Unity defined itself as a college town. But now most of the students are gone.
Unity College was founded to protect the town from rural decay, but in the wake of broad based program reforms that have sharply reduced the number of on-campus students, Unity residents are grappling with how to adapt to the changing future of its namesake school.
The private liberal arts college was an integral part of the 2,127-person community. Its 650 on-campus students filled dormitories and rented apartments in Unity and the surrounding towns. They served in the Unity Fire Department, making up about half of the volunteer crew. They ate at the local pizza parlor, worked part-time jobs in the grocery store and spent evenings playing board games at the Unity Kitchen, a Main Street restaurant that catered to Unity College students and faculty.
When the pandemic began in the spring of 2020, college officials first sent students home. Then the school instituted a radical change in how it educates. Instead of the traditional four-year model, where students take in-person classes for two semesters a year, Unity College focused on online courses and five-week semesters. Students can also choose a hybrid learning option if they want to take some in-person classes, too.
Unity College’s leaders say the shift has been good for the school, which now has more than 2,500 full-time, degree-seeking students. And students in the hybrid program did return to campus in September — though it’s unclear how many.
Melik Khoury, the president of Unity College, said there are 228 students in the hybrid learning program — nearly 10 percent of the student body. But he declined to specify how many of those students are presently living on campus.
“These hybrid learning students make the decision each term whether or not they would like to come and live on campus in Unity,” he said. “We are so happy to have them back on our beautiful residential campus.”
But locals believe that just 50 or 60 students lived on campus during the five-week semester that recently wrapped up — meaning that the college’s change of direction has been less uniformly positive for the town of Unity.
Just ask Blaine Parsons, the fire chief, whose crew numbers plummeted when the college went remote.
“When the college shut down, we lost 12 guys on the department,” he said. “It’s not only the fire department … It’s affecting the whole county, as far as emergency services go, absolutely.”
Or ask Tamika Adjemian, who opened the Unity Kitchen in December 2019. Back then, the cafe bustled with the faculty members who stopped in for a sandwich at lunch and the students who gathered for boisterous game nights. But challenges have abounded, including the pandemic, the worker shortage, inflation, supply chain disruption — and the lack of college students and faculty.
“We’re in a perfect storm,” she said.
Adjemian made the tough decision to close the cafe. Its last day was Nov. 6.
“I bought this building and this business because there was a robust college here,” she said. “Absolutely, I think the loss of 650 students is impacting this entire town.”
Town and gown
For many years, it seemed like the fates of the college and the town were indelibly intertwined. Unity College was founded in 1965 by local leaders who were looking for a way to avoid the rural decay that was becoming the reality for too many Maine communities. The college started out with just 39 students, a donated farmhouse and a chicken hatchery, but the goals were big.
“I kept going through these small towns [in central Maine], and I could see churches being boarded up and some of these stores being boarded up, and I said to myself, my goodness gracious, these towns are dying on the vine,” school founder and philanthropist Bert Clifford, who died in 2001, said years ago about his vision. “I made a vow to myself that if I could help it, I would never let my town do that.”
There were financial ups and downs over the years — at one low point in the early 1990s the school was $2.5 million in debt and faculty members were volunteering to go without their paychecks and tending the grounds of the 240-acre main campus with their own lawn mowers. But students, faculty and the community banded together to bring the school back from the brink.
That’s one reason why it’s so jarring to Hauns Bassett, a graduate who settled in Unity, to drive past campus and see few students there. In the old days, students would be jogging, walking, playing guitar, throwing Frisbees or doing group lab classes in the woods or near the pond.
That’s all changed, he said.
“There is a difference in our community,” Bassett said. “It’s just quieter. I was really used to seeing gaggles of students walking the pedestrian bridge into town, going to [the Unity Shop N Save], going to the Unity House of Pizza. There were always groups of people walking around.”
Parsons has noticed that, too. It’s something he thinks the college’s founders would not like.
“The townspeople were trying to find an avenue to keep Unity thriving, so they brought the college to town,” he said. “I really feel that the founding fathers, the ones that have passed on, would definitely be rolling in their graves.”
Khoury said that school officials hope that more students will return to the Unity College campus as “post-pandemic confidence builds.” But that will be their choice completely, not a requirement of the program.
Meanwhile, the college is developing other locations, including the Technical Institute for Environmental Professions, which is being built at the Pineland Farms campus in New Gloucester. That institute will serve a different student population, he said, one comprised of students who are not looking for a four-year residential program.
“Our programs allow for maximum flexibility, and ultimately it is up to the students to decide how and where they want to learn,” Khoury said.
For his part, Bassett wishes that Unity College administrators would keep more of their focus local, citing Colby College’s investment in downtown Waterville as an example of what a school can do for its community.
“Colby College is not going anywhere,” he said. “Unity’s solution is to pack up and move down to Pineland? That’s something that I don’t get. Unity has a lot going for it, which is why I think so many of us wanted to live in this general area.”
Challenges but ‘not a ghost town’
Even with a greatly diminished local student body, the town still is special, according to community members such as Penny Picard Sampson. The selectman graduated from Unity College and knows how important the school has been to the town. But it’s not the only important thing there.
“People were saying, ‘Unity’s going to be devastated. We’ll be a ghost town,’” she said. “But no, we won’t, because we’re a service hub. We have not turned into a little ghost town. We still have plenty of activities.”
Unity is home to many small businesses and professional offices, as well as a thriving Amish community. It’s where the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association, which hosts the Common Ground Fair, has its headquarters. The Belfast and Moosehead Lake Railroad offers popular weekend train excursions from its station at Depot Street.
There’s also no sign that the rental market has been affected by the fact that fewer college students are seeking apartments in town. Emily Newell, a real estate agent with an office on Main Street in Unity manages 39 rental units in the area. In the past, students made up 25 to 30 percent of her tenants. Now, she has just one student who rents from her.
“We are renting to fewer students, because there are fewer students here,” she said. “But overall, we are still full.”
That may be a side effect of the midcoast Maine housing crunch, she said. Still, Newell, a former selectman, doesn’t want to downplay what Unity College’s changes could mean for her town.
She has not forgotten the pain of the summer of 2020, when 30 percent of the college’s workforce were laid-off or furloughed just before school leaders announced their plan to retool academic offerings. Lots of the people who lost their jobs ultimately left the community, she said.
“It is a big employer. It is important,” Newell said. “But we’re not going to completely fall apart as a town because they have fewer students now.”