Transcription of Dr. Melik Peter Khoury for the show Unity: Education, Search & Rescue #287

Lisa Belisle: My next guest is Dr. Melik Peter Khoury who is president of Unity College. He started at Unity in 2012 as the senior vice president for external affairs, following positions at Upper Iowa University, Culver-Stockton College, Paul Smith’s College, and the University of Maine at Fort Kent, among other places I understand. You’ve been all over the place.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yes, it’s been a wonderful career in higher education.
Lisa Belisle: You started your whole life out, your whole life journey, in Sierra Leone.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yes. I was actually born in a small country called Sierra Leone in West Africa. I grew up in a small country called the Gambia, which is known as the Smiling Coast of West Africa, to a Lebanese father and an English mother and spent a little bit of time in England before coming to the States, so I’ve been all over the world.
Lisa Belisle: Why did you decide that higher education was your calling?
Melik Peter Khoury: Growing up in West Africa, the perspective of higher education, or education as a whole, is so different from that in the United States. It’s such a privilege that only a few get the ability to get an education. Once I got the ability to get an education, I realized that I would like to dedicate my life to making sure that anyone who wants an education, who deserves an education, should get one. Looking at the higher education system in the United States, it’s probably one of the most forward-thinking industries in the world, and what better way to spend your life than to continue to work within that industry to make sure that anybody who wants an education gets one?
Lisa Belisle: What is it specifically about higher education that appeals to you?
Melik Peter Khoury: Absolutely. I think that as a society, the world is getting smaller. With the advent of technology, the whole idea of global citizens, it becomes very important that in addition to learning how to do a skill, an individual needs to understand where their place is in the world. Being able to communicate, cultural competency, and so the idea of a well-rounded individual comes as part of higher education. The liberal arts and sciences are a really good base for everyone who wants education. You get that, you learn a skill, and you become a well-rounded individual who is a global citizen and able to basically function in a world that’s getting smaller, where cultural competency is a key element in basically the survival of our planet.
Lisa Belisle: Unity is a very unique place. It’s a very unique college. It’s only been around for….
Melik Peter Khoury: 51 years.
Lisa Belisle: So it’s relatively young. It’s in the center, roughly the center of Maine. You have really quite the diversity of things that you offer students for such a small place.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yeah, I mean, we are America’s environmental college. Our entire curriculum is based on the very concept of sustainability science, which means that everything we do is designed to be relevant in the green economy. We understand that no matter what you’re going to do in life, there is nothing, no job that you are going to take, no career that you are going to have, that does not interact with our natural resources. Whether it’s in agriculture, in energy, in conservation law, in policy, we understand that our students need to have that based on education.
We focus on the environmental sciences. We are very proud of that, and we’ve got an array of majors within that, but our job is to make sure that these students grow up to be… I love saying this, global citizens, and that’s our mission in life. It’s adding that concept of theory and application, the liberal arts and sciences and a career into a student, whether they’re going to go to grad school or get a job in their industry.
Lisa Belisle: What type of student do you tend to attract to Unity College?
Melik Peter Khoury: Sure. Right now, we have a national draw. About 70% of our student population is from out of state, but predominantly anybody who really wants to work in the environmental career. We’ve got a lot of conservation law enforcement students, captive wildlife care education students, outdoor recreation, adventure therapy. A lot of first generation Americans, first generation students, sorry, and folks who really want to be, kind of, work in the tactile environment. We’re highly experiential. We’re highly immersive. We really believe that our students need to not just learn from a textbook with the hard sciences, but apply that within the field. A lot of students who really want kind of that immersion of both the theory and the application get to be attracted to Unity College.
Lisa Belisle: When you describe a first generation student, you mean a student who is the first in their family to go to college.
