UNITY — This isn’t a bad time to be president of Unity College.

The school received its largest incoming class this fall with more than 731 students enrolling, up 9.9 percent from last year.

But Melik Peter Khoury wants to push the school even further so a greater number of students can get an education rooted in sustainability and environmental science.

“We’ve had a number of presidents who’ve incrementally sharpened our mission a little bit,” Khoury said. “What is it that I’m going to be bringing to the table to continue that momentum?”

Khoury, 43, has been the interim president of the college since January, and the school’s board of trustees voted unanimously to appoint him the 11th president on Aug. 12.

One way Khoury is pushing Unity College forward is by piloting a distance learning program this fall that allows students to complete classes entirely online for one of the master’s programs.

The college is looking at non-traditional ways of educating the environmental leaders of the future.

“How students want to learn is changing,” he said. “The idea that students will come to school for four years is losing its relevancy.”

He wants to make college education more student-centric and flexible, as well as financially viable, he said.

Meanwhile, Unity College has managed to increase its tuition at a slower rate than other private four-year colleges, keeping tuition 15 percent below the national average. For the 2016-17 academic year, tuition is $26,370.

To Khoury, the answer to how the college has managed to keep costs for students down in an era of hyper-inflation for education is simple. “Every facility that you see here is based on a need and not because it’s just there,” he said. “We waste very little.”

The college’s expenses align with its mission as well. Unity Three is the third new dormitory on campus to be built over the past three years, and all are free from fossil fuels. The newest dormitory also features gender neutral, single-stall showers that help make the residence hall feel more like home for first-year students.

The school also built a new Collaborative Learning Center with classrooms and a student success center. With construction done, they are now working on renovations, Khoury said, 80 percent of which are complete. Since 2012, more than $20 million has been spent on campus improvements. The money came from a bond, donors, money set aside annually for operations and capital improvements and board-released cash reserves, according to spokesman Bob Mentzinger.

‘SOMETHING BIGGER THAN MYSELF’

Khoury came into higher education with degrees in business. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of Maine at Fort Kent, his master’s at the University of Maine and a doctorate in business administration at the University of Phoenix.

He chose to enter higher education because of the impact he could make.

Khoury was born in Sierra Leone and grew up in Gambia and England before immigrating to Maine.

Growing up, Khoury said he would watch “M*A*S*H” with his father. He loved the fictional home of Hawkeye — Crabapple Cove, Maine — so it made sense to move to the state where this place was, even if it wasn’t real, he said.

While he considers Maine his home, his childhood helped shape some of his perspective. “Growing up in West Africa, education is a privilege,” he said. “It was viewed by many as a way to transform your life.”

Education to him, he said, means enlightenment and bettering oneself.

If the school is successful, he said, it can affect “society as we know it.”

“I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself,” he said. “Education, in my mind, is a solution to everything.”

Khoury said his story of attaining higher education is similar to that of other students in the United States and around the world.

Khoury has worked in higher education for more than 16 years, most recently serving as senior vice president for strategic positioning at Upper Iowa University and vice president for enrollment management at Culver Stockton College before deciding he wanted to come back to Maine and then finding Unity College, where he’s worked since 2013.

“He was a change-maker at Upper Iowa,” said Andrew Wenthe, who is now vice president of external affairs.

Wenthe worked with Khoury in external affairs on a number of projects, he said, including a major reorganization of enrollment services. Khoury worked to move and integrate multiple departments, like financial aid and admissions, into one enrollment center. The system is still used today, Wenthe said.

“He was not afraid to create a necessary change,” he said.

At Unity College, Khoury instituted a leadership team made up of “chiefs” to help him run the college. One of his key strengths is his ability to foster this team dynamic, said board of trustees Chairman John Newlin.

Newlin has worked closely with Khoury at the college and said it was “not at all a difficult decision to have Melik step in as interim president” after Stephen Mulkey retired at the end of 2015. Khoury made quick progress, Newlin said, so it was also an easy decision to move forward with him as the permanent president.

In the future Newlin sees Khoury leading the college forward in its strategic plan, bringing it further into the national ring.

STUDENTS’ NEEDS

Khoury said merging a liberal arts education with an environmental mindset has become his life’s mission.

The liberal arts are what make up the tenets of a good citizen, but with the realization of the effects of climate change, Khoury said there needs to be an “overhaul” of what students learn. Sustainability and environmental stewardship need to be infused into the liberal arts education for citizens of the 21st century, he said.

An advantage the college has in the tumultuous higher education market is its clearly defined mission of environmental stewardship, he said.

“Higher education, in my mind, is going into a little bit of an identity crisis,” Khoury said. State funding is just starting to recover from the recession, according to multiple studies, the demographics of college students are projected to change dramatically over the next 10 years and studies show that finding “good” jobs is getting more difficult for recent graduates.

Many small private colleges struggle with finding a clear identity or a niche to dig into, but Unity College already had that when he arrived.

The college began as an initiative to stave off economic decline in Unity, started by a group of local business people.

“Unity College developed as an economic driver and a place for entrepreneurship and good thinking,” Khoury said. Over time, it’s adapted to deal with students’ needs and pressing issues in the world, all while looking at how it can use Maine to educate students.

Now, the college is working with research and marketing firms on a study of trends in environmental science, branding and higher education to determine the future of how students will want to learn and what kind of preparation employers will want them to have.

Gunnar Norvack, president of the Student Government Association, said he sees the college moving in a positive direction with Khoury at the helm.

“His leadership style is not authoritarian,” Norvack said. He said he knows students who email Khoury directly and get responses.

Khoury will also join in fun projects that students do, like trying to calculate the spread of viruses using Nerf guns. Norvack and Khoury even outfitted a golf cart together to hand out ice cream and water bottles to students who were moving in.

“I have a very good relationship with Melik, as do many students, so it’s not unique,” Norvack said.

FOCUSING ON FACTS

Khoury also wants to focus on Maine and finding a way to truly make Maine the college’s classroom. Students already have opportunities to interact with the community through the school and get chances at experiential learning, and 18 percent of the student body had internships this past summer, according to Mentzinger. The same idea applies to classes, as well.

“In many if not most courses … there’s a real live research or active component,” Khoury said.

For example, just last summer students did research with professors on Allen Island. There are also students working in nature reserves with jaguars in South Africa. One student won a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency to conduct research on Unity Pond.

This is all to ensure that the first time students are exposed to what they want to do in their careers isn’t their first day on the job, but rather well beforehand.

Khoury would like to expand that kind of learning, while maintaining a well-rounded liberal arts curriculum.

“I have an obligation … to make this college better every day,” Khoury said.

His hope is for Unity College to become a driving research-based university in the country that allows students to learn about the environment without political rhetoric getting in the way. He explained that while he doesn’t think Unity College ever had a bias, he sees the world becoming more partisan. Khoury said he wants the college to be about the science and research, not making arguments that suit people’s purposes.

“All perspectives are welcome as long as it’s grounded in fact, regardless of rhetoric,” Khoury said. “You don’t have to be against someone to be for something.”

He envisions students on either side of the political spectrum learning the facts and analyzing the data of the same topics to learn the answers to how and why something happened.

“Taking a position means nothing,” he said. “I want us to be arbiters of fact.”

Madeline St. Amour – 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @madelinestamour