Continuity and CreativityAn Interview with Dr. Melik Peter Khoury
Why do you think the Unity College Board of Trustees tapped you to lead?
I can only tell you what they’ve said to me. The Board’s assessment seems to be that President Mulkey was very successful at establishing a bold vision and I’ve been asked to create the implementation plan to back it up and complete the adopted strategic plan. They seem to feel that Unity College is at a crucial point in the realization of that vision and they want someone who is intimately familiar with all the incredibly hard work and the process that has gone into getting us this far. I think we all realize that we’ve made a significant investment in this set of strategic priorities and that we need to finish what we’ve started.
I’ve been at a few institutions in many roles and I’ve found a way to help during some of their most interesting periods of growth and transition.
So, what roles have you been in?
I have been asked to guide colleges and universities through complex academic and staff restructuring; strategic planning and implementation; financial planning; international expansion; master planning; town and gown economic development; and enrollment, athletic and capital campaigns. I have led institutions in streamlining operations to drive growth; implemented system-wide technology; and I have supported colleagues as subject matter expert in student and academic affairs, University-wide marketing, and business processes redesign. My career has been predominantly to influence change at every level based on comprehensive perspective and in-depth understanding of the university environment.
Thirty months may seem like a long time, but it will fly by. What one or two things do you feel like you absolutely have to accomplish in order to be successful?
One or two, or three, or four… Our institutional priorities are laid out in the Unity College Strategic Plan and really focus on two things: continued capacity building and differentiation.
We need to build the human, physical, fiscal, and technological infrastructure to support the growing demand for Unity College: a new residential hall designed with first year students in mind, new academic space, and front line services personnel. We need to expand our ability to reach new populations: graduate, distance, and the like. In the first instance this means creating online capacity to serve remote populations who want a graduate degree in Sustainability Science, but can’t get to Unity College because of their current job or life circumstance.
Beyond capacity? What do you mean by “differentiation?”
We are in the middle of a comprehensive positioning and branding study—we call it the Deep Dive—that will help us better understand the external market, the forces at play in higher education, and the demographic shifts and changing expectations that go with them. The results of this study will inform everything we do. But we already know a lot about what simply has to get done.
In the next few years we will reimagine the first and second year experience to demonstrate to first time college students and their parents that Unity College offers a first-two-years that is a demonstrably better value than a community college experience. Students and parents are increasingly savvy—they understand that value means educational experience with outcomes—outcomes that go beyond the degree.
What other kinds of outcomes do you have in mind?
Job placement, graduate school placement, measurable acquisition of transferrable skills, ten-year out life satisfaction…
And how do you get to measurable improvements in student outcomes?
Unity College already has a powerful residential experience and a world-class curriculum in its niche. I am asking our creative faculty and staff to imagine the integrated residential living and learning Sustainability Science experience of the future—one that includes measurable improvements in student learning, personal and professional growth, and job placement outcomes. I’ve asked them to ignore the barriers of resource limitation, and imagine the education that is needed for the 21st century economy. I want them to work without the limitations of our current resources, and let me lose sleep on that front.
So, you mention lost sleep. What keeps you up at night?
Well, honestly, I have never needed much sleep. Shh—it’s my superpower. Seriously, what worries me about taking over as President? Unity College has a moral imperative to produce the next generation of environmental leaders. We must guarantee that our graduates receive more than a diploma and a possible paycheck. Our graduates must be environmental leaders with the skills and knowledge necessary to work within their communities to ensure the sustainability of our planet. That is a major obligation that I take very seriously.
Many colleges have vague social responsibility missions, “Prepare students to lead, serve, think critically, etc.” All good things, by the way. But Unity College has a very specific, very timely, and incredibly important mission: to prepare people to solve the world’s most pressing environmental problems. Period. There are very few college leaders at other institutions who take this trust as seriously as our people do. That gives us a unique opportunity, but it also puts an awful lot of pressure on. Our job? Live up to that trust and make the most of that opportunity. How do we do it? Invite the world to join us in solving the most pressing environmental problems, and make sure we are ready when they do so. Audacious, but honest.
It has been said that every President brings something unique to the job–a personal passion that makes it fun to come to work in the morning. Yours?
Am I only allowed one? It’s hard for me to choose between my passion for independent liberal arts education and something even more personal. Let me start here: I firmly believe that the current higher education model is unsustainable. I also believe that the innovation needed to create the new model will be written by small, private, liberal arts colleges. Not all, and not as we know them, but it’s going to be a small private that invents the future model for a sustainable higher education experience. I expect Unity College to be that college. That’s why being at Unity is exciting to me. That is why I want to be here more than at another school that might be more inclined to maintain the status-quo. Unity College has what every school wants: a relevant and distinct mission, a creative faculty and staff, a loyal alumni base, and disciplined Board. With that platform, we can do anything. What we just might do is reinvent higher education. That’ll get you out of bed in the morning.
Reinventing higher education, okay, wow. What’s the other thing—the more personal thing?
How do I put this? The environmental movement—I’m sorry—but it seems to be a case of preaching to the choir. Global problems require inclusive solutions. Skilled and informed environmental leadership must reach the communities across the world that need support the most. As a first generation American, I have learned the value of education across disciplines, across borders, and across cultures. At Unity College we talk a lot about solutions. I want to see Unity College help solve the problem of inclusivity within the environmental movement worldwide.
There are populations—right here in the U.S. and all over the world—who do not see sustainability careers as a viable option. I want to better understand how to reach those communities, those people, and show them how professional environmental careers are attainable, socially valued, and economically rewarding. Seeing international issues through a sustainability lens will be a core competitive advantage for 21st century professionals in any discipline.
Unity College was the first college in the nation to divest—to divest our financial portfolio from the top 200 fossil fuel companies. Could we also be the first environmental college to diverse? To diversify our approach and our population? Reach beyond Maine, New England, America, the western hemisphere? Because to solve the world’s most pressing environmental problems that’s what it’s going to take.
How does Unity College achieve such lofty goals?
I do not have all the answers, but I am dedicating my career to creating the space to reimagine higher education. I invite current colleagues and new partners from across the world to work within that space to create a new model of higher education. The focus and size and continued success of Unity College affords us an opportunity to be innovative, not out of desperation, but from a platform of stability. Success, for me, will be achieved if Unity College becomes the model for a 21st century Sustainability Science education that is economically relevant, financially sustainable, and educationally rich. It’s as simple as that.
“Skill can be taught; loyalty can be garnered, confidence can be instilled, but attitude & integrity are inherent! So teach skill, garner loyalty, instill confidence, but never compromise on attitude & integrity.” – Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, President, Unity College
Unity Fishbowl Talks is a colloquium series for Unity College faculty and invited outside speakers to discuss ideas on pedagogy and to present their scholarly work.
This fall favorite shows Unity at its hard-working hard-playing best. HvZ is a week long game and research project that simulates a Zombie outbreak on campus. Advanced math students use HvZ transmission rate data to prepare models for predicting the behavior of real life diseases like rabies.
Statistics show that students who do research during their undergraduate years are more likely to continue with professional education and in STEM fields, and twice as likely to consider continuing on to pursue a Ph.D.
Honors students at Unity College demonstrate that they can manage more. Accordingly, they get access to Honors-only projects, field trips, and speakers.
“Recognize Quality & Celebrate Excellence,” that’s the motto of the Unity College Student Conference. The bi-annual conference gives Unity students the opportunity to present professional level material in a supportive environment.
The Unity College/Up East education and research partnership was started in 2014 as a way to leverage the rich natural and cultural resources of Allen Island toward advancing solutions-oriented research through Sustainability Science.