Unity College, a small, four-year, private institution in Unity, is embarking on a number of projects as it rethinks higher education, broadens its reach and improves its diversity. The college recently hired Rana Johnson for the new position of chief diversity and inclusion officer and promoted Erika Latty to chief academic officer to accomplish those goals. The two are working on strategies in separate areas to transform the Unity College experience, examining the two-semester academic calendar and taking notes on the current campus climate and how it could be improved to increase inclusivity.

RANA JOHNSON

When Melik Khoury began looking for a candidate to fill the newly created position of chief diversity and inclusion officer at Unity College, he didn’t want to fall into the hole other universities have.

“I think many institutions that struggle with this make the mistake that diversity and inclusion is a separate department that works with multicultural students,” said Khoury, who is president of the college.

Instead, he wanted someone who understood that this department had to get every student and every staff member involved.

Khoury found that understanding in Rana Johnson, who previously worked for the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education as the senior associate for diversity outreach and special projects.

Early in June, only about a month after moving from Kentucky to central Maine, Johnson already had met with seven of the nine other chief officers at the college, her first step in researching the current climate of Unity.

“Diversity is not one person’s or one office’s responsibility,” she said. “It takes a village to graduate one student, and it takes a village to reach strategic planning goals. It’s not one department’s responsibility, whether that is a white student, an Hispanic student, an (Americans with Disabilities Act) student or a student from the LGBTQ community.”

Johnson, 50, grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. Her mother had only a 10th-grade education and raised her as a single parent, but she found the time to impress the importance of education on Johnson, teaching her how to read and write by the time she was 3 years old.

Johnson went on to be a first-generation college graduate, completing a degree in communications at Spalding University before continuing on to receive master’s and doctoral degrees. Her nieces and nephews all have pursued higher education, she said, and one is providing testimony in Washington, D.C., on the importance of programs that involve studying abroad.

“That’s why it’s important to encourage low-income and diverse students to pursue education,” she said.

In Kentucky, Johnson coordinated the state’s eight public universities and 16 community and technical colleges to close achievement gaps, improve accessibility and increase diversity, equity and inclusion across the board.

Diversity, Johnson said, can come in a variety of ways, including race, veteran status, political leanings, income levels and disabilities. It also can include people underrepresented in their fields, such as men in nursing programs and women in science or mathematics programs.

Ensuring inclusion means “creating an environment conducive to learning,” where everyone at the campus feels appreciated, from maintenance staff to students to the president.

Ensuring equity, Johnson said, means ensuring people have access to “the rules and the norms that enable them to be successful, as well as resources to enable them to not just simply enroll, but to be retained and eventually graduate.”

Awareness is also important, she said, as sometimes people believe everyone should get the same resources.

“But that is not quite true, because different individuals grow up in various environments and circumstances that do not enable them to compete at the same level as someone that may have unlimited resources,” Johnson said. “We have to ensure equity before we can ensure equality.”

For example, many low-income and minority students attend grade schools with limited funding and resources, which can put them at a disadvantage compared to wealthier peers.

To raise the faculty’s level of understanding, Johnson won’t be teaching them, she said.

“I don’t think you teach them,” she said. “You have them engage in conversations or acts, so that they can better understand people who aren’t like them.”

Identifying which students need additional supports is an important part of promoting inclusion, she said.

“The great thing about Unity is there is a small teacher-student ratio,” she said. The ratio is about 11 students for every professor, making it easy for a teacher to spot areas in which a student might need help.

The college already has support services as well, she said, such as a wellness center, writing center and tutoring services.

Before Johnson decides what to do at Unity, she’ll first gather “as much information as possible” through listening to her peers.

“I try to avoid assuming I know how to fix a problem or circumstance without first learning from the individuals who are looking to meet a goal,” she said.

Johnson also will study Unity’s current data and the campus community to discover what diversity should look like at the college.

Currently, the number of diverse employees at the college is less than 10 percent. The student racial diversity numbers for the fall of 2015 showed that about 92 percent of the 665 enrolled students were white, 0.8 percent were African-American and 1.8 percent were Hispanic, with the rest split among Asian, Native American, or multiracial students.

Johnson plans to look beyond race to the international student body, veterans, first-generation students and LGBTQ students. She will create a diversity plan to go along with the college’s strategic plan.

She doesn’t anticipate it will be a challenge to bring more diverse students to the small private college in central Maine, even though it’s in the whitest state in the nation, with a population that is about 95 percent white, according to U.S. Census data.

“I came here. I was from a large city,” Johnson said. “It takes just one person with an open mind to change a campus climate and a campus culture, and hopefully find like-minded individuals who are willing to offer their assistance and support.”

