On anniversary, Goddard College looks to secure its future
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | October 20,2013
Anthony Edwards / Staff Photo
Ben Matchstick, a student at Goddard College, explains his invention named the “Randomizojustificator” during a performance themed around logic and reasoning Saturday. The performance was part of the school’s 150th anniversary weekend.
PLAINFIELD — A celebration in Plainfield this weekend marks the sesquicentennial of one of the country’s unique institutions of higher learning. But as Goddard College looks back on 150 years of progressivism in academics, its board members, administrators, faculty, staff and alumni are focused squarely on the fiscal dilemmas that threaten its future.
With two labor contracts pending, its president on the verge of departure and a balance sheet that is by all accounts in dire need of revenue, Goddard, like many small independent colleges across the nation, is at a crossroads.
Tension wrought by the financial uncertainty, according to President Barbara Vacarr, has been palpable on campus.
“Across the country, and particularly on small campuses, there is a lot of fear about what the future holds for higher education,” she said Saturday.
“And I think in rural Vermont, where Goddard employs a significant number of people, I think there’s a lot of ambiguity about what’s happening in education,” she said. “And I think that creates a tremendous amount of stress, and I think Goddard is feeling that.”
Only three years into her tenure, Vacarr announced in July she’ll leave the school at the end of the year to tend to family matters. Avram Patt, a member of the college’s 28-person board of trustees, said the board is still working on a succession plan.
“In terms of the process and whether we can find a permanent president or an interim, these are things we’re still wrestling with, and also in terms of the exact timetable of when there will be new leadership at the college,” Patt said last week.
Though Vacarr will soon be gone, Patt said the board is committed to executing the “strategic plan” adopted under her leadership.
“And we would expect anyone coming in to be carrying out and implementing that plan, which gets to some of the things we’ve been talking about regarding the financial situation,” Patt said.
While small colleges nationally have struggled with declines in enrollment, the hit has been particularly hard at tuition-dependent schools like Goddard, which derives 96 percent of its operating income from student fees.
“Barbara has laid out strategic options to consider changes to some of our business models about how Goddard operates to make this more sustainable, so we’re not going through this cycle of roller coaster financial situations like we have in our history,” Patt said.
Part of that strategy aims to capitalize on the bricks-and-mortar campus whose revenue-generating potential has gone largely unrealized since the college switched to a low-residency model.
“We’re looking at new uses of the campus that are compatible with, and further, Goddard’s mission … as an experimental institution of progressive learning,” Patt said. “I want to stress that these are things that are still under discussion by the board, but there’s talk of greater use of the campus for various kinds of arts programs, including the use of some unused buildings.”
Vacarr said Goddard can undertake the reinvention without abandoning the ideals that have defined it.
“I think that we’re living in an incredibly rapidly changing world … and I think that higher education right now in many ways needs to reinvent itself,” Vacarr said. “And I believe that Goddard, because of its brand, holds a responsibility in many ways to be the leader of that kind of reinvention.”
Vacarr said new programs at Goddard that “remodel” the delivery of “education endeavors,” so that they’re “embedded in the community,” offer one area of promise. The school created a remote campus in Seattle in 2011, Vacarr said, to more efficiently serve the community of Latina childhood educators who had begun looking to Goddard for degrees in education.
Instead of waiting for people to come to Goddard, Vacarr said, the college can deliver tailored programs to the communities in which those kinds of services might be in demand.
“Education really needs to be about embedding ourselves in and with communities,” Vacarr said.
Vacarr’s leadership and vision haven’t been universally embraced. Jan Clausen, who teaches in the Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program and is chairwoman of the faculty bargaining committee in the pending contract negotiations, said Vacarr embodies the kind of top-down hierarchical approach that Goddard made its name flouting.
In looking to redefine the college, Clausen said, Vacarr and members her administration have fallen victim to a mission drift that siphons resources away from core academic missions. In a “statement of solidarity” signed by 85 percent of the faculty’s union members, Goddard’s teachers prevail on Vacarr to “refocus college resources and priorities to offer maximum support to our academic programs,” and to “restore confidence in financial leadership by creating a credible plan to improve enrollment, replacing expensive outside consultants with abundant in-house talent, and taking other needed steps to reduce administrative overhead.”
“What I’m not so optimistic about is the disconnect that’s developed between the board and the faculty and the rest of the community, although I think that’s eminently able to be repaired, given the will to do so,” Clausen said.
Vacarr said tension between faculty and administrators is nothing new to higher education, and becomes even more pronounced at progressive institutions like Goddard.
“I would say historically Goddard has had a struggle managing the relationships between faculty and the administration,” Vacarr said. “We have a progressive philosophy that on the one hand really seeks to have democratic processes … but that progressive ideal sits within a … hierarchical system.”
Whatever the disagreements between faculty and administration, Vacarr said the future of Goddard hinges on its ability to “shift the business model” in ways that bring about “the diversification of revenue.”
As she spends the 150th anniversary weekend talking with the artists, writers, philosophers and innovators who once matriculated on the Plainfield campus, Vacarr said she hopes more than ever that the Goddard can figure out a way to pull it off.
“It’s profound, it is absolutely profound,” Vacarr said of the weekend events. “And to me it really speaks to how a place that is an incubator for ideas can also become a force for shaping the community.”
The 150th anniversary celebration continues today with many exhibits that were hosted Friday and Saturday. At 10 a.m. in the Upper Gardens, a granite memorial to past members of the Goddard community willl be unveiled.