A sign on the Unity College campus. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

UNITY, Maine — A tiny liberal arts school in western Waldo County that’s known for its environmental focus and small hands-on classes is at a crossroads.

Unity College administrators are betting that a move toward online and distance learning is what it takes to keep the school alive — but alumni and former faculty fear the school has already lost its way.

Administrators say the school faces a $12 to $14 million revenue shortfall for the upcoming academic year, partly because of declining revenues from tuition. About 200 fewer students have enrolled in the school’s residential program this fall because of the pandemic. Tuition and housing costs about $40,000 annually there, so it doesn’t take a math major to understand the ramifications.

Last week, the school cut or furloughed nearly 30 percent of its workforce ahead of the bombshell announcement that it would “permanently eliminate” its traditional campus model and explore selling its 240-acre main campus in Unity.

The move shocked many. But critics feel it is all too aligned with the trajectory the college has followed over the past few years. During this time, they believe, Unity has abandoned its roots as a quirky, experiential college, one well-known for attracting both hippies and hunters and which has a farm and an active woodsman’s team, in favor of the bottom line.

Three years ago, the board of trustees, which oversees the school, rescinded the voting rights of its sole faculty member. The next year, the board shifted the college’s decision-making from a more democratic form of representation to a hierarchical one, led from the top down.

Those decisions included acquiring new sites across Maine that helped it sprawl beyond the main campus in Unity — all the while embracing online and distance learning components that the administration believes could largely eliminate the need for the campus buildings altogether.

When the pandemic hit earlier this year, forcing students to finish the academic year online, it exposed a certain reality that’s become apparent across the broader swath of academia: classrooms and other facilities are an added expense to any school’s budget.

Melik Peter Khoury, who’s served as president of the 55-year-old private liberal arts college since 2016, has been described as an “ educational visionary” who’s worked to make Unity College more affordable and accessible for students.

For Khoury, the move to a more flexible virtual campus is simply the right decision at a difficult time in higher ed.

“As the needs of our students change, we are changing with them, and letting student demand help guide where and how we teach students,” he wrote in a letter posted last week on the school’s website.

President Khoury’s previous experience includes senior roles in strategy, innovation, academics, enrollment, finances, development and marketing. Prior to joining the world of academia, he was an international business executive. He earned his doctorate in business administration from the University of Phoenix, a for-profit school that’s known as a pioneer for the type of online and distance-learning approaches that Unity College is now embracing.

But Kathleen Dunckel, who taught at the college for 11 years until last Monday, when she received an email that she would be laid off at the end of the day, is critical of the president’s strategy to retool the college.

“The current president seems hell-bent on turning Unity College into another Kaplan,” the associate professor of geographic information systems and forestry said, referring to the controversial for-profit corporation that offered distance learning and online academic degrees to thousands of students while largely failing to matriculate them. Kaplan folded in 2018, when it was acquired by Purdue University and retooled as a nonprofit instructional institute.

Kaplan’s business model has since become a financial roadmap for many struggling colleges looking to turn a profit.

“You can’t rip the heart and soul out of an institution and still call it Unity College,” Dunckel said. “We’ve hollowed it out. They should call it the school formerly known as Unity College.”

High stakes in a small town

The stakes are as high as the emotions right now in the town of Unity, whose leaders founded the college in 1965 to keep the community vibrant after the construction of the new interstate bypassed their town. Since then, the college has been a fixture of the community, and many of its graduates have stayed in Waldo County.

“It’s an unbelievable loss,” alumni Hauns Bassett of Unity said. “It’s like an earthquake that’s rattling through the area.”

This week, someone painted a message on the main drive of campus, saying “RIP Unity.”

It’s a somber image that largely illustrates the broader challenges faced by small colleges all across New England right now. Several years ago, economists predicted the shrinking school-age population in the region would lead to the closure or merger of at least a quarter of small private colleges. At least six private liberal arts colleges in Vermont and Massachusetts have closed permanently since 2016.

Wealthier, more established schools, such as Bowdoin College in Brunswick, which has an endowment of $1.74 billion, are expected to weather the current storm more easily.

Laurie LaChance, president of Thomas College, a small private school in nearby Waterville, said the news out of Unity College this week saddened her and other Maine college leaders.

“Unity chose an alternate path. Obviously, we respect that decision,” she said. “We collectively just feel anxious for them that this path will work for them. It’s just very hard to tell at this point.”

