Former Unity College professors Aimee Phillippi, left, Kevin Spigel, center, and Kathleen Dunckel gather at Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast on Wednesday. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

UNITY — As Unity College embarks on a radical transformation of its learning model, several former college faculty and alumni say they’re concerned the 55-year-old institution has abandoned its historic mission while administration officials say they are adapting that tradition in the school’s best interest.

And while the coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly accelerated that transformation as decentralized, remote learning grows in popularity across the country, a Morning Sentinel analysis has found that Unity College was already on track for significant change because of a strategic shift in its decision-making processes several years ago.

If any Unity faculty member had a say in important decisions, Kathleen Dunckel was the one. Yet just two months after assuming her position as faculty representative to the Board of Trustees in the spring of 2017, she resigned from the post. She stayed on teaching, but impending changes loomed.

“When we got a letter that the Board of Trustees had decided to abandon this way of being in the world, this way of tackling problems and making decisions and embrace this sort of authoritative process … to me was a step away from our mission that was really tough for me to reconcile,” Dunckel said in a phone interview. “I just didn’t feel that I could be a part of that board of trustees any more.”

On the other hand, Unity President Melik Peter Khoury is touting record enrollment, is excited that a Unity education is accessible to more students than ever, is seeing the college grow.

Melik Peter Khoury became president of of Unity College in 2016. Morning Sentinel file photo

Khoury and board Chair Sharon Reishus say they are committed to seeing the college stay economically and educationally viable — changes that could involve the sale of its landmark campus — despite myriad fiscal challenges. The college, they say, has a history of changing its ways to keep up with and get ahead of any issues.

“What we decided to provide is access, not privilege,” Khoury said in a phone interview. “If you look at the environmental mission, and you look at the community affected by the environment, the lack of the environmental policies; I would argue we’ve never been more relevant in leaning into our mission. What we are no longer is a college that talks about the environmental mission, but lives a privileged, almost gated life, like many other colleges.”

Behind the scenes, though, Unity College’s administration has changed its decision-making approach from one that’s community-based to top-down, former Unity faculty say, adding that their input was silenced under the tenure of Khoury, who became president more than four years ago.

A 43-year-old Belfast resident, Dunckel is one of six former Unity College faculty members to share their stories on the record with the Morning Sentinel, while others would not speak on the record for fear of retribution. Dunckel said abandoning the college’s mission, at least how she sees it, as the only way to survive is a “false choice.” Dunckel emphasized the importance of carrying out the college’s mission through action.

Janis Balda, who taught at Unity for seven years and came from the West Coast specifically because of the college’s mission, was among 33 faculty members laid off as part of the new education model. She said she still has two years left on her contract with the college.

While Balda said she does not think Unity College has “lost” its mission, she does think the administration has “designed programs that make it impossible to deliver it.”

“The mission states that it is ‘through experiential and collaborative learning’ that our graduates emerge as responsible citizens, environmental stewards, and visionary leaders,” Balda said. “When I came to Unity this was what we hired faculty, staff, and learning experts to do — emphasize experiential learning, design hands-on learning experiences, and demonstrate a commitment to students and to the environment. The institution has continued to use that language but the reality is far different.”

Former faculty say the shift in decision-making style has created an immediate impact. Exit interviews no longer became standard practice and faculty input surveys stopped. Faculty presentations to the board members were censored by administration, even communication with the board was discouraged, they said.

 

COLLEGE BYLAWS

Unity College, which bills itself as “America’s environment college,” was founded in 1965 as a liberal arts school and still technically is. Unity began its online educational endeavors in 2016, and those online students accounted for nearly half of the student body in the 2019-20 academic year. Of 1,208 students, 674 attended classes on the main campus.

According to U.S. News and World Report, Unity ranks No. 11 in best regional colleges in the North, for schools that focus on undergraduate studies but grant fewer than half of their degrees in liberal arts disciplines.

As the coronavirus pandemic continues and the economy remains in a perilous state, Unity officials said the pandemic forced an acceleration and emphasis of its hybrid and distance learning models to sustain its viability.

The school also changed from a traditional two-semester system to an eight-term calendar, allowing students to hyper focus on a class or two at a time over a five-week span. The college recently announced its intention to potentially explore the sale of its 225-acre campus at 90 Quaker Hill Road in Unity.

Khoury said the college is not straying away from its mission, despite concerns from alumni and former faculty. If not for the pandemic, Unity students would be on campus this fall, and there is a residential option tentatively available for the fall of 2021. The main campus has a property assessment of $26,405,100, according to records at the Unity Town Office.

Khoury said he is focused on elevating Unity’s graduation rates, lowering dropout rates and encouraging students from all backgrounds to get a Unity education. The six-year graduation rate for students who enrolled at Unity in the fall of 2013 was 57%, slightly higher than the national average but approximately 10 percentage points below the average graduation rate for a private, nonprofit institution. The college recently announced a record enrollment of nearly 1,300 students across its various programs. Postponed for this year, a new TERRAIN model focused on expeditionary education is also set to begin in fall of 2021.

