Growing Pains: Student Response to Mulkey’s Vision for Sustainability Science

Last month, President Mulkey made a presentation to the faculty introducing the ideas in the white paper he wrote, titled The Imperative of Sustainability and Opportunities for Unity College. His speech, as well as the white paper in greater detail, (both available here: http://www.unity.edu/AboutUnity/PresidentWelcome/PresidentMessages.aspx ) outlined how Unity College’s instructors should go about integrating the concept he refers to as sustainability science into the way courses are taught. The goal of integrating sustainability science into all of the courses is to equip students with what Mulkey calls the “right tools” for facing a changing climate and an economy which has to step up to the task of addressing those changes.

“The thing that matters most for Unity College is that climate change will be the single-most important determinant of our environmental practice and programming,” Mulkey told faculty after beginning to delve into some of the hard facts behind climate science, which he feels will affect every field offered at this college. “It will amplify everything that we do…especially,” he emphasized, “in conservation and natural resources.”

In the white paper, Mulkey, whose previous experience as a research-gathering climate scientist predisposes him to trusting peer-reviewed literature, supports the need for sustainability science with information about climate change and the need to address it. One of the more practical applications of this that I saw was his mention of the zone maps that tell growers where their plants will survive based on the temperatures the plants can tolerate. These zone maps may normally only play a small role in horticulture, but the changes in the location of the zones in the past ten years has much larger implications, such as those that Mulkey warns about. As a sustainable agriculture major, I couldn’t help but notice when the recently revised map was released, and couldn’t help but wonder, How many times will this map have to be re-released to reflect the changing climate across the country before the world will realize what the changes mean?

Mulkey’s plan caused me to realize that Unity College students should already be, and if not, should start, asking in-depth questions about these maps. Almost all students here have chosen to dedicate their lives to managing living organisms whose range is very likely dependent on those USDA-developed zones. To “give our students the tools to deal” with climate change, Mulkey believes we need an “increasingly sophisticated curriculum.” This curriculum, in his vision, will be based around the framework of sustainability science.

The idea of sustainability science as an interdisciplinary tool –rather than a course or degree track –is one that is rapidly being developed by graduate institutions across the country, Mulkey tells us. At Arizona State University, one of the country’s largest universities, a whole school has been devoted to sustainability. There, students can attend a School of Sustainability just as easily as they could attend a School of Technology and Innovation or School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It’s hard to deny that sustainability is an up and coming issue in the world and in education –one that is increasingly in demand, and for good reason. Mulkey assures us that the numbers of green jobs will burgeon as the world realizes a need for sustainable practices.

Unity College may be able to fill a niche corresponding to this in the education economy. While sustainability science is quickly becoming an issue dealt with at the graduate level, no private undergraduate institutions focus on it. In Mulkey’s words, Unity College’s curriculum comes “pre-adapted” to using sustainability science as the uniting core of its instruction methods. As students, we all know how well sustainability issues tug at the heart-strings of all our professors, and are already embedded in the issues we have devoted our lives to working on. Filling the sustainability niche early in the game will fill a demand for a special offer in education: a sustainable, liberal arts education from a private undergraduate institution. It could even stand to potentially move the school into a “higher profile among competitive environmental programs” and significantly increase the potential for “the post-graduate success” of the students.

Unfortunately, he also explains that “the bottom of our market is falling out…at a time when our budget is balanced and we have a decent cash reserve.” The school’s balance is always “vulnerable to enrollment,” which makes enrollment numbers a key factor for the administration.  He then goes on to describe a positive-feedback loop created by the need for lower tuition by students –often mitigated by the application of discounts in the form of school-sponsored grants. Addressing these marketing issues is one of steps of action that Mulkey includes in his plan of attack.

When I watched the video of Mulkey’s presentation to the faculty, hearing the words “our students are increasingly unable to afford us” struck a particularly strong note with me. He is of course referring to the growing difficulties the American middle class is experiencing when it comes to sending their kids to college –a squeeze that we all feel as students attending a private college at a time when the economy has seen much better days. As a student who admittedly relies on the discounts he discusses, I feel torn. I care about the future success of my school, but I can’t exactly embrace the idea of removing the programs that provide me with the funding to be here and the only answer to saving the school’s budget coming from this plan seems to be bettering its reputation and bringing in significant numbers of new students on the prospect of a high-quality education in a program that can’t be found elsewhere. No matter how sophisticated or important-sounding Unity College becomes, the administration should remember that sometimes, like in the case of potential entrepreneurs, the only post-graduate opportunities are the ones we create for ourselves. As a sustainable agriculture major, I won’t feel much pressure to impress a potential employer after college and if reputation was the final deciding factor between this and another institution, it wouldn’t likely draw me in. When I applied, I didn’t believe there were comparable programs at other schools, and this is the only real advantage I believe the sustainability framework will offer Unity College: a distinctive product.

