interface with the forest. I’m really proud that the faculty gets that,” he said, adding that sustainability science is a synthesis that includes history, economics and social sciences, too.
When Unity College students graduate and leave, they take with them the benefits of a unique, hands-on education.
“Nothing will replace the hands-dirty, boots-muddy, field-oriented experiential training you get at a place like Unity College,” he said. “There are not very many places doing that. Our challenge is making sure the students who want us know we exist.”
That’s going to be particularly important in the future as colleges and universities around the country will have to deal with the fallout of high student debt and shrinking public support for education.
“There’s this massive, literally earth-shaking change in higher education,” Mulkey said. “In the next 10 to 15 years, there will be far fewer traditional colleges and universities left standing.”
He said that Unity College “cannot coast.”
“We have an imperative to specialize on this incredibly relevant mission we have,” he said.
One reason why the sustainability piece is so relevant is because Mulkey believes that human-caused climate change and associated water shortage will be the defining characteristics of this century.
“Those will be the things that drive the choices we make,” he said. “Climate change is rapidly coming to the forefront, as people are slowly disentangling their minds from politics. It’s thrilling to be the president of a college where everybody really understands what the future will be.”
After Mulkey’s invitation-only inauguration, the school’s largest graduating class ever — 146 people — is set to march at 2 p.m. Saturday in Tozier Gymnasium.
Journalist and author Cynthia Barnett will serve as commencement speaker. She has reported on freshwater issues from the Deep South to Singapore, and is the author of the new book, “Blue Revolution: Unmaking America’s Water Crisis.” Barnett will be awarded an honorary doctorate of sustainability science.
Maine poet and author Lewis Turco will receive an honorary doctorate of arts and humanities.
A reception for participants of the inauguration and commencement will take place 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m. outside Tozier Gymnasium.