These commencement remarks were given May 13, 2017 at Unity College by Unity College President Dr. Melik Peter Khoury.
The world is changing like never before in the history of humanity.
The world is changing in ways we can predict, and the world is changing in ways no one will ever see coming.
Class of 2017, adaptation will be your challenge and adaptation will be your legacy.
We know that the global population is getting older. Population growth is projected to slow significantly and is expected to tilt strongly to the oldest age groups.
We know that the very face of America is changing. Americans are more racially and ethnically diverse than in the past, and the U.S. is projected to be even more diverse in the coming decades.
We know that our climate is changing. Sea levels are rising and the oceans are becoming more acidic. Changes are happening to marine and terrestrial food webs. Storms are becoming more violent. Droughts are getting longer and extreme heat events are getting more frequent. The growing season across the U.S. is lengthening.
We know that college students are changing. The nation’s undergraduate population is expanding by over 2.6 million students, 2 million of which are students of color.
According to a report from the Aslanian Group, post-traditional students are the new majority in American undergraduate higher education. These are older students. These are also students who are attending part-time and do not live near campus.
We know that more students are graduating high school and fewer are going to college.
According to research we ourselves commissioned, this new type of student will understand and value the mission of Unity College and the value of our educational program — maybe more than ever. But this new type of student will also expect more flexibility in the way, the time, and the places they learn.
We know that the world is changing and we know that the world’s technology, policy, infrastructure, and education systems MUST adapt.
We also know that Unity College WILL adapt. It is in our DNA. You graduates will do well in a world that requires adaptation because adaptation is in the blood of every Unity College graduate.
Let me tell you a story. Unity College was born from change. Unity College was started in response to the decline of many rural towns in Maine. The town of Unity itself had lost its creamery, hotel, and canning factory. Interstate 95 was routed through Newport instead of Unity.
And, one year, the town of Unity was accidentally left off the Maine road map.
How to put the town of Unity back on the map? The response from a resilient and adaptable Unity leadership was to start a college as an economic driver for the area. Daughters of two of those founders, George Constable and Bert Clifford, are here today. Greetings: Betty Jean Constable, Arlene Schaeffer, and C.J. O’Connor.
Unity College’s first president, Clair Wood said of the college’s founders, “It was not an easy task. The scoffers derided the men and their idea; the cynics ridiculed their efforts; the unbelievers turned their backs. Still they persevered and Unity stands today.” And still, Unity stands now, stronger than ever.
At Unity College, we have never shied away from a challenge. In the seventies, Unity committed to a lasting educational identity. In the eighties and nineties, with the dedication of selfless faculty and staff, Unity College fought through extreme financial hardship.
In the last ten years, we have established gender balance on campus and Unity has shown real leadership in our support for inclusion of LGBTQ students, staff, and faculty. Even more recently, Unity College was the first undergraduate institution to establish sustainability science as our educational framework and was the first higher education institution to divest its financial portfolio from fossil fuels.
At Unity College, change has been constant and adaptation is a part of our DNA. Response to opportunity or crisis has always been a strength, but the pace of change is quickening, for higher education, for the environment, and for the human race.
Now, in response to social, environmental, political, and economic forces that are often contradictory, Unity College must continue to evolve and adapt. But we must learn to respond more nimbly and with much more creativity.
In the nineties, a new major degree program was an adequate adaptation. No longer. No longer will adjustment be enough. And no longer will we have a decade to respond to a crisis or an opportunity.
Too often, higher education is like a caterpillar that hatches out of its egg and gorges on leaves in the larval stage before entering the cocoon where transformation takes place, only to emerge sixteen days later as a … very slightly improved caterpillar.
Higher education evolves slowly by degrees. Instead, higher education must transform like the caterpillar into a butterfly.
As Unity College adapts, we have a moral imperative to reach new constituencies in new ways.
While what you see around you, this small college in Unity Maine will remain our Flagship and our signature and our home, Unity College must expand our impact in order to achieve the mission of America’s Environmental College.
We love you graduates, but we cannot continue to call ourselves America’s Environmental College if the Unity experience is available only to a small sampling of those who need our brand of education.
If Unity College demonstrates the courage of our convictions, if we really begin to achieve the mission of America’s Environmental College, we will bring the Unity experience to the places where we are needed most. Adult learners should not be expected to uproot their families and quit their jobs. Sustainability leaders should not be forced to leave the cities, countries, and villages that need them most to get the education that will help them serve.
And, although four years here, at the small Unity College Flagship, will remain the cornerstone of our educational offerings, young people should not be required to put their lives on hold while they attend college.
So what about you? The Unity College graduating class of 2017. Where does this all leave you? Where will you be as the world changes?
If I know you like I think I do… You, the Unity College graduating class of 2017 will be leading right at the heart of the change. Remember, this is my fourth year too. I’ve grown right along with you. I’ve seen your passion. I’ve heard your voice. I know what you are capable of.
I have watched you rally at 5 AM to a Search-and-Rescue callout by Dr. Womersley.
I have seen you defend yourselves from Dr. Eaton’s math experiment Zombies.
I have witnessed you cut through thick ice in 5-degree weather with Professor Spigel.
I have watched you play your hearts out in the gym, on the field, and on the course.
I have witnessed you grapple with your own diversity and I have seen you choose inclusion, and celebration, and each other.
I have watched you learn sustainability science from your first year. I have witnessed your adaptability in the face of change.
I have watched you deal with heartbreaking loss.
I have witnessed your resilience in the face of the worst adversity.
So where will you be throughout all the changes that are coming to the world? Where will you be when your peers are looking around for answers and shaking, just a little, in their boots?
Whether the biggest challenge to come is feeding a growing and aging population, sharing water when there is no clean water, habitat or community restoration, writing good policy in a time of bad actors, or reminding people of the restorative and inspirational powers of the natural world — whatever the challenge, I know you, class of 2017. I know right where you will be.
You will be leading from the front. With just enough swagger. You will be right at the heart of the work. Always at the heart.
And, twenty-five years from now, when you come back to 90 Quaker Hill Rd., we may look different on the outside just like you will look a little different on the outside, but the DNA of Unity College will be the same. Leading from the front. With just enough swagger. Just like you, we will be at the heart of the work. Always at the heart.
Congratulations, Unity College class of 2017. Your challenge is great. Your passion is astounding. Your talent is remarkable. Your leadership is limitless. You are Unit - Y.