Melik Peter Khoury: Yes. About 85% of our student population actually are first generation students. They’re the first to go to college in this field. It’s actually a real feather in our cap as a private school. There is the misnomer about affordability, and we are very proud of the fact that compared to our peers, on the national scale, our tuition is very, very affordable. We give some good scholarships for those who want to come there, but most importantly, the value that families have in investing in going to a college like Unity is paid off because if you were to look at our alums, we are very proud of them, working in the federal… in federal, state jobs, as entrepreneurs, and so families understand that going to a private school, they get a high touch, highly immersive education and it’s really applicable into an industry. Our placement rates into grad school, into getting to careers is quite high, which is a value proposition for us.
Lisa Belisle: Have you noticed over the time that you’ve been in higher education that families are expecting more, that their children will come out and be able to get a job and have this investment that they’ve made in their children’s education pay off?
Melik Peter Khoury: Absolutely. I think the entire industry is wrestling with that a little bit, too, because I would say until about 20 years ago, it was just… you get to go to college. The experience of being at college was in many ways enough. With the deduction of GI bills in the late 70s, the more that the concept of higher education has expanded to all Americans because back then, less and less people went to college. It was really for a special few. The idea of what does this degree… what is It worth? It becomes as important as going to college. With the changing demographics in the United States, first generation Americans, an increase in demographic changes, the very value of what it means to go to college is changing.
One of the things I think that Unity College has been able to do over the last ten years is show a family that you don’t have to choose between a career and being a well-rounded student. The way we teach students really gives them a sense of what they’re going to be doing, and families really respond to that because they’re not just sending their students to Unity College in order to just get the experience and whatever happens after that happens, but really with a focus on what is my daughter, what is my son going to do after they graduate? Which is why Unity College, we are very proud of the fact that for a small college like Unity, we have one of the largest environmental career fairs in New England. Just a few weeks ago, we had over 100 organizations come to Unity College. It’s gotten so popular. We’re now opening it to some other colleges. We’re opening it to the local community for people who are looking for jobs. We understand that every family that sends their daughter or their son to Unity is either looking to go and work in a career in the environmental sciences or they’re looking to go to grad school.
They are not just coming to Unity for the idea of going to college, and I think our mission, our dedication to that outcome, is why I think we are doing the things that we’re doing right now and where we are investing in our faculty, where we are investing in our partnerships, and why I know that families from all over the country are coming to Unity College for their children to go to.
We are also beginning to expand in our master’s program, where we have a number of individuals in middle management jobs across the country who are looking for their master’s degree, so we introduce the concept of a professional science master’s degree in natural resource management, sustainability science, and so we are expanding that market as well because there’s a lot of folks out there, adults, who can’t come to the traditional four year but really want an education.
Lisa Belisle: You’ve talked about developing Maine as Education Land. What does that mean?
Melik Peter Khoury: Absolutely. As an individual who is a first generation American and living in Vacation Land, it’s really interesting for me that Maine has three climate zones. Our natural resources is abundant. From the coast to the northern Maine woods to the urban lifestyle of Portland, we have such a beautiful landscape that it’s surprising to me. I think last year, over four million tourists drove up Route 1 to Bar Harbor. Why aren’t they dropping their kids off to go to college? Why isn’t Maine the center of natural resource education across the world? If you look at what we have to offer as a state, I don’t think any state should be able to compete with us. We are resource-rich, Mainers are hard-working, the land, the landscape is beautiful. We have wonderful colleges here. In my mind, as much as I love Maine being Vacation Land, I think that if Maine could become Education Land, we would jumpstart yet another economy where it’s not just a few that come to Maine for education, but anybody who wants to learn how to work in the environmental century. For me, Education Land means if we are going to….
I think Portland Press Herald a couple of years ago printed an article that we had like 48 million visitors to Maine? I’m assuming those numbers are right, I didn’t fact-check them, but why aren’t they dropping off their kids here? Why isn’t Maine one huge Education Land where students are learning firsthand how to work in what is becoming global issues: energy, agriculture, forest management, conservation, preservation. It’s a perfect state for it. For me, we are already at Unity College making Maine our classroom. Our students are in all four corners of the state of Maine. We’re learning how to apply their craft as part of the education. For me, it’s just surprising that the entire state does not just adopt that.
