Students walk to the campus cafeteria at Unity College in this 2005 file photo. Credit: John Clarke Russ / BDN

The coronavirus has changed all our lives, even taken lives. As the incidence of the virus continues to rise it affects our schools, workplaces and public gathering spaces — our daily lives.

But did it cause the demise of the Unity dream and campus? The virus has affected colleges since spring 2020, especially for fall enrollments. It’s curious why Unity College, in such a short time, has opted to go fully online, lay off faculty, potentially sell its campus and significantly take from the community that built it.

In April, more than two dozen Maine institutions of higher education received $41.6 million in the first round of federal relief funding for colleges and universities through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act. Of that amount, at least half must be used for emergency financial aid grants to students. With the funds, colleges and universities will offer direct aid to students to help them pay for items such as food, housing, course materials, technology, health care and child care. Schools may also use their funding to purchase technology to expand remote learning and to defray costs associated with lost revenue.

How did Unity use its $822,158 allocation?

The heart and soul of higher education, especially at Unity, has been its campus life and learning. Going online (hybrid) is a business decision, not a pedagogical initiative.

Online education has not lived up to its potential, according to a 2019 report, which said fully online course work contributes to socioeconomic and racial achievement gaps while failing to be more affordable than traditional courses. “Online education has failed to reduce costs and improve outcomes for students,” they wrote. “Faculty, academic leaders, the public and employers continue to perceive online degrees less favorably than traditional degrees.”

Peter C. Herman, a professor of English literature at San Diego State University, wrote a June column for Inside Higher Education titled: “Online learning is not the future.” He asked his students what they thought of online learning — remember, they are the consumers. “But for all their differences in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, citizenship and intellectual preparedness, they universally agreed on their evaluation of online learning: they hated it,” Herman wrote.

“There is no comparison, they said over and over again, between the two. One student said that she felt like she wasn’t getting 10 percent of the regular class. Another wrote, ‘I haven’t learned anything since we went online.’ … ‘It seemed too easy,’ wrote a third. ‘I did not feel challenged like I had been in the first half of the semester, and I felt the quality of learning had gone way down.” “I watched the lectures posted, but I wasn’t learning the material,’ wrote another. All told, moving online caused ‘a profound sense of loss,” Herman wrote

So why has Unity chosen to change its path? Why has Unity opted for a model that dismisses the importance and positive effects of socialization and experiential learning? Why has Unity moved to a model that dismisses its roots, moves to a model that has questionable pedagogic rigor, a model not favored by faculty or students?

Was it due to the coronavirus? What will happen to the students who want to have an experiential education? To the faculty who do ecological research with the students? To the community which is the soul of the college?

This was not the dream of the Unity founders. As founding students, this is not our Unity.

Mark Alter, the first graduate of Unity College in 1969, is a professor of educational psychology at New York University. Michael Allen is president and CEO of Maine-ly Red Wing Inc. Richard Saltzberg is president and CEO of Charles River Publishing. Both graduated from Unity College in 1970.