In early August, Unity College made some major changes. It laid off dozens of faculty and staff, and announced a transition away from a traditional, four-year residential model to "hybrid learning."
The college says it is seeing record fall enrollment, and administrators say the new model will provide more flexibility and make Unity more financially accessible. But the layoffs and other changes have upset many alumni and community members — and have prompted several students to withdraw from the school completely.
Delana Kirwan says she fell in love with Unity College almost as soon as she arrived.
“There was just a sense of a community around the campus,” says Kirwan. “They had all of this outdoor space, there were trails all over. It almost seemed like a safe haven, if that makes sense, for people who love nature and people who just want to be outside and want to make a difference.”
Kirwan, who is from Pennsylvania, came to Unity last fall to major in conservation biology and captive wildlife care and education. But she says she was devastated to find out about the school's planned change to a hybrid model, and that Unity's Board of Trustees had authorized leadership to explore selling assets, including its campus. She says she was even more heartbroken to learn that dozens of the college's faculty and staff were let go, including professors with whom she'd grown close.
“I had so many questions,” Kirwan says. “I was like, 'What does this mean? ' I don't live in Maine. So I'm like, ‘How am I supposed to go to these classes? What is going to happen?’”
She sat in on meetings with administrators explaining the new approach, but she says that didn't help much.
"It was halfway through the meeting. I was like,'I'm withdrawing. I can't do this. I can't be a part of a decision that's not even worked out the details of yet.'"
Several other students say they have also withdrawn in the wake of the announcement. Just this week alumni and other community members signed a letter calling on the college's president to resign.
Gilbert Dore, who just finished his sophomore year, says finances played a part in his decision to leave. He says while tuition was reduced as part of the change, he also says he received less financial aid, which he says made it appear that going back could prove to be more expensive.
“I grew up in an area that didn't have too much money, so private loans aren't really an option for me, either,” says Dore. “That was a bit frustrating, as well. Even if the hybrid format did work for me, I just don't foresee myself being able to afford it.”
Unity President Melik Peter Khoury acknowledges that some people have been dissatisfied with the college's recent decisions, but he says that has been caused by misinformation on social media. Khoury stresses that students will still be able to receive face-to-face instruction once the college reopens when it is deemed safe, and he expects the move to a hybrid model will save the average student about $5,000 in tuition.
Khoury points out that Unity's total enrollment is actually at record levels this fall, though traditional residential enrollment has fallen by about one-third.
“We are looking at how in the future our students want to be educated,” Khoury says. “If the students want to do it face to face, we will offer that. But we also have to be mindful that many students can't afford that privileged four-year experience anymore. Where they take five classes, they're on a campus for nine months, and they put their life on hold.”
Khoury notes that the college is also seeing more students from a range of diverse backgrounds. The changes have already made a difference for 22-year-old Christelle Kippley, from Minnesota. She says she had wanted to go to Unity for years, but the cost and travel had long been barriers. So when she learned a few weeks ago that she could take classes online instead, she enrolled for the fall.
“Being so far away and living on campus, not having a car, and not having money to deal with that, was the biggest thing that stopped me from going,” Kippley says. “So having it be affordable now is just great.”
In the wake of the college's changes, several alumni have launched a fundraiser to assist laid-off staff and faculty — people who they say helped to shape the Unity campus's closely knit community.