When Unity Environmental University adopted the idea of “America’s Environmental College,” as our institutional aspiration in the late nineteen-nineties, some challenged the legitimacy of the claim. At the time, Unity Environmental University had exactly zero LEED certified or certifiable buildings, and electricity still came in part from fossil fuel power plants. Recycling was done by students, if at all. The Environmental Stewardship general education curriculum was new and unproven.
Much changed in the following years. Unity Environmental University executed several sustainability firsts: first Passive House standard residence hall, first energy-neutral president’s residence, and first to divest our investment portfolio from fossil fuels. In recent years, the college’s integration of dining, catering, and the McKay Farm and Research Station is winning national awards in food service, and our Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education rating is among the best in the country. While there is still a long way to go, and much to be done, America’s Environmental College is now recognized as a national leader in environmental science education. But that is not enough.
Just as the phrase “America’s Environmental College,” inspired efforts to walk the talk with regard to sustainability and the environment, in order to fully achieve America’s Environmental College, Unity Environmental University must now live up to the other two-thirds of that bold aspiration.
Serving Today’s Audiences
To be America’s Environmental College, Unity Environmental University must find ways to more fully serve the nation and live up to the best of American tradition: the commitment of service to the whole world. Achieving America’s Environmental College means living up to the best of what “America,” means to this nation, all its people, and the world.
Being student-centric must go beyond scheduling around the students we have, providing service to the students we have, and offering programs that better fit the students who already come. Being audience-centric must mean responding to students we don’t yet have, service to people and organizations we don’t yet know, meeting needs not yet identified, providing services and programs we haven’t yet imagined, and marshaling resources and networks we don’t yet have.
Unity Environmental University must better represent America, and the world. Demographic and socio-economic shifts make committing the necessary time and money to a dedicated residential experience an increasingly exclusive proposition. And the world needs more Unity Environmental University educated leaders, not fewer.
A Model for Small Private Higher Education
As the very value, purpose, and viability of institutions of higher education are being challenged, Unity Environmental University must help small private colleges evolve as an industry in order to itself flourish and lead as America’s Environmental College.
Unity Environmental University has thoroughly researched the opposing forces of student needs, university objectives, and the marketplace, and has identified Enterprise Education as our disruptive approach. In order to achieve America’s Environmental College, we must, in all of our strategic initiatives, find ways to address the biggest pain point of higher education: affordable, accessible, value-oriented education. Enterprise Education will accomplish this by offering students the opportunity to learn beyond traditional coursework and acquire resume-worthy experience at any Unity Environmental University location, thus diversifying revenue.
Higher education finds itself in a position very few would have predicted in the late nineties when it appeared that the major challenge during the next century would be largely limited to demographic changes. Now that even the most basic assumptions about the institutions of higher education and the value of our degrees are being challenged by circumstances, we find ourselves having to reinvent the very notion of what university must be.
Unity Environmental University must look to its own viability and beyond. A new approach to relevance and vitality is necessary in order to flourish as an university, but also in order to provide a model for what an university of the twenty-first century might be – in terms of teaching and learning, fiscal sustainability, place and modality, and service to new audiences.
Sharing the Stories of Unity Environmental University
Sharing means more than telling. Sharing is an invitation. Unity Environmental University must engage all audiences in authentically co-creating interwoven narratives of knowledge, community, and even university re-imagination.
Some of the very people who might benefit most may not even know that an environmental education or life of professional service in environmental fields are an option. The issue is a complex one, involving job recruitment practices, the aspirations of first-generation college goers and their families, a lack of exposure to nature at an early age, and more. The reality is that fields associated with the environment, for whatever reason, do not reflect global, or even national, demographics. Unity Environmental University must engage underrepresented populations in co-creating stories about the environment, about community resilience, about individuals, and about the college itself in order to foster new aspirations. For Unity Environmental University and for the people, organizations, and companies we might serve.
Sharing stories also means thought leadership. At times of disruption, industry leaders must emerge. Industry narratives coalesce around emerging leaders and emerging solutions. Eventually, stories of chaos and confusion give way to stories of hope, clarity, and vision. Sharing stories means offering a narrative of hope based on successful solutions and hard-won execution. But it also means convening the conversation, providing a platform and amplifying other voices, and outlining a bold framework and an overarching narrative in which other individuals and institutions can see themselves and a way to the future.