Unity College celebrates its 50th anniversary this weekend

In 1965, 10 men banded together with an idea: to start a college in the Maine town of Unity.

The founders secured land, funding and brought in their first students. Among that first group was Mark Alter – one of the people who sought to see the dream of Unity College come true.

“Very rarely does a dream become a reality,” Alter said. “They took that dream and gave it life.”

Unity College President Stephen Mulkey said the original founders are owed a debt of gratitude for their vision.

“They took an enormous risk to get this college started,” Mulkey said.

The college will hold an anniversary celebration Saturday to commemorate the 50-year history of the environmental college.

As the college has moved onto the national stage for its quality programs, alumni said, it has maintained the mission of its founders.

“They’ve lived up to everything,” Alter said. “What Unity has done is remarkable.”

Arlene Constable Schaefer, whose parents donated the land where the college was built and is a former member of the board of trustees, said the college has kept its focus on the environment and hands-on learning. The board has studied the college’s future growth, Schaefer said, and wants to keep it small.

“We’re pretty comfortable right now,” said Schaefer, who was preparing for arrivals of alumni and college friends at Clifford Hall on Friday.

Schaefer said her parents, George and Florine, would be pleased with the college and its dedication to the environment.

“Both my parents would be happy that the land they donated has been put to good use,” she said.

Unity College is now nationally recognized, Mulkey said. He said the college has exceeded any historical enrollment, its academic profile is high, the retention rate is holding steady, its finances are solid and graduates are successful after leaving the school.

In 2011, Unity College became the first institution of higher learning to divest itself of investments in fossil fuels.

Mulkey said Unity’s success can be attributed to its academic niche in the fields of sustainability and environmental science, an aggressive marketing effort to promote the school and the level of professionalism of the staff and faculty.

“This place is on the move,” Mulkey said.

Unity College adopted a sustainability science framework for its academic programs, Mulkey said, and is a leader in the field of sustainability. He said other colleges might have sustainability offices, but at Unity all the students can articulate what sustainability means to the environment.

Mulkey said Unity continues to meet the ethical imperative of the founders’ mission and thrive at the same time.

“We’re transforming into a remarkable place,” he said.

While the campus and its national profile have grown, Alter said it has not lost its culture, identity and sense of community.

“I think that makes Unity what it is,” Alter said.

Joe Saltalamachia, Unity’s director of admissions and an alumnus, said the college is fast approaching a student body of 750 students, but that growth has not altered the bond among the students. Back in 1992, Saltalamachia decided to attend Unity after talking with another student, and that camaraderie still exists.

“Nothing really has changed in terms of that experience,” he said.

Saltalamachia said Unity’s academic programs are considered among the best in the country. He said the college is no longer a secret but known nationally.

“We are everything environmental,” Saltalamachia said. “That’s the one constant and I love that about this school.”

The college has held true to its mission of providing students with a quality education, Alter said, while maintaining a small student community.

Alter said he sees no signs the college is going to change or depart from its original mission. “It has a great future,” he said.

As the college has succeeded, so has the town.

Saltalamachia said when he was a student, only a few stores existed in Unity, but the town now has thriving businesses. He said the town has grown up with the college.

“It’s been really nice to watch the place grow,” Saltalamachia said.

Alter said in both the early days and today, the college and town are inseparable.

“You say one and you get the other,” he said.

Alter, who now works at New York University, said New York City is considered the campus for NYU, but in Unity, that’s a true description of the relationship between the college and the community.

“What’s unique is it’s not the college and the town,” Alter said. “It’s Unity.”