If there is one mesasge Dr. Melik Peter Khoury, president of Unity College, wants to send about his school's transition to all-hybrid learning, it is that the school is not closing, and it is not going to be an online school.

In a press release Aug. 3, Unity's trustees announced that the school would permanently transition to a hybrid learning model, reducing Unity's dependence on a physical campus. The release also said the trustees had authorized Khoury and other top college officials to explore the sale of any of the school's properties, including the main campus at 90 Quaker Hill Road (it also has properties in Jackman, Portland and Thorndike). A day later, it was announced that 33 members of Unity's faculty and staff had been laid off and another 20 had been furloughed.

In an interview with The Republican Journal Aug. 6, Khoury said, "We are going to be modality- and location-agnostic to provide education where it's needed."

He said the roots of the change go back as much as 10 years, to a time when studies of the changing demographics of students and the viability of four-year, residential colleges caused Unity to begin rethinking how it provided education to keep the school affordable and responsive to students' needs. The college invested in new technology to be able to offer courses to students unable, for financial or other reasons, to attend in person. The hybrid model has been five years in development; it combines online coursework with place-based learning, which is often outside a classroom, and can be wherever each student is.

Under the new plan, students will take one or two courses at a time for terms of just five weeks. Because students taking a single course will qualify as full-time, they will be eligible for financial aid. The hybrid format will also allow students to take an internship at any time, Khoury said.

This, the president said, is the answer to the question, "How can we provide different ways of learning for different kinds of students?" In the interview, he said Unity is not going away from its environmental mission, face-to-face learning or experiential education, and emphasized that the new model is intended to make environmental education more accessible and affordable to a greater variety of students. The cost per credit hour is $80 less for online courses than for face-to-face, he noted, thus reducing the cost of a college degree.

"We are doing the hard thing of trying to meet students where they are," he said. If there is sufficient demand for a four-year residential college experience, Unity will provide it, but if students do not choose higher education in a traditional format, the college may not have a choice about selling its campus. For the coming year, he said, the college expects to have 450 students. Before the Aug. 3 announcement, Unity had already planned to keep courses entirely online for the 2020-21 academic year, because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Though extracurricular activities like sports, drama, choruses and instrumental music ensembles would not be available without a fixed location, Khoury said students have become less willing to pay for a residential college experience in order to take part in such extras. He added that Unity will continue to coordinate internships and exchange programs, as well as offering job placement services for graduates.

As far as the effect of the change on the town of Unity, Khoury said the town could benefit from the college's continuing viability. He said he was committed to keeping the college in the Pine Tree State. "Maine is underutilized as a destination for education. … It is the perfect classroom for environmental students."

Penny Picard Sampson, who chairs the Unity Board of Selectmen and is a graduate of the college, has a less optimistic view of how the school's announcement may affect her town. When she heard that the trustees had approved the hiring of a real estate firm to explore selling the campus, "I was shocked by that," she said. "I definitely didn't see that coming."

She said she learned of the change when a reporter called to ask her about it, which was not in keeping with the college's previous relationship with the town. Over the years, she said, the relationship "has had its ups and downs," but that there had been open dialog with Khoury and Chief Sustainability Officer Jennifer DeHart until the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Since then, there has been no contact, she said.

In recent days, Sampson said, the town has contacted the college to request a meeting, to which college officials agreed. She said a time for the meeting had not been set as of Aug. 8, but she hoped it would take place within a week or so.

In her view, whether Unity will retain its main campus in the town, "remains to be seen." She said she is concerned about what will happen to the campus if the school does not need it and how that may affect the town. It is not so much the $5,000 in taxes Unity pays to the town, she said, as the people.

The loss of students from the campus would affect people in town who own rental properties as well as some businesses, she said. The same could be true if more faculty and staff are laid off.

In addition, "students are half our fire department, a chunk of our ambulance service, and do tons of volunteer work" in the town. College employees also are involved in many activities that support the town, she said.

Another major loss to the town would be the Unity College library, which residents are allowed to use. The town has no other library. And what would happen to the Field of Dreams, a college-owned recreational area with ball fields, a wheelchair-accessible track, playground and picnic area, is also unknown.

Sampson said the town had just begun a new campaign to promote Unity as a good place to live for its central location between Augusta, Bangor, Belfast and Waterville when the Aug. 3 announcement came. Now that it may not be able to count on the college's presence, that effort is even more important, she feels.

Some residents think the town would be devastated if the college closes its main campus, according to Sampson. She is more hopeful than that, but acknowledged "it would definitely hurt."