The need for “more boots on the ground” in the interest of research at the college is one issue that Mulkey nails with his vision. I cannot count the number of complaints I have heard from my peers about the effects of the quality of education felt as the result of the school not investing in “human resources” the way it should. I personally look forward to the day when our most respected professors no longer have to carry the weight of the college on their shoulders. I worry that this could prove to be one of the most important factors in Mulkey’s vision that stands to get overlooked.

I believe that one of Unity College’s most important roles in advocating for moving towards a sustainable future is to demonstrate the important connection between hands-on and classroom-based learning. In this ever-changing, but ‘new normal’ economy, coupling practical and theoretical knowledge must be taken seriously as the best way to have a versatile education that truly prepares students for any job they may come across after college. Mulkey demonstrates how well he understands this when he reminds his faculty that “we’ve emphasized how important our face-to-face programming…and personalized attention” are. Sustainability science provides students with a legitimate framework to do hands-on work that they can get excited and engaged about.

By holding sustainability practices in the heart of their teaching practices, President Mulkey hopes that professors here will be able to sustain this school as an economically viable option for a better tomorrow. With his help, Unity College should be able to successfully manage its growing pains to become a more substantial, respectable institution in the long run, and for that, I thank him.

3 thoughts on “Growing Pains: Student Response to Mulkey’s Vision for Sustainability Science

  1. I am very glad to see that the essential elements of my vision have been understood. This is an excellent essay and I am happy to respond.

    The central issue that is unresolved is how the College will work to make our services more affordable. Here are some parts of the plan that are continuing to be developed.

    (1) The College needs to diversify its income streams. In order to do this, I will be asking the Board of Trustees to allow us to use reserve funds to develop programming that builds on our strength as an environmental college and will provide additional resources to support our core mission. These programs will include distance learning, summer activities, and more extensive use of the campus and The Unity College Center for Performing Arts. Here are some examples of ideas that are being considered:
    (a) Certificate program in Management of Alternative Energy
    (b) Continuing education programming for STEM educators
    (c) GIS certificate program
    (d) Collaboration to develop veteran retraining and integration program with American Greenland Restoration, Inc.
    (e) Certificate program in Sustainable Agriculture

    (2) The College is renewing its push to develop its Office of Advancement. This will generate new funds to support students.

    (3) We are seeking to develop an online and in-person program with China and possibly India. While these are merely ideas at the moment, there is great potential for such programming to add to our bottom line.

    Overall, enhancing our income streams, including donations, will allow us to increase our discounting of tuition and fees for students with need. There is nothing intrinsically bad about having a high discount rate. This only becomes a problem when it impacts funds available for operations. Our ability to provide some discounting will continue to grow as our endowment increases and the return on the recent $10 million matures over the next two years.

    Meanwhile, it is clear to me that the US has a serious problem with respect to funding higher education. The Obama administration has challenged colleges and universities to make higher education more affordable. While it is certainly true that we must do everything that we can to control costs, there are intrinsic constraints that limit our ability to achieve an economy of scale. Specifically, it is necessary for us to maintain a low student to teacher ratio and even enhance our personalized attention to each student. This approach to higher education is by far the most expensive.

    At Unity College, I am recommending that we achieve some economy of scale by using distance programming in collaboration with other institutions to serve a limited number of our basic courses. This should make it possible for one instructor to service many more students. Although this will marginally cut costs, this must not replace our overall emphasis on face-to-face instruction and experiential education. Thus, I see this as having a limited impact on our bottom line.

    At some point, we as a society must come to terms with the expense of higher education, and we must specifically develop programs to address student debt. No advanced country can continue to thrive when its general population is mostly denied access to higher education. There are many possible solutions to our national dilemma, but presently few of these are on the table for discussion. After things slow down a bit, I will create an additional blog post about these ideas.

    Meanwhile, please send me your ideas for improving and diversifying our sources of funding.

    Stephen Mulkey, president

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About Kelsey Schrey