Students walk to the campus cafeteria during the 2005 orientation weekend at Unity College. Credit: John Clarke Russ

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In news that matches the trajectory of 2020, some longstanding ties seem to be coming apart in a town named Unity.

On Monday, Unity College abruptly laid off 33 members of its faculty and staff while furloughing another 20. That amounts to nearly 30 percent of the workforce at the small private liberal arts college. The school also indicated that it is exploring the sale of its flagship campus in Unity as it continues its transition to a “hybrid learning” plan that mixes online, remote, on-site and on-campus learning.

“We’ve seen many small, private colleges close their doors for good, a trend that is attributable to many factors, the most important of which is their failure to adapt,” college president Dr. Melik Khoury wrote in a letter on the college’s website. “Change is hard, especially for higher education, but it is necessary.”

We don’t fault the school for trying to adapt to financial realities, particularly during a global pandemic. Khoury cited a “significant drop-off in our four-year traditional residential enrollment,” and information on the school’s website says COVID-19 “contributed to a large decline in enrollment and a projected $12-14M revenue shortfall in the 2020-21 year.” We can see how pivoting to more online and experiential learning factors into Unity College’s long-term viability.

But we’re particularly struck by the reaction of the Unity community, out of which the school grew 55 years ago to promote local vibrancy after the town was bypassed in the construction of a new highway.

“This blindsided us. We had no idea it was coming,” said Penny Sampson, the chair of the Unity Selectboard who is also an alumni of the school. “Economically speaking, they are important. Come fall and winter and spring, a lot of businesses rely on the students.”

Remarks from Tamika Adjemian, who owns Unity Kitchen, a local market and cafe, highlighted the potential economic pain and uncertainty that comes with the possibility of the college leaving town.

“I’m painfully aware that this is going to have serious implications just on the small town of Unity in general, and certainly for our business,” Adjemian told the BDN. “I am nervous. It’s awful timing. We’ve already pivoted and transitioned. Now what? What’s our next pivot?”

The school’s president is right — change often is both necessary and hard. Even with that understanding, it matters how businesses and institutions deal with those hard changes. It matters to their employees, it matters to the people they serve, and it matters to the communities of which they are a part.

The sad truth is that there are likely going to be more stories about layoffs and furloughs and sweeping institutional changes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Some of these changes may be unavoidable for employers, and may be driven at least in part by a global pandemic for which they couldn’t have planned. Some of the changes may even prove beneficial in the long run. Employers, however, still have the ability and responsibility to control how they treat their people and how they bring their community along in the process.

Stephanie Wade, a former teacher at the college who left in 2017, was frustrated with the abrupt nature of the layoffs.

“People who have been there for decades, 20, 30 years — to let them know by email, it’s just horrible,” Wade said. But she still believes in the college’s mission.

“I think it brought together people who in other places might have been on the edges, and then we became this community of like-minded people, even if we disagreed,” Wade said.

There’s never going to be a good time to lay people off, or to hear that kind of news as an employee or a community member. Organizations should make every effort to prevent their workers and their communities from feeling blindsided by change. It may be necessary, and it may be hard, but it doesn’t have to be abrupt.