Lisa Belisle: What are the barriers?
Melik Peter Khoury: I think higher education has a very… it’s a very old industry. There’s a way we do things and sometimes, we enjoy teaching what we want, instead of what folks need. I think the very concept of education, the industry right now, is in flux. I know that the public trust on education…. Is it valuable, like to your earlier question. I think the entire model was built on historically, where it was designed with a model that no longer is valuable in my mind. I think a lot of colleges are trying to reinvent themselves.
I think we’re stuck within that cycle of this is what we do. I think for me, one of my biggest fears is if we as an industry, I’m talking higher education, does not really reinvent itself to remain independent but relevant to the folks who hire our students, then we are going to lose out because education is always going to be there, but the very nature of our industry, I think needs to be reinvented because spending four years of your life or two years of your life or six years of your life at a college needs to be more than just an experience, but a value-added that prepares you for the world.
I think the model needs to be looked at, which is why at Unity College, we are starting to ask the question, how do we remain independent, but yet remain relevant? How does the very idea of…. This idea of… I hate this adage, they say those who can’t do, teach. That bothers me as a lifelong educator. I want to tell the world, “No, my faculty? They can teach, but they also do.” Right? When my biologist professor gets done in the lab with her students learning about a specific tardigrade for example as part of the…. They go out to the ocean and actually two years ago, discovered a new species of tardigrade.
Lisa Belisle: What is it?
Melik Peter Khoury: A tardigrade is a microscopic sea creature that basically lives off the coast of Maine. In my mind, faculty, they are the ones who carry the innovation. They are the ones who basically bestow knowledge on students. However, with the creation of technology, you can get information out of your phone right now, so how do we take the information as readily available, the technology that is there and teach students how to be global citizens.
For me, that’s the answer is that we have to design a new model so that the public understands that going to college is more than just what you see in the movies and reduced it down to just an experience, but more about preparing yourselves to becoming a responsible global citizen within a global economy. I think that what’s stopping us is, the model hasn’t been built yet. What we’re trying to do is figure out what that model is. It’s an industry that needs to reinvent itself a little bit. Now don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot of colleges out there doing this, so it’s not like it’s a novel concept, but as an industry, we have some work to do.
Lisa Belisle: Do you have ideas on how to build this new model?
Melik Peter Khoury: We are actually right…. We have a lot of ideas how to do that, and I think what makes Unity College really special is we are small enough, we are nimble enough that we are a great incubator for this idea. Right now, Unity College is going through a multi-year market research about how students want to learn, what are the trends in the environmental sciences. We’re working on this idea that, why do we have to separate the concept of a good education with practical applicability of what students do? We have, for example, a team on campus right now working on the first and second year experience, because as a private college, we’ve got some flexibility in what does a student need to learn as a baseline for the 21st century? What is the core learning?
A lot of folks talk about the liberal arts and sciences. If you trace it back to its roots, the concept came from Greece. It was adopted by the Romans, but they added military service to it, and it was then co-opted by the United States higher education, and the idea for the liberal arts and sciences is, what is the core that every citizen should know in addition to their career? Maybe it’s time we took a really hard look at that and see what does a 21st century student need to learn in this modern society as the rules continue to change?
At the same time, while knowing that, how do you connect that to a global economy so that when students graduate, they have a career that is relevant, that is fulfilling, but not at the expense of just knowing how to do something, but understanding why. Those are the conversations that we are having with the first and second year. We are looking also at this idea that in higher education, there is the concept of you learn in a vacuum, you go to an internship, then you go to a job and then they got to reteach you how to…. Why are those elements separate? Why aren’t institutions partnering more rapidly with organizations, corporations, where by the time a student graduates, that they’ve got an opportunity to have actually experienced it. Not just one semester, but as part of the very ethos of how they learn.
