Stephen Mulkey was named president of Unity College nearly four years ago and immediately set out to remake the school.

He said sustainability is now the framework for academic programming at the school, which bills itself as “America’s Environmental College,” and currently has 600 students. Mulkey said Maine is a perfect setting for such a college and the state should be leading the way in preparing for and trying to mitigate climate change. He also led Unity’s divestment of its $15 million endowment, getting rid of holdings in leading fossil fuel-based companies, becoming the first major college to do so in the United States. Before coming to Maine, Mulkey co-founded the International Center for Tropical Ecology at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. He holds a bachelor’s degree in fisheries and wildlife, a master’s degree in ecology and a doctorate in ecology.

Q: Why focus immediately on sustainability?

A: Sustainability is a central element of a knowledge-based economy. Reductions in emissions and those sorts of things are important, but they’re just a starting point. It’s the management of continued life on this planet for human beings. At Unity College, we’re focused on natural resources and Maine has the perfect laboratory classroom for that. It’s an easy sell because Maine is all about natural resources, so we have the perfect location for teaching sustainability science, which is a new way of understanding environmental problems. It’s not interdisciplinary, it’s transdisciplinary.

Q: How does that manifest itself in the classroom?

A: For the first time in human history, everybody has access to virtually all knowledge, so the role of a faculty is to structure the problem and help the students find the information and vet it. I’ve been told that undergraduates aren’t ready to think in that manner, but my experience has been that’s not the case. So what we’re trying to do here is different than what’s done in other colleges.

Q: How does Unity College fit in with other higher education institutions in Maine?

A: Maine is in trouble. I’ve never seen a university system in such disarray and I’m deeply concerned. It’s got good bones; it’s well-respected around the nation. That’s nothing to throw away lightly. The Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine is recognized as one of the best such centers in the world. But I’m very concerned about the kind of funding I see there, and it’s certainly threatened by the severe financial situation they have. So we have to have a national brand and national reputation for what we do. Sixty percent of our students come from away. We think what’s drawing them to the college is the emphasis and the focus on sustainability. We’re the first college in the nation to divest our portfolio (of holdings in companies that are heavily involved in fossil fuels) and we’re effective in marketing the college. This year we’ll have the highest enrollment in the history of the college and next fall we’ll have our maximum enrollment.

Q: Doesn’t divestment threaten Unity’s finances?

A: There is no financial penalty to divesting. The literature shows that again and again and again. We have beaten our own index and all the other market indices, sometimes by a wide margin. If we start to lose the return, it won’t be a consequence of divestment. That’s a fundamental misunderstanding of divestment.

Q: Is it difficult to figure out which companies are heavily involved in fossil fuels, given the broad reach of some of the big multinationals?

A: It’s very difficult, and if you’ve got a large number of derivative or hedge funds, it’s hard to tell what they’re in. It’s easy to be a cynic about this, but if you have a broker, it’s his problem, not your problem. Aligning those things in an era of climate change is imperative. Apartheid, as important as is was to make a statement on apartheid, it pales by comparison to climate change. If we don’t get serious about climate change, we’re screwed and the generations behind us are screwed. Getting out of coal is a low-hanging fruit. Divestment takes time and you have to do it in an orderly manner.

Q: How was your interest in divestment sparked?

A: What happened is a member of the community called me and said institutions of learning were being asked to divest and I pulled out of my pocket every rationalization that everyone has to avoid that. But I knew the ethical imperative was real. There was no crass marketing advantage that we were trying to seek, but this has resulted in extensive publicity because we were the first in the nation to do so and the first to focus on sustainability as the framework.

I saw divesting as an ethical imperative and when I went to our broker, they were initially taken aback and said that it would be tough, but they took it seriously and came up with a plan to satisfy all the fiduciary concerns for the board. The question was, “Would we lose money?” and the answer was “No.” I almost fell out of my chair that the board voted unanimously to do it. But the word fiduciary also includes a moral duty to the institution.

Q: What’s your next priority for Unity College?

A: Our next step is to build our graduate programs – we’re building graduate degrees in three areas: In sustainability science, including climate-change sustainability science; in management of ecological change; and the third is sustainable management of natural resources. The second one is critical and climate zones are going to change dramatically across the state. Those are really sobering patterns and I don’t see any proactive planning (in the state). If you know what kind of forest you want in Maine in 2070 and you know that climate zones are on the move at accelerating rates, you need to manage that forest today for what it will be in 2070 and none of that is happening. We have to get off a focus on individual species in individual locations – we need a much more dramatic approach. All of this assumes that at some point we will have stopped climate change and if we don’t, all bets are off, but we have a window of opportunity for proactive adaptation, which is far less expensive and disruptive than reactive adaptation.

What bothers me about higher education is that leadership has little scientific training. Climate change isn’t something we can choose to address as one in a portfolio of issues. It’s critical and we have to face sustainability and climate change challenges. It is extreme and complex.

Q: You mentioned marketing as something that Unity College is focused on. How important is marketing in higher education these days?

A: If UMaine-Orono was ever dedicated to the kind of marketing we’re doing, they would leave us in their dust. Every time someone from away crosses the border with their wallet in their hand, that’s a big plus. The poverty in Maine is just astonishing, so there’s an ethic of living with less and no emphasis on excellence and what’s possible. Money flows to where the innovations are taking place. We have a very real brain drain in this state and it’s got to be reversed or else we’re in serious trouble. I’m deeply concerned by what I see and that’s why Unity College needs a brand cachet, to be seen as the leading edge of what’s relevant. We need to focus on what we do that’s truly relevant to the 21st century.