A maintenance worker mows the lawn in front of Clifford Hall on the campus of Unity College in Unity Monday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

UNITY — After the announcement on Monday that Unity College would shift permanently to a hybrid learning model, laying off staff and looking to sell the flagship campus, students and community members expressed mixed feelings on the change, looking at economic impacts as well as educational opportunities.

The college said on Monday that a hybrid learning model would give students “control over their education through a nonstandard calendar, shorter terms, differentiated tuition and a multimodality curriculum that does not rely on maintaining a physical campus.”

To do this, the two-semester school year will be dropped and students will complete five-week terms, where they will take one to two courses at a time opposed to the five to six that they are accustomed to taking.

Unity officials said in June they expected to maintain remote learning for students through the 2020-21 academic year.

Late Monday evening, Unity College President Melik Peter Khoury posted a letter saying that because of the significant drop-off in four-year traditional residential enrollment, the semester model was phased out, which is why 33 faculty members were laid off. The college confirmed on Tuesday that 20 employees have also been furloughed.

Penny Picard Sampson, chairwoman of the Unity Board of Selectmen and a Unity College alumna, said that on Tuesday, the town still didn’t have many answers to their questions as they are waiting for the dust to settle before meeting with school officials.

At an economic development committee meeting on Monday evening, many members were concerned about the potential legal ramifications of the college’s decision, Sampson said.

Recognizing that the decision to sell the main campus isn’t set in stone, she said that it is still a major concern, saying that the town had already been preparing for a decline in students and local revenues as a result of the expected remote learning year and the cancellation of the Common Ground Fair.

“We knew that (losing those) was going to hurt, but we expected it to be temporary, so we said ‘let’s suck it up,’ and now it is sounding like it might be more permanent,” Sampson said. “We truly don’t know what the college’s intentions are. They still haven’t been in any direct contact with local government.”

Though Sampson is not a member of the economic development committee, she said that she is working with some of its members on a project to advertise why people should choose to live in the town, but until the town knows what the plan is with some of the properties in town, such as the library, performing arts center and recreation field, it is hard to move forward with a plan.

“(Looking at) the college’s Facebook page, there’s a lot of insight from parents whose kids were going to go to the school and are no longer going or are starting to look at other avenues,” she said.

In a Facebook post where the college shared a letter from Khoury announcing the change, an overwhelming majority of the comments came from alumni, parents and students sharing their dismay for the decision to shift to the hybrid model.

A Note of Clarification from President Khoury and VPF Falcon

A Note of Clarification from President Khoury and VPF Falcon

Posted by Unity College on Monday, August 3, 2020

However, Emily Buchtman, a rising senior at Unity College studying wildlife biology and wildlife fisheries management, is hopeful that the campus will abide and looks at the hybrid model as an opportunity for those who may not be able to attend a traditional semester-model school to get an education without having to put their jobs and families on the back burner while completing their degrees.

A resident advisor, secretary of student government and student flagship representative on the board of trustees, she said that the college has given her many different learning opportunities, even during the shift to remote learning.

“I know that a lot of people are unhappy because it was kind of a confusing email that (the college) sent out,” Buchtman said. “… when I reached out to administrators I heard that they were not selling. It’s just a potential idea, and we need the numbers to have students on campus. I am hopeful that the campus will stay.”

If the campus does close, though, she said that it presents an opportunity for students to utilize other college-owned properties, such as the Unity College Sky Lodge in rural Jackman, the rocky coast of Acadia National Park and cities such as Portland.

“Using the areas around us, we could still be able to have those hands-on experiences, which is another great potential,” Buchtman said. “I think that they’re heading in a direction where you don’t have to leave where you are and can still have the hands-on experience as well as be on the same page as your peers.

“I see where they’re coming from. There’s a lot that they’re trying to change and it can be overwhelming, but I am hoping that people stick with it and keep it positive because no one is trying to ruin their college experience.”

Buchtman added that she took a five-week summer course to get a feel for what the hybrid model would be like and said that she prefers this model over the traditional semesters as it allows students to focus on a couple of courses in a shortened period of time and get work done on a schedule that is flexible.

If classes resume in the spring in the hybrid mode, she said that she would likely split between having one class in-person and one online depending on how the course is planned and what activities are scheduled.

“I hope that Unity is able to continue having an in-person experience and that people hold out longer. I would hate to see everyone leave,” Buchtman said. “Unity is a really great school and every college has its ups and downs.”

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