I would love to see at Unity someday where every career that we offer, every major that we offer, we have a living enterprise that is a manifestation of that. For example, we have a sustainable agriculture program. About ten years ago, the only way we taught that is we had a mock greenhouse, a small patch of land. Now we have a real life farm. We have 25 students working there as work-study. We have a farm manager. We have faculty members doing research there, whether it’s reviving chestnuts in the Northeast or how to use a greenhouse to be more efficient because of some of the energy concerns. All of a sudden, we are blending this very idea that you’ve got an industry and you’ve got higher ed, and you’re using this both commercially because a farmer is selling food, is selling produce, sorry, but at the same time, we are a community-based center where local folks sell their products there, but it’s also an educational facility where our students and our faculty get to experience.
You all of a sudden are blending these worlds that are historically separate. Why not do the same for all of our different careers? For me, the idea is how do we take the wonderful majors that we have and really have living manifestations of them that are sustainable enterprises, not just like…. I want to debunk this idea of it’s an academic exercise which ultimately means nothing happens to, it’s an academic exercise means it’s an innovative idea that manifests itself into a sustainable enterprise. For us, that is the work that we’re doing right now, and it’s a risk. It’s a change in philosophy, so all of the truists go, “Whoa, this is not how higher education needs to work,” but we are small enough, we are dedicated enough, we are passionate enough, that if we are successful, I think we will partner with major organizations across the state of Maine, across New England, across the country, and our students get the best of both worlds and graduate ready to be the next employee, the next innovator, the next entrepreneur that is working in the green industry. That is our goal.
Lisa Belisle: Considering that you were born in Sierra Leone and you’ve been really all over the place, why would you choose to spend so much time in Maine? Why would you choose to have this be your home state?
Melik Peter Khoury: I’ve said this a few times before. It’s a bit of a hokey story, but I can’t help it because it has the benefit of being true. I grew up in the hospitality industry with my father. After work, I would stay up late for him to come home, and we would always watch episodes of “M*A*S*H.” For me, there was this Hawkeye Pierce, who used to write letters to his father in Crabapple Cove in Maine. When it was time for me to go into the world, I fell in love with the concept of Crabapple Cove.
Now granted, it’s not a real place, but after seven years of watching “M*A*S*H” with your dad, I just fell in love with the concept of Maine. I came to Maine and really fell in love with the St. John Valley. I moved up to Fort Kent. It is a beautiful small town. Very well insulated, very friendly. The entire town adopted me, not just the university. I coached in Fort Kent, so I got to travel all over the state. I really fell in love. The idea of what happened with Hawkeye Pierce and his father manifested in my life as I communicated with my father in Gambia because I was in the States and just fell in love with the state.
There’s everything in the state of Maine. There’s the ocean, like I said earlier. I could not think of another state I’d want to live at. When I decided to move on for my career, my hope was always to come back. Originally, I was going to go for about three years, and six-and-a-half years later, I got the right opportunity to come back to Unity College. For me, barring any unforeseen issue, I’m hoping to die in Maine. I fell in love with the state, and I think as a first generation American, as a first generation Mainer, I have an appreciation for this state. I have an appreciation for the four seasons. I have an appreciation for everything that this state has to offer that I think just some of my peers and my colleagues take for granted. For me, it’s not just I love Unity College, it’s not just I love higher education, but I get to do it in a state that actually met the expectations of my dreams.
Lisa Belisle: You have a lot of interesting ideas about higher education and also about Unity College. Where do you hope to see yourself let’s say 20 or 30 years, where do you hope to see Unity College? Do you think you’ll be in the same place?
Melik Peter Khoury: Why not? For me, I think that this concept of the grass is always greener is not necessarily a real thing. No matter where I go, I am going to be trading one opportunity for another, one problem for another. If I could work with my faculty and my staff and my trustees and my community at Unity College and turn Unity College into a model of what small private higher ed needs to be in the next 25 years, with the resources to allow for innovation yet the practical application in partnering with industry, in 25 years, I could see my direct reports, I could see myself, really using the model that we built as a way to infuse that into higher education across the country. I would love to be a destination in which people could come and see all of our sights across Maine, all of the partnerships we have with other businesses, all of the innovations that we have in preparing students, as a living embodiment of how other small private colleges and other colleges could use pieces of what we have created as a way to keep this industry sustained.