In part, that’s because Unity is unique in some ways, she said.

“The real kind of special sauce for Unity is that it’s a very mission-driven school, with its basis in sustainability and the outdoors. Students choose that because they have a passion in that area,” LaChance said. “It’s been a very special relationship between Unity College and its students. It’s more than just an education. It’s a lifelong mission that students feel.”

Changes over the years

But some say that student-centered mission began eroding about a decade ago, around the time that the college disbanded its alumni association. That’s when many grads who felt a strong connection to the college say they lost their voice in how the school operated.

Around the same time, the school’s endowment kept growing.

In 2011, an anonymous donor gave the school $10 million — an unprecedented sum for the small college. The gift more than tripled its endowment, which now is $15.3 million.

In 2013, Half Moon Gardens and McKay Agricultural Station in Thorndike, valued at $1.2 million, were donated to the college.

In 2018, a foundation donated Sky Lodge, a historic hunting lodge in Jackman that sits on 150 acres, to the school. That year, Unity College’s assets were valued at $51.7 million, according to its most recent 2018 tax filing.

The same tax return shows that Unity’s president was paid about $290,000 annually to lead the institution. In 2018, the school collected $31.5 million in tuition, room and board and other revenue. Its expenses were about $28.4 million.

In an interview with the Bangor Daily News last year, Khoury touted the school’s efforts to diversify its revenue stream by adding more online students and auxiliary services, saying the school was on “solid financial footing.”

“We have grown. We are lucky — we’re not over-leveraged. We are not discounted. We are operating in the black,” he said. “I’m not saying we are there yet, but we are in a position where financially we are very, very sound.”

That’s a turnaround from the 1980s and 90s when the college went through a period of deep financial trouble. Back then, the college had no endowment and was $2.5 million in debt, according to a 1990 article from the Christian Science Monitor. Its academic accreditation also had been placed on probation.

But students, faculty and the community banded together to help the ailing school.

“The school was basically going bankrupt,” Bassett, who started his freshman year in 1993, said. “At that time, staff was voluntarily not getting paid and bringing their own lawn mowers to mow the lawn.”

Unity also suffered from some image problems back then. In one high-profile incident, a group of students was charged with rustling and butchering a neighboring farmer’s pregnant cow.

Still, Bassett, who grew up on a central Maine dairy farm, said it was the only place for him.

“Unity was heaven for me,” he said. “To be hands-on and outside — it’s what I wanted.”

The future of education

Doug Fox, a professor of sustainable agriculture and the brand-new hybrid learning programs liaison, has worked at Unity College for 30 years. Change is never easy, he said, but he’s excited about the opportunities the new learning model will have for students.

Instead of taking five or so courses over a 15-week semester, students will take one to two courses over a five-week period. Because of the pandemic, all learning will be conducted online until the school can resume limited in-person classes at its main campus on Quaker Hill Road. Other in-person classes could be conducted at Sky Lodge in Jackman, out in the field or somewhere else.

Fox believes the school, which calls itself “America’s Environmental College,” is not wavering from its mission. The low-residency hybrid learning program will make the school more affordable and accessible to a wider range of students, which definitely sounds like Unity College to him.

“Post-COVID, we’re going to have something really good to offer,” he said. “I’m very, very hopeful for the future. I haven’t had time to think of anything else except the future.”

Some students and alumni don’t share his sense of optimism. A senior who did not want to share her name in order to maintain her relationship with the administration had a message for the administration.

“Stop looking for the future of education. Stop doing that,” she said. “You keep saying that hybrid and online learning are the future of education, but if you can’t look and realize how unhappy people are now with those decisions you’re trying to make, there’s not going to be a future.”

But Cynthia Jones, a Unity College senior, has a different perspective. Though saddened by the job cuts, she is hopeful about hybrid learning and has come to trust president Khoury’s ideas for the future.

“His vision is good — to be honest, it’s actually inspiring,” she said. “To be able to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK to do things differently, to not be stuck in a rut, to not be complacent, not to destroy [Unity], but to build it and hopefully make it even bigger.”

Jones, who describes herself as a minority student without a lot of money, said she thinks the hybrid model will expand Unity College’s reach.

“I think hybrid will give people like me an opportunity to follow their dreams,” she said.