Kadence Foster signs a book during a gathering Saturday morning to support Unity College staff that have been laid off. Molly Shelly/Morning Sentinel

UNITY — A crowd of more than 30 community members and Unity College students and alumni came together on Saturday morning to show their support for the school following the recent announcements that the college would shift to a permanent hybrid teaching model.

In pursuing this new venture, the college recently laid off 15% of its staff and announced that it’s looking to sell its main campus located at 90 Quaker Hill Road in Unity. 

Jodie Thompson, who graduated from Unity in 2004, helped organized Saturday’s event at the Field of Dreams on Main Street. For her, the announcement brought on a sense of grief.

“This sounds silly but I felt a sense of loss,” Thompson said. “It’s not gone, they haven’t sold it yet, hopefully they won’t but it just felt like I lost a family member or a friend.”

Thompson said that changing the instruction model will take away a core value that is embedded in the foundation of the school.

“People who are here today have written in our journal and people have shared some things online and just from what I’ve read online, the word experience came up in almost every single post,” Thompson said. “It’s about the experience and without that it’s not right, it’s not the same, it’s not Unity.”

Lars Knakkergaard, a 1991 graduate, shared similar sentiments.

A sign at the entrance of the Field of Dreams in Unity welcomes attendees. Molly Shelly/Morning Sentinel

“Unity has been known as a hands on college for so many years,” Knakkergaard said. “In outdoor recreation, wilderness, wildlife management, fisheries, I mean you can’t rely on an online curriculum to have those experiences.”

Knakkergaard said he’s helped organize a fundraiser to help support the 33 staff members who were laid off and the 20 employees who have been furloughed.

Under the hybrid system, Unity would forgo the two semester school year and replace it with five week terms, during which students will take one to two courses at a time. This is opposed to the five to six they are accustomed to taking.

In its initial announcement last week, college officials said that a hybrid learning model would give students “control over their education through a nonstandard calendar, shorter terms, differentiated tuition and a multimodality curriculum that does not rely on maintaining a physical campus.”

“When I first heard about this I assumed we were just going into a five term system,” current Unity student Kadence Foster said. “You know, two classes per term and I thought ‘wow, this is going to be cool because I can’t handle six classes at a time.’ But the further I looked into it and found out that it would be a hybrid model, on the surface level having online and in person isn’t as jarring to me. What is jarring to me is not having a campus to do the in person part at.”

In March, the school had to shift to remote learning after the coronavirus pandemic began to pick up in severity. College officials said in June they expected to maintain remote learning for students through the 2020-21 academic year.

Unity’s additional campuses in Jackman, Acadia National Park and Portland will be open for students to receive the in-person portion of their education, even if the main campus is sold.

This option is something Foster said isn’t ideal for him or other students.

“I don’t understand how people are going to be able to get to Jackman and Portland when they’re just so scattered,” Foster said. “I’m having a hard time understanding the logistics of how that would work for students.”

Foster said that the decision to change the instruction model was not made with the best interest of students, faculty and the community in mind.

“The thought of losing the campus is really sad to me I expected to do all four years at Unity,” Foster said. “The elimination of faculty, the potential selling of the campus, how everything has been handled I just have little hope that this is being done in a way to support the students and the community and more so done in a way that doesn’t make any sense,”

Fellow student Cooper Metzger agreed.

“I was super confused as to how this sort of format could be successful,” Metzger said. “If you don’t actually have a location that you can control and use, how can you continue to offer a quality education? I’m an adventure major, so much of what I do is actually based in the action of doing it. I do a lot of skills classes like canoeing, kayaking, that sort of stuff. But how do I achieve that and get a high quality lesson in that when it’s in a digital format?”

Meg Anderson and her son, Foster Joy, hold up a sign at a gathering to support Unity College on Saturday morning. Molly Shelly/Morning Sentinel

Some attendees at Saturday’s event said they think the coronavirus pandemic has played a role in the college’s decision.

“I found out about this just from the alumni Facebook and the town was blindsided; there was no transition plan,” Knakkergaard said. “Maybe there was but they certainly didn’t communicate that to the town or the faculty. I know it’s been in the works but it seems like they’re using the pandemic as an excuse to just go ahead with their plan. It’s really disappointing.”

Meg Anderson, a 2004 graduate and former employee of Unity College, had similar thoughts.

“Unfortunately the health crisis going on in the world today was a catalyst in them moving faster than I believe they would have otherwise,” Anderson said. “But I do think this has been in consideration for quite a long time. And I think that it’s a step in the wrong direction.”

Unity President Melik Peter Khoury said in an interview last week that the announcement is “not simply a reaction to the pandemic,” although the “financial impact of COVID-19 certainly expedited our plans.”

Anderson said that losing the Unity campus will impact the students, staff and the wider community.

“I think it will be painful for the community, for everyone who calls Unity home,” Anderson said. “I know I’m the person I am today because of Unity … the college itself brings so much diversity to this area where otherwise, there is none. And also, it’s a hub for agriculture … there’s a new ecology school opening up, it just really felt that everything was coming together in a really great way before this administration moved in.”

Community members and Unity College alumni gather at the Field of Dreams to show support for the school following recent layoffs and academic shifts. Molly Shelly/Morning Sentinel

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