For me, success is, Unity College becomes the model with which different schools get to adopt, to keep this what I consider a very, very critical piece of our society, higher education, alive and well. Because one of my concerns is I’m beginning to see us losing this notion that a lot of the world wants, which is the very concept of higher education, liberal arts and science education, based with a career. We’re getting sometimes into too much credentialing and not enough education. There’s a lot of rhetoric out there as if it was an either/or. Either you are this out of touch liberal where you learn to think and can’t do anything, which is a stereotype I don’t agree with, or you are a widget fixer and God forbid you know why you’re fixing the widget. I think those two stereotypes is what’s wrong today with society and we need to really go back to our roots, which is combining the liberal arts and sciences while preparing folks for a career or graduate school.
For me, if Unity College, using our framework of sustainability science to merge theory and application and relevance, becomes a new model, then I’m hoping that for me in 25 years, I have built something that will stand the test of time, and that for me is the definition of success. If every student in the world who wants an education can get one, and they get an education, not just a credential, not just a GPA, and one of the major issues that we’re dealing right now in higher education is tuition. If we can find a model that makes tuition manageable, where this concept of just keep increasing tuition until it’s out of reach for the people who need it the most, then I think I would have been successful. You can’t do that with the traditional approach where students come, learn and go because the old adage is you get a huge endowment. Not every college has that opportunity. How do you keep tuition manageable so that the students who deserve an education do not have it because they can’t afford it? That’s a very complex situation that deals with the relevancy of education and the practicality of its affordability. That is the model I’d love to… I am working on, that hopefully can change the industry over the next ten years.
Lisa Belisle: Tell me about your model, just a little bit.
Melik Peter Khoury: Sure. I think right now, we in higher education really have been experts in siloing the different aspects of what we do. Whether it’s disciplines, whether it’s… what we define as education. For me, the model is going to be creating some sort of partnership and flexibility within the curriculum that does not affect the core of what you have to learn, but allows the students the flexibility to not have to stop their life for four years or two years, and one of the ways that that has been manifested right now is through the concept of online learning, but even then, the online learning has become almost a separate entity from the traditional education, and I think that’s a merging of the two. The creation of flexibility. The working more with organizations and corporations and government in order to find out what they are looking for in a workforce and giving them those students, not having to choose between the worker and the thinker, but really the well-rounded, is the model that I would like to create. One is changing sometimes even the definition of what it means to be a faculty, because right now, some of the best faculty in the world, including some of them at Unity, they don’t just teach in their class, but they’re out there with their students. They are connecting them. They have partnerships.
For example, our agriculture faculty member. He has personal relationships with different farms, and our agriculture students get to work with real-life farmers on a day-to-day basis. He is not just some academic who’s sitting in the classroom teaching from a book, going out to a plot of grass and then saying to the student, “Go and figure it out for yourself.” How do we create that connection? Because what I’m beginning to see, even in large corporations, is that they are beginning to go back to the old apprenticeship, where they’re training their own people for jobs, but if we let that happen, we lose a core element of our society, which is the well-rounded student. How do we merge that?
There’s also become a blur in the US between what is the role of a for-profit, of a private school, of an R1, of a four year school, of a community college, of a trade school. There’s a huge blue. The market is confused about who should go to what and why and what are the benefits and the like. Creating the clarity, making sure that we all do what we do best for our society, is a complex conversation. For me, I think it is partnering with industries outside of the traditional norm of higher ed to create something that does not exist today.
Lisa Belisle: I’m 100% behind what you just said….
Melik Peter Khoury: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: Having many, many years of education myself, I’m hoping that you are going to be leading the charge or part of the forefront dealing with the higher education issues. I’ve been speaking with Dr. Melik Khoury, who is the president of Unity College, starting in 2012 as the senior vice president for external affairs and then following additional positions in multiple places really across the state and the country. You’re doing good work. Keep it up.
Melik Peter Khoury: Thank you.