Students walk to the campus cafeteria for Saturday dinner during new student orientation weekend at Unity College in this 2005 file photo. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

Unity College abruptly laid off 33 members of its faculty and staff and furloughed another 20 on Monday, ahead of a plan to retool its academic offerings and largely abandon its main campus. 

The cuts represent nearly 30 percent of Unity College’s workforce.

The board of trustees also has authorized school officials to explore selling its 240-acre main campus in Unity, which has been a central hub of the community for more than 50 years.

The private liberal arts school, which enrolls about 400 students through its residential campus program, was founded in 1965 by local leaders who were searching for a way to keep the community vibrant after the construction of the new interstate bypassed the town of Unity.   

That’s why Penny Sampson, a 1990 graduate and chair of the town’s select board, said she was especially shocked and angered to learn from media reports on Monday that college leaders were making major changes.

Melik Peter Khoury, interim president-elect of Unity College. Credit: Courtesy of Unity College

“This blindsided us. We had no idea it was coming,” Sampson said, adding that she was worried about both the employees and the future of the town. “Economically speaking, they are important. Come fall and winter and spring, a lot of businesses rely on the students.”

The changes are necessary for the school’s survival, Melik Khoury, president of Unity College, said. Although distance education has been growing at Unity, the number of students enrolled in the residential campus declined this year by about a third.

It’s been a financial hardship for the school, he said. Khoury doesn’t want the college to face the same fate as Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont, which closed in 2019.

“We’ve seen many small, private colleges close their doors for good, a trend that is attributable to many factors, the most important of which is their failure to adapt,” Khoury wrote in a letter posted on the college’s website. “Change is hard, especially for higher education, but it is necessary.”

The coronavirus pandemic expedited changes that need to happen at the college, he said.

This spring, Unity College launched a new “hybrid-learning plan,” which Khoury described as a more flexible model of learning. There were eight five-week terms instead of the standard two semesters. It allowed students to follow a traditional four-year degree path or forge their own academic timeline. The hybrid strategy featured a mix of online, remote, onsite and on-campus courses.

The college will continue with remote learning for the 2020-21 academic year, the president said, but move away permanently from its traditional campus model of learning.

In addition to its main campus at 90 Quaker Hill Road, Unity College owns Sky Lodge in Jackman, a former hunting lodge that was donated to the school in 2018; the McKay Farm and Research Station in Thorndike; and property in Portland, among other holdings.

Khoury said college leaders would evaluate selling off its main campus and those other properties in the coming years.

“But if we have 750 students at Unity College Quaker Hill Road in our hybrid model, why would we sell it?” he said. “All I’m doing is letting folks know that the world is changing.”

Still, the possibility that the college might abandon Unity was shattering for local business owners, alumni and others the college employs.

“I’m painfully aware that this is going to have serious implications just on the small town of Unity in general, and certainly for our business,” Tamika Adjemian, owner of the Unity Kitchen, said. “I am nervous. It’s awful timing. We’ve already pivoted and transitioned. Now what? What’s our next pivot?”

Dylan Tenney, of Unity, has worked full-time at the college as a dining employee since 2017. He learned on Monday that he would be furloughed until the end of the year. He doesn’t know what will happen after that.

In this 2014 file photo, Unity College students walk their cardboard kayaks that they constructed in an hour down to a drainage pond on campus to race during the second annual Unity College Cardboard Kayak Race at Unity College. Credit: Brian Feulner / BDN

“It’s weird, for sure,” he said. “Having to say goodbye to the friends I’ve made, and the uncertainty of it. We don’t know if we’ll be able to work together again the way we’re used to.”

Zach Schmesser, of Belfast, who graduated in 2008, said that Monday was a hard day.

“I just think it’s really sad,” he said. “Part of who I am is the in-person experience I had at Unity and the interactions I had with faculty and staff members. Online classes, I just don’t think the same relationships are there.”

Michael Mahmood, who lives in Seward, Alaska, described himself as an out-of-place city kid from Connecticut when he first came to the campus in the mid-90s. The first night he slept at his dorm — a converted chicken coop — he woke up with a mouse sitting on his chest.

“When I first got to Maine, I thought, ‘I hate it here. It’s too rural,’” he said. “But I stuck it out.”

He says he fell in love with Maine and Unity helped him find his niche.

Stephanie Wade, of Belfast, taught at Unity College for six years before leaving in 2017.

She decried the abrupt way the college laid off so many faculty and staff members on Monday.

“People who have been there for decades, 20, 30 years — to let them know by email, it’s just horrible,” Wade said.

But Wade says she loves Unity College and still believes in its mission.

“I believe that all of us who have worked there and studied there will keep its mission going,” she said. “I think it brought together people who in other places might have been on the edges, and then we became this community of like-minded people, even if we disagreed.”