UNITY, Maine — Dozens of Unity College alumni and students this week called for President Melik Peter Khoury to resign — even as the school touted unprecedented growth and record enrollment.
A letter, signed by 61 people, was a response to the private liberal arts school’s major directional shift, announced earlier this month when the president said Unity would permanently move from its traditional campus learning model toward a hybrid and distance learning one.
The school was reeling from a 33-percent decline in its four-year residential program this fall and an ensuing $12 to $14 million shortfall, officials said. They explained that was why the college also abruptly laid off or furloughed more than 50 faculty and staff members — nearly 30 percent of its workforce — and why the board of trustees authorized school officials to explore selling its 240-acre main campus in Unity.
The dizzying speed of the changes has not gone over well with many graduates of Unity and residents of the town. And it made Tobi Christoffels, who graduated this spring with a degree in adventure therapy and adventure-based environmental education, confused, sad and then mad. He wrote a long letter to Khoury and the trustees asking for more clarity on the decisions, but felt that the response he received from the president didn’t provide that.
So he wrote another letter to Khoury and asked others to sign it.
“On behalf of the community you are determined to destroy and refuse to listen to, we … formally request that you step down as Unity College’s President,” the letter said. “You cannot remove the very foundation of Unity College and still expect to call it Unity.”
Khoury received the letter Tuesday morning, but declined Wednesday to talk about it publicly before responding directly to his critics.
Last week, the president celebrated the record enrollment of nearly 1,200 students for the upcoming five-week term, which he described as a “historical first” for Unity College.
“We as a college have faced some of our most trying and difficult times in years,” Khoury said. “I’m sure with the current pandemic, we’re not the only one having this conversation. Ultimately, though, there’s a silver lining for Unity College. We are educating more future environmental leaders than ever before.”
For Christoffels, that celebratory announcement felt akin to rubbing salt in a wound. He isn’t against hybrid learning and distance education, and acknowledged that higher education is beset by many challenges right now — most acutely the pandemic.
Still, he loved how the close college environment fostered a strong sense of community, how his experiential classes helped him learn and grow and how his professors became his friends.
He doesn’t want that to be lost for other students.
“I can understand not having in-person classes right now, because of the pandemic,” he said. “But I truly don’t understand the shift away from residential learning, because that has been the core, in my opinion, of what Unity College has been for the last 55 years.”