Johnson’s first impression of the town of Unity, she said, was, “This is a small community,” but it was similar to where she earned her master’s, at Eastern New Mexico University.

Her second impression, she said, was that she had some work to do, but she also had a lot of support from the college’s leadership. She’s hopeful that they’ll begin to attract more diversity to the school, expanding Unity’s reach and broadcasting its unique offerings to a wider, more diverse population that might not be aware of the college.

“I was impressed with Unity College,” she said. “They’re engaging in some really unique work. I wanted to be part of what is to come.”

ERIKA LATTY

Erika Latty was a pre-medical school student at Harvard University when she found her true calling in botany — the study of plants.

After working for Unity College, which bills itself as “America’s environmental college,” for nearly a decade as a professor and later a dean, Latty is now its chief academic officer.

Her path toward ecology and away from the medical sciences began with a research project over summer break during her undergraduate years at what is now known as the Carey Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Milbrook, New York. The experience combined her love of science with the environment, she said, prompting her to sign up for as many ecological classes as possible during her senior year, even as she finished her biology degree.

Latty, 45, followed her new passion and went on to get a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University. She said she’s particularly interested in “how science can inform forest management practices,” evident in her research on issues such as the distribution of eastern hemlock spruce trees throughout Maine.

Latty was first hired as an assistant professor at Unity College, teaching classes on botany, agroecology and biology.

As a professor, she filled a number of faculty leadership roles, she said, performing program reviews, working as the college’s center director and leading the faculty planning committee.

She enjoyed the work so much, she said, she decided to apply for an open full-time administrative position.

Latty has been the dean of the School of Environmental Citizenship since July 2016, where she was in charge of the school’s academic programming. She enjoys the strategic development aspects of her administrative work, which led her to her current position.

Latty is joining the chief officers’ staff during a key time in the history of the college, as it works to find a way to “deliver a fairly priced education to the largest number of people” possible, she said.

To do that, they’re splitting Unity in two.

The campus in the small town of a little over 2,000 in Waldo County will remain the flagship, but the college is looking at how it can bring its unique education to students across the country virtually.

Latty said the college wants to be available to students going back to school later in life, those who are busy parents, or those who have to keep working while attending school.

College President Melik Khoury noted this in his commencement speech in May, saying, “Unity College must expand our impact in order to achieve the mission of America’s environmental college. … We must bring the Unity experience to the places where they are needed the most. Adult learners should not be expected to uproot their families and leave their jobs. … Young people should not be required to put their lives on hold to get this education.”

Much of Khoury’s speech was about change, and the quickening pace of change in both higher education and the environment. The college has a number of projects in the air now, all of which Latty is working on, to evolve with and ahead of those changes.

The school is experimenting with the traditional model of a two-semester academic year to find what would make the most sense for the college and its students. A yearlong academic calendar might make more sense, Latty said, and offer more opportunities for hands-on learning and for those who are nontraditional students.

The school also won a $291,000 grant from the Davis Educational Foundation to think about reshaping a student’s first two years in college.

Latty said school officials want to focus on how freshmen and sophomores can “develop not just content knowledge, but also skills and do immersive learning experiences.”

The grant is one part of an ongoing project that will cost about $4 million and launch in the fall of 2020.

“We’ve always had a strong curriculum focused on environmental science,” Latty said. Now, the school is looking for ways to “improve the rigor of the programs” as well as the availability.

The college also has created a new major in sustainable business enterprise, which builds on its existing strengths, she said.

It adds a “foundational suite of business courses” that could pair with agriculture courses, ecotourism, adventure therapy and more.

“It’s an exciting major,” she said.

At the same time the college is evolving, the student population is growing. Latty is focused on keeping up with the growth, hiring faculty members and offering enough courses to sustain it.

Underneath all the changes lies Unity’s mission: “to prepare and educate environmental leaders,” she said.

To do this, the college teaches every topic and course through the lens of sustainability science — including subjects such as art or policy.

“I think it’s the trans-disciplinary nature of our curriculum that makes us unique and makes us valuable to a wide variety of students with different interests,” Latty said. “We’re not a one-size-fits-all.”

Sustainability science works off the principle that “we live in a closed system, so there’s a limited supply of resources available for use,” she said. We have to think of how to use those resources over a long period of time, and Unity feels the pressure to graduate people “who can find solutions to the challenges that are facing us.”

This is part of what makes Unity unique. While the students might have different backgrounds, upbringings or political views, she said, they’re all united by the mission of sustainability, and they all believe in its importance.

“The environmental challenges don’t go away,” she said. “Over time, we’ve done a good job keeping up with the challenges that we face, but there’s always room for change.”

Madeline St. Amour — 861-9239

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Twitter: @madelinestamour