UNITY — Many students hope to return to the Unity College campus next fall for the first time in nearly 18 months.

Since students left in March, at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic, the school has announced new strategies and other changes.

Although not a foregone conclusion, Unity College is exploring the sale of its main campus at 90 Quaker Hill Road. It has also revamped its educational model as “The Path Forward,” and leveraged partnerships for virtual events.

In June, Unity officials announced the 2020-21 academic year would be fully remote.

And in early August, the college’s board of trustees announced a layoff of 15% of its staff, the potential sale of its main campus, introduction of a “hybrid” educational model and a change from a traditional semester calendar to a schedule with eight five-week terms.

At the time, Unity President Melik Peter Khoury said the announcement is “not simply a reaction to the pandemic,” although the “financial impact of COVID-19 certainly expedited our plans.”

Unity College, which bills itself as “America’s Environmental College,” owns 225 acres in an area surrounded by woods and a short distance from downtown Unity. A Morning Sentinel report in mid-August found the sale was not definite, but real estate experts speculated another college would likely be the best fit.

Teams of students from across the country participate Nov. 28 and 29 in the inaugural 24-hour EcoHack event put on by Unity College’s XR Innovation Lab. Photo by Joel Crabtree

“What I want to be able to do is explore, and not have to do it from a position of, ‘Oh, I’m worried someone’s going to find out,’” Khoury said at the time. “I mean, maybe somebody will be so upset from this that they will write me a $1 billion check, so I never have to charge tuition for residential. Maybe families will send their kids here in droves so that we don’t have to shut it down.”

But as Unity continued remote classes, some alumni expressed concern with the college’s direction, gathering together at the Field of Dreams on Main Street in support of what they felt the school should be.

“This sounds silly, but I felt a sense of loss,” said Jodi Thompson, a 2004 Unity graduate who organized the gatherings. “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.”

Further, a group of former faculty members came together to share their stories with the Morning Sentinel. Many said the college abandoned its mission, but the administration said they were doing what is necessary to survive.

“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,” Sharon Reishus, chairwoman of the college’s board of trustees, said in September. “It just frustrates me that’s not the message that’s getting out.”

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

For Unity students Sarabecca Barnett and Katerena Jarrell, the opportunities afforded them by Unity’s distance education model made their enrollment in the college worthwhile. They participated from homes in California and North Carolina in a 24-hour EcoHack event the weekend after Thanksgiving.

“The distance education program is really great because I live in the middle of wildlife and can actually study it while looking at it,” Barnett said at the time. “Most people are removed from it. I’m really interested in coming up with solutions, which these classes really allow for.”

Unity College plans to welcome back a portion of its student body next fall, but remains steadfast in expanding its remote reach. College officials said they are adding about 100 students per term, and 1,300 total students are enrolled between the distance education and hybrid-learning undergraduate and postgraduate programs.

“We are really breaking the barrier, in my opinion, between having to be face-to-face or online,” Khoury said. “Technology is a tool. Once we are post-COVID crazy, I look forward to offering more face-to-face elements that students are used to. But our students are making impacts in their communities right now.”

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