Unity College’s “curriculum no longer seeks to focus on citizenship and community engagement, and the institution emphasizes attracting higher numbers,” Balda said.

Faculty say they began working on different curriculum for schedules that never happened, including a quarter system, and for various potential shifts in the academic calendar.

“It was made very clear to us that we are not operating in the community type of model, and more that we are working in a hierarchical kind of model,” said former Unity College professor Aimee Phillippi, who was laid off after 17 years as a biology professor.

Former Unity College professor Aimee Phillippi, center, stands at the bar Wednesday as former Unity College professor Kathleen Dunckel, left, works the bar at Marshall Wharf Brewing in Belfast with Kevin Spigel, also a former Unity College professor, far right. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Three years after stepping down from the board, Dunckel, a former professor of forest ecology and geographic information systems for 11 years, found herself among 33 faculty members laid off entering the school year as Unity shifted to a completely online learning model for the 2020-21 academic year.

Voting rights used to extend to a faculty member, staff member, alumni association president and an active student leader. There are currently alumni on the board, but the alumni association’s president, and those group votes started getting eliminated around 2013.

Reishus, chair of the Board of Trustees and a four-year board member, explained a faculty vote as a potential conflict of interest.

“A problem with the fiduciaries who have a conflict of interest, the students and the faculty, just became self-evidently problematic,” Reishus said in an interview. “It’s unfair to put a faculty member in a position of voting on something like layoffs or what-have-you. For the last few years, the board has really focused on what it means to be a strategic board and the fiduciary responsibility to preserve the long-term interests of the institution.”

Khoury, formerly Unity’s chief financial officer, became interim president in 2015 after the resignation of Stephen Mulkey. The board discarded the interim label in August 2016, breaking its own bylaws in the process of installing Khoury as the permanent president. In Khoury’s two previous administrative positions at Upper Iowa University in Fayette, Iowa, and Culver Stockton College in Canton, Missouri, he worked in marketing and enrollment.

A copy of the bylaws amended in February 2015 states that “in the event of a vacancy in the office of the president, the board shall appoint a special college-wide presidential search committee to submit nominations of candidates for that office.”

“They 100% did not follow that,” Phillippi said.

“Unfortunately there was no association during my four years at Unity, and I firmly believe a formal alumni association’s input and perspectives would be integral as part of board meetings to discuss decisions regarding the future of Unity College,” Christoffels said. “These are the people that lived through the experience and have deep personal connections with Unity College and should have their perspectives considered when discussing how Unity College will be serving current and future students.”

“Unfortunately there was no association during my four years at Unity, and I firmly believe a formal alumni association’s input and perspectives would be integral as part of board meetings to discuss decisions regarding the future of Unity College,” Christoffels said. “These are the people that lived through the experience and have deep personal connections with Unity College and should have their perspectives considered when discussing how Unity College will be serving current and future students.”

In June 2017, the board of trustees amended the bylaws to reflect what numerous former faculty members describe as planting the seeds for today’s “hierarchical” culture. The same section about electing a new president now reads: “A vacancy in any of the offices of the college set forth in Section 1 of this Article may be filled at any meeting of the board; and, a vacancy in any other office may be filled by the president of the college.”

The bylaws are soon to be updated again, Khoury said.

 

POWERFUL DECISIONS

In July 2018, the board sent the aforementioned letter to the community outlining the new changes. In that letter, signed by then board chair John Newlin, the trustees announced a recommitment “to the college’s current approach to institutional decision making.”

“These efforts by the Board of Trustees and college leadership, while opposed by some, have been supported by other members of the immediate and wider Unity College community for the past several years, including major donors. These college community members view the college as an organization and expect the college’s leadership to take the lead in making decisions within a strategic framework established by the board,” Newlin wrote. “Although this leadership decision-making approach means that neither elected representatives nor the college community itself has decision-making authority, it does not mean that they are without substantial voice or influence.”

The letter also said decades-long “high levels of leadership turnover and resistance to board and administrative strategic efforts” were reasons to change the leadership and administrative decision-making process. The board also implemented seven new policy documents and handbooks.

Newlin wrote that decisions took too much time under the old process and that a revision of the Faculty Personnel Policies and Procedures would be helpful, but the board felt a “compelling fiduciary responsibility” to make the decisions that they did. He defended the decisions as legal and part of creating “a streamlined decision-making process” to update the college’s policies.

“There is a small group of ex-employees who really value that kind of stakeholder model that the board of trustees decided was not in the best interest to sustain Unity College long-term,” Khoury said. “There have been multiple changes, but those changes were very transparent. They were very direct, it was a collegewide communication about it, and a few people refused to accept that change.”

Dunckel’s experience at board meetings signaled the impending changes as much as the written letters.

“The narrative was always the same,” Dunckel said. “Higher education is on fire. All these small liberal arts colleges are closing, and so we’ll leave unless you give me the power and flexibility to change it quickly in order to adapt and survive.”

