Introduction

The Strategic Plan - Building a Beacon

Introduction

“It is not because things are difficult that we do not dare. It is because we do not dare that things are difficult.”  – Seneca                                    

As the cost of post-secondary education continues to rise, students and parents are placing an increased emphasis on the return on investment. More than ever, the connection between curriculum and employment opportunities is their paramount concern when considering any institution. Liberal arts colleges experience an additional challenge in that public perception of the underlying model is largely negative. They are seen as expensive and lacking in relevance, despite findings by the Council of Independent Colleges [2014][1] and other professional organizations that demonstrate liberal arts education is robust and results in employment advantages. These data are generally immaterial to the call for change, though, as both the Obama administration and general public have made clear they want a more efficient and effective model seen as eminently more pertinent to the challenges of the 21st century.

Concomitant with the reevaluation of post-secondary education’s form and function is a suite of environmental concerns approaching climax. Within the next 20 years, climate change will become dangerous and expensive for societies worldwide, driving and amplifying global environmental degradation such as biodiversity loss, nitrogen and phosphorous cycle disruptions, and ocean acidification. Most likely, society has little more than a decade to vigorously begin the transition toward sustainability. Humanity is at a critical junction: either live more sustainably on this planet or suffer increasingly severe consequences. Given that the current emissions trajectory will result in more than 4˚C warming by 2100, the very existence of civilization is under imminent threat.

As the crises loom, the demand for a clean economy and an environmentally literate workforce are growing rapidly. In response, academic institutions are pushing to develop or enhance course offerings that can provide a ready and capable workforce. Sustainability programming is expanding at colleges and universities throughout the world, and enrollment in environmental disciplines is soaring. Most institutions view the growth as a natural extension of pre-existing environmental science and environmental studies programs, even if those are habitually poorly funded and lack dedicated faculty and facilities. Furthermore, environmental programs have too often existed on the margins of traditional disciplines and failed to produce holistic practitioners capable of translating evolving information into tangible change. The single greatest impediment to the response of post-secondary education to the environmental imperative is institutional inertia and the political entrenchment of disciplinary units within the typical academic setting.

The mission of Unity College has therefore never been more necessary or relevant. In early 2012, the faculty and Board of Trustees voted unanimously to adopt sustainability science as the framework for the College. The decision aligned the College with the National Academy of Sciences, National Science Foundation, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other leading organizations that recognize sustainability science as essential to the future of humanity. Similarly, students at Unity College increasingly understand their survival depends on comprehending complex environmental and sustainability issues, and faculty and staff are skilled at facilitating consideration of creative solutions. The existing experiential curriculum is pre-adapted to incorporating sustainability science into all aspects of course development at the College and can be progressively refined to fit its framework. The College’s adoption of a framework based on sustainability science does not relegate its liberal arts base to a lesser status. On the contrary, liberal arts provide the foundation upon which are developed holistic, integrative practitioners of sustainability science. As Unity College advances its leading-edge paradigm in post-secondary education, it must re-imagine programming and expand its reach to attract, engage, and enlighten the future leaders of the environmental and sustainability professions. To respond to the impending environmental crises and capitalize on its tremendous potential, Unity College must address two central directives: 1] Develop distinctive, premium products that are in high demand, and 2] Significantly expand brand awareness and move into new markets. This plan outlines an explicit course of action for both at Unity College.

Sustainability Science

Sustainability science is defined as the integrated application of science from many disciplines to develop sustainable solutions to environmental problems. Although sustainability science could be accomplished through sequential layering of discrete disciplines toward a problem, the most effective approach is transdisciplinary, meaning various disciplines are integrated throughout the problem-solving process [Fig. 1]. Until recently, a transdisciplinary perspective would not have been possible because access to comprehensive information was limited. The Internet revolution has made most discipline-specific knowledge available to anyone with skills enough to access it. Thus, information literacy and the ability to integrate it effectively are critical to the successful deployment of sustainability science. Figure 1.  The distinction between multidisciplinary [a], interdisciplinary [b], and transdisciplinary [c] approaches [Kajikawa 2008] [2]. Sustainability science is neither applied nor basic. Rather, it is a field defined by the problems it addresses instead of the disciplines it employs. It advances understanding of the dynamics of coupled human-natural systems and facilitates the design, implementation, and evaluation of practical interventions that promote sustainability. It is problem-based and solution-oriented, and it should be familiar to those who already employ learning models designed to achieve real world applicability. In effect, sustainability science can and should be delivered across the curricular spectrum and incorporated into all aspects of academic programming.

