President’s message for the next issue of Unity College magazine

We are out of time. Our collective action or inaction within the next decade or so will determine the fate of civilization. Climate change presently driven by historic emissions from burning fossil fuels will affect everything about the lives of the current generation of students in college. It will determine what they eat, where they work, how they get to work, where they can live, the kinds of careers available, and most of all, their quality of life. Failure to significantly curtail emissions will result in an estimated 4-6˚C global average temperature rise by 2100 and unthinkable consequences for civilization. Because environmental change will be the dominant theme of the coming decades, I believe that this century will come to be known as the Environmental Century. This is a watershed moment for our species.

Despite the utter clarity and unassailable validity of this science, higher education has generally failed to provide students with the tools to address the environmental challenges of the Environmental Century. The vast majority of institutions in the U.S. continue to treat environmental studies and science as niche disciplines and regard sustainability as important only as it applies to operational efficiency. To be sure, institutions of higher learning should lead the way in energy efficiency and sustainable design, but this barely scratches the surface of this critically important area of learning and research. The purpose of higher education is not operational sustainability – it is teaching, learning, and research. It is in the classroom and in the field that sustainability needs to be universally developed. The U.S. National Academy of Science has identified the focus of this effort as Sustainability Science, and I believe that sustainability, like writing and basic communication, must be taught across the curriculum.

At Unity College we are passionately dedicated to the proposition that the status quo of higher education is unacceptable. Failure to integrate sustainability throughout higher learning is a breach of our social contract with our students. The ways that teaching, learning, and research are structured and delivered at most universities and colleges have not fundamentally changed in centuries. Such hierarchical delivery of knowledge from singular sources such as a professor does not move students to understanding and action. It does not empower them to seize the opportunities made available by universal access to information. Surely in the Information Age, we can and must find a better way.

The entire curriculum at Unity College is framed by Sustainability Science and emphasizes transdisciplinary integration of information from the social, natural, and physical sciences as necessary for crafting effective solutions. We build our effectiveness on a solid foundation of the humanities and liberal arts. This makes us unique in our approach to crafting solutions. A short walk around campus will convince you that the College is entering a new era of infrastructure development in which we will increasingly be able to offer excellence in instruction and facilities to help students meet these challenges.

Over the course of my career as an environmental scientist, I have sometimes found myself feeling hopeless in the face of the litany of environmental woes. My own antidote to hopelessness is action. At Unity College, we take action…..and we have hope.

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About Stephen Mulkey

Stephen Mulkey is an environmental scientist dedicated to developing undergraduate and graduate programming to build society's capacity for environmental mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. Mulkey was the president of Unity College in Unity, Maine from 2011 through 2015. His leadership and forward-looking vision resulted in Unity College being the first college in the U.S. to divest its endowment from the top 200 fossil fuel companies, and the first college in the U.S. to adopt sustainability science as the framework for all academic programming. Mulkey believes that higher education has an ethical duty to prepare generations of graduates for the extreme sustainability and climate change challenges of this century. After taking his PhD at the University of Pennsylvania, he spent over twenty years as a forest ecologist affiliated with the Smithsonian. Mulkey has served as tenured faculty at three doctoral granting universities.