The campus of Unity College, including Tozier Gymnasium and Fitness Center. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

In past interviews, Khoury mentioned Green Mountain College, which closed in 2019, as a model that Unity did not want to follow. Since 2016, 18 colleges in New England have closed for good, according to industry publication Education Dive.

Jim Killarney, a Unity chemistry professor from 2013-2020, said significant changes had to happen, including the way the school was marketed toward a “niche” audience of students. Killarney, 45, said he feels the school could’ve better invested in its in-person programming. Killarney enjoyed bringing his students out in boats for labs and measured lead levels in bird populations.

Killarney feels the board viewed faculty as “grieving spoiled babies.”

“It’s a tough position and I don’t wish ill on the place,” Killarney said. “It’s just like any business. The fiscal change, I wouldn’t call that a fact in any way whatsoever. We had several years of significant growth while there were declining numbers in regional school students. We grew against that trend and we did very well.”

 

LAYOFFS AND A PETITION

Phillippi will never forget how she found out about her layoff; she was in the grocery store. “They cut all of our email off by noon,” she said.

Phillippi and her husband, Mick Womersley, were two of the 33 faculty members laid off in early August. The couple combined for 37 years of teaching experience at Unity.

Faculty members at Unity are not tenured and sign five-year contracts. The 45-year-old Phillippi, who taught biology, was at the end of her five-year contract cycle, and despite receiving a “glowing evaluation” at year’s end, did not receive a new contract. Phillippi said a decision on her return by administration was supposed to happen in late March or early April. She received no communication.

“We kept being told, ‘next month, next month, next month.'” Phillippi said. “So it was pretty obvious to most of the faculty that something was going on.”

Phillippi and other faculty members, she said, began retrieving all of their personal information off school servers, but the August email with the layoff news “was still a bit of a shock.”

All contracts can be terminated without cause so long as a year’s severance is paid, an addition to the faculty handbook produced in 2018.

The entrance to the Unity College campus in Unity. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file Buy this Photo

Kevin Spigel taught geo-science from 2008-2020, but was equally proud of serving as director of undergraduate research before getting laid off in August. He said the mission of the college changed from when he was hired.

“I don’t know about the rationale, but with hindsight being 20/20, the education has become essentially a product for sale; move people through the gate, collect their money,” said Spigel, a 42-year-old Unity resident. “All these changes are implemented, some of these decisions are made rather quickly with no basis for the decision-making, no evidence to back up the claim. It would be nice if there was some sort of accountability.”

Tobi Christoffels, a 2020 Unity graduate, sent Khoury a letter in late August signed by 61 community members calling for the president’s resignation. The Morning Sentinel obtained confidential copies of multiple responses from both sides in a conversation about the emphasis toward the “Path Forward” education model.

Meanwhile, there is an alumni association in the works outside of Unity College’s purview. They are officially a nonprofit and in the process of setting up a website, and tax and bank accounts before going live.

Christoffels said alumni can help students by providing connections and networking as well as internship opportunities and being guest speakers.

“Unfortunately there was no association during my four years at Unity, and I firmly believe a formal alumni association’s input and perspectives would be integral as part of board meetings to discuss decisions regarding the future of Unity College,” Christoffels said. “These are the people that lived through the experience and have deep personal connections with Unity College and should have their perspectives considered when discussing how Unity College will be serving current and future students.”

 

‘PRODUCING A PUBLIC GOOD’

Emma Perry, a former marine physiology professor at Unity for 23 years, loved taking her Unity students to coastal Maine for labs.

Emma Perry Courtesy photo

“What I loved about Unity College was the students, working with the students, the students were fantastic,” Perry said. “Generally online, it works well for some things.”

Perry, a 52-year-old Bangor resident, was on sabbatical for the spring semester and was in between contracts. She is currently teaching an adjunct invertebrate zoology course at UMass Boston. She loved taking her students to the coast for labs and looks at online learning with an analogy of becoming a scuba diver: You can read about how to do it, but you eventually need to dive in.

The hybrid model fits this, but a fully online model does not.

“You can’t teach that online, you just can’t,” Perry said. “When there are a lot of majors whose careers and professions require professional skills, most of the biology majors that I was involved in were like that. That’s the piece that’s gone away.”

Dunckel admits the economic sustainability of Unity College is a grave challenge, but she doesn’t feel it’s the right way. She said the faculty looked for creative solutions to help, but their voices weren’t heard.

“If you look at a spreadsheet, (Khoury) is a financial guy, it doesn’t make sense,” Dunckel said. “This is a really expensive program, and what’s the economic return? We weren’t producing a product; we were producing a public good.”

Perry said that work had tangible results.

“None of our professions were ever going to get a student rich, but they were going to do well from animal rehab agencies for national parks,” Perry said. “In so many contexts, it was really to serve the public but also to serve the environment.”

But Reishus, the board chair, said the focus should be on the college’s ability to adapt and change and that the board fully supports Khoury.

“We’re one of the few small privates, especially with an environmental focus, that I think is going to survive this crisis in higher ed,” Reishus said. “It just frustrates me that’s not the message that’s getting out.”

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