Unity College

There are two important consequences of framing environmental science in terms of sustainability science at Unity College. First, it defines the College as a sophisticated and mature institution to the outside world. Precious few colleges or universities have embraced sustainability science as a viable framework, leaving an unoccupied niche tailored perfectly for the College. The sustainability framework has the potential to elevate Unity College to a higher profile among competing environmental programs, thus enhancing the post-graduate success of our students. Second, it defines an internal understanding of how to address environmental change. Sustainability science can serve as an overarching conceptual home for all of the existing environmental perspectives at Unity College. Sustainability science is consistent with the Unity College mission, and in fact, it already captures much of its current pedagogy. Sustainability science is reliant on foundational disciplines such as chemistry, biology, physics, math, ecology, and conservation, and it is supported by social science, humanities, economics, and teacher education. All are central to a Unity College education. Sustainability science is not intended to replace existing degree programs. Instead, the College will embrace it as a proactive and process-oriented framework that can guide the pedagogy of current programming. As an integrative and inclusive framework, sustainability science is predicated upon and enhances existing core competencies such as conservation and natural resources. A liberal arts education will remain an essential foundation for sustainability science. It offers the best possible mixture of applied and theoretical concepts, and it aids scientific and technical skills advancement by emphasizing written and verbal communication, critical thinking, and consideration of complex ethical tradeoffs typical of the 21st century. As opposed to the previous century’s myopic approach to environmental training, sustainability science is all-inclusive, future-oriented, and proactive. Embracing sustainability science will enable Unity College to capitalize on its broad-based learning strategy to better evaluate existing curricula in the context of mitigation, adaptation, and resilience. These concepts are best incorporated into decisions regarding every discipline, and this incorporation, will generate opportunities for undergraduate research and add premium value to degree programs. Especially important for understanding the transdisciplinary approach to education is the concept of information literacy: a set of skills that require an individual to recognize when information is needed and have the ability to locate, evaluate, and effectively use the needed information [http://skil.stanford.edu/intro/research.html]. It is common to all disciplines, all learning environments, and all levels of education, and it will serve as the underlying principle for curricula at Unity College. Mastering information literacy will give students a competitive advantage in a job market increasingly characterized by applicants with a narrow technical focus who lack transdisciplinary experience. Unity College students will therefore make better professionals and be more highly valued employees.

Looking Forward

A recent examination of Unity College by Stamats, an independent marketing solutions firm, confirmed that the College’s market penetration is shallow, thereby leaving large sectors of the potential market untouched. While developing academic programs, the College must promote tirelessly the value of sustainability science in the context of a liberal arts education. Unity College must also elevate its programming and marketing to a more sophisticated level, thereby distinguishing it from the competition by providing premium value in comparison to degrees from other institutions. Dynamic and integrative marketing is necessary to realize the full benefits of embracing sustainability science as its educational and operational framework. Unity College must also make fundamental choices about its target markets and net revenue per student. The number of high school graduates in Maine is declining [Fig. 2], and admissions data show that the increasing number of students with unmet financial need is a significant factor in the College’s struggle to maintain enrollment. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, the College frequently loses highly qualified students to institutions offering more competitive funding packages. Unity College must continue to make strategic use of its financial aid leveraging, enhance its scholarship endowment, offer premium products to students and parents with economic capacity, and be more competitive in scholarship offerings to students from more affluent backgrounds. Because of the declining number of high school graduates in Maine, the College’s market will increasingly reach beyond Maine and New England. To that end, the College has engaged the consulting firm Noel Levitz to help develop an aggressive enrollment strategy [expected May 2014].Figure 2.  Following a decades-long decline in high school graduation, Maine is now 41st in the nation for matriculation rate[3]. The College’s long-term viability is dependent on enhancing revenues. Several alternatives will be explored to bolster the College’s core mission while simultaneously diversifying its income stream, including hybrid distance programming, collaboration with affinity institutions, enhanced articulation with secondary schools and community colleges, development of summer programs, and recruitment of international students. The most important opportunity for enhanced revenue generation, however, is the development of graduate programming. More than ever, graduate degrees are required to help budding professionals refine technical skills, qualify for job opportunities, and improve career or pay structures. Other small liberal arts colleges that have created graduate programs point to this as an essential new revenue stream. The need for a robust suite of graduate degrees in the model of the professional science master’s [PSM], which includes non-traditional curricula in management, ethics, and communication, provides an excellent opportunity for Unity College. The PSM programs have excellent job placement outcomes nationwide, and they provide an added benefit of enhancing the College’s brand recognition in underrepresented markets. New England has only one such program, at the University of Massachusetts, and nationally there is a lack of such programs in the environmental sciences.

Taxonomy of the Strategic Implementation Plan

The plan that follows is laid out as a series of six goals . Each goal is supported by a series of objectives. Each objective is supported by a series of initiatives, which are linked to action items. Eventually all action items will have timelines for execution. In some cases, objectives are supported by initiatives that are too numerous to list because they are simply operational aspects of the College. Accordingly, these areas are referenced to departments and their activities, instead of specific action items.

The Unity College Strategic Plan is managed by the President of the College. Vision-level items, goals and objectives, are established by the Unity College Board of Trustees. Initiatives and action items are established by the Unity College President and informed and implemented by Senior Staff.


[1]        Reported at the 2014 CIC national meeting by CIC leadership.
[2]          Kajikawa, Y.  2008.  Research core and framework of sustainability science.  Sustainability Science 3:215.
[3]          Knocking at the College Door.  Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education.  December 2012.