The campus of Unity College in 2020. The school is now known as Unity Environmental University. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel file

The president of Unity Environmental University said Thursday a tectonic shift in the way people are pursuing higher education means more students are focusing on distance learning and forgoing on-campus teaching at private institutions.

The college announced in February it was rebranding and taking the name Unity Environmental University, instead of Unity College, to better reflect its focus on environmental studies and remote learning opportunities. President Melik Peter Khoury said the transition was essential to allow the university to grow.

Melik Peter Khoury, president of Unity Environmental University, in July 2021. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Portland Press Herald file

And it appears to be paying off. Khoury spoke to the Morning Sentinel the same day the university announced it has 1,000 students who are enrolling, making it the university’s largest incoming class, and that in another two years, school officials expect to enroll more than 10,000 full-time students.

“By capitalizing on our successful low-residency and online programs, we are taking a bold step to shape the future of environmental education,” Khoury said in a statement released earlier in the day. “This will enable us to continue providing high-quality educational experiences to our students while extending our reach here in Maine and across the nation.”

The university was based for decades in the Waldo County town of Unity, before it transitioned to a new campus it created south of Lewiston in New Gloucester. Only about 50 students were on the Unity campus in the last academic year, and officials said in the statement the university is “diligently analyzing all options at our underutilized 90 Quaker Hill property.”

The average enrollment at the Unity campus was historically about 600 students.


Unity College was founded in 1965 and since that time, Khoury said, the higher ed landscape has been something akin to the transition from Blockbuster to Netflix: Private, traditional, “tuition-driven” institutions are becoming antiquated as students, many of them now older, seek more affordable, convenient options to obtain a degree.

The average age of Unity students is now about 28.

“The environmental sciences need more people that look like America and we need to meet them where they are,” Khoury told the Morning Sentinel.

People for years could not obtain a degree because the “residential model” for colleges eventually proved too expensive, he said. Since the time Unity College was founded, there have been 40 million Americans who have enrolled at a college or university, only to drop out because of the cost, inflexibility of in-person teaching or another reason, he said.

While enrollment figures for the university continue to grow as it expands its remote learning opportunities, the school must still determine what is to become of its campus in Unity.

Khoury said many options are being considered, including selling the property or leasing it. But what has received the most attention this summer is a plan by the Greater Portland Council of Governments, or GPCOG, to house up to 600 asylum seekers at the Unity campus.


Portland and other southern Maine communities are struggling to provide housing and services for the immigrants, and the campus in Unity is seen as a viable option for transitional housing because of the available dormitories and other facilities that are largely unused.

Khoury reiterated earlier statements that the university does not yet have a comprehensive plan provided by GPCOG on which it can make a decision whether to allow the transitional housing.

“I don’t have enough information to speak eloquently about a plan we do not have,” he said.

GPCOG is working with state agencies to secure about $8 million that would be paid to the university to house the asylum seekers for a year. Another $1.5 million would be needed for various services people would need such as translators and legal assistance.

Khoury said the university must consider several factors before making a decision.

“Is there a plan to support the asylees on multiple levels, as well as the community? Based on the requested services, would the institution have the capability to deliver?” he said. “Is the funding source adequate for the duration of their proposal? What is our availability at the time of the proposal? Would this proposal be what’s best for the institution, as compared to other offers present at the time?”

Asylees are people who are seeking or have been granted asylum.

As GPCOG continues to pursue the money needed to push forward the effort, Khoury said there is not a timeline for the university to decide what it will do with its land in Unity. It is more a case of which strategy is the smartest to pursue, he said.

“It is a strain to subsidize for the long term a campus where people are not choosing to enroll,” he said.

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