In Deep Financial Trouble, Maine's Unity College Faces Loss Of Its Accreditation

ANYONE looking for impressive college buildings won't find them among the rolling fields of Unity College. This 25-year-old institution in the heart of Maine started with a donated farmhouse, (now the admissions office) and a chicken hatchery (now serving as faculty and administrative offices, art gallery, cafeteria, and bookstore). Other small buildings, including several mobile homes, have been added. But flavor is distinctly rural. That suits most of the college's 400-plus students just fine. Unity is one of a half-dozen colleges around the country specializing in environmental studies. ``Students come here not to study such literary figures as Shakespeare or Thoreau, but about the forests and the wildlife and the relationship between people and the outdoors,'' says President Wilson Hess.

Yet all is not well in this otherwise bucolic setting. Unity is in deep financial trouble, largely because of a drop of enrollment in the early '80s, according to President Hess. The college has a short-term debt of $500,000 and long-term obligations of $2 million. There is no endowment.

Unity's accreditation has been on probation for the last 10 years because of financial problems. A hearing on Unity's appeal to reverse a recommended accreditation cutoff by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges will be held Aug. 8.

Meanwhile, many people have been working to get Unity back on firm financial footing. An intensive summer fund-raising campaign has brought in $350,000 from alumni and friends. President Hess says his hope is to pay off the short-term debt and refinance the larger long-term debt.

Students are helping. Eighty percent receive financial aid contingent on accreditation. Chris Davenport and Thom Morrissette raised $1,100 in pledges on a 320-mile bike trip across Maine last month. Their equipment was donated and residents gave them food and lodging along the way. ``It was really a way of making people aware of the college and that the students are behind it 100 percent,'' says Mr. Davenport, an environmental communications major who attends Unity with the help of both loans and grants.

Chris Smith, a senior majoring in park management, sent out 250 fund appeals to Robert Redford and other environmentalists. Mr. Smith was concerned enough about Unity's future to forego his usual better-paying summer job in a New Hampshire nursery for one on campus. ``I'd hate to see the doors closed and I just felt it was my place to try to have some input,'' Smith says.

President Hess, a former Unity professor who was appointed president only two months ago, is realistic but upbeat about Unity's prospects. He says that the principle on back payroll taxes to the Internal Revenue Service has now been paid. A start has been made on paying off similar taxes to Maine and on replenishing the faculty pension fund. ``The conventional wisdom in fund raising is that you can't raise money to pay off old debt, but I think we've made significant progress.'' he says.

Unity's doors will be open in the fall regardless of what happens this week. Still, President Hess says: ``We're adamant that we're going to prevail in our cause and have the recommendation reversed.''

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