Editor’s note: Vermont By Degrees is a series of weekly columns written by representatives of colleges and universities from around the state about the challenges facing higher education at this time.
It’s a Kodak moment for higher education. Not the image you may be thinking of — smiling family surrounding a young person with a cap and gown. The portrait of higher education in Vermont isn’t altogether pretty at the moment, at least at first glance.
Higher education in our state seems to be at an inflection point similar to Kodak at the beginning of the 21st century, when it had every opportunity to pivot, and embrace and advance the emergence of digital photography instead of assuming its film-based products would somehow see it into a second century of success. Ironically, photography is not only alive and well, it is a bigger part of our lives than ever before, but largely without Kodak’s influence. It’s a lesson higher-education institutions in Vermont should consider.
The current demographic trends of a declining number of college-bound graduating seniors in New England were forecast more than two decades ago, but not all colleges and universities in our state opted to pivot, resulting in several colleges shuttering their operations. Heavy tuition discounting to attract students has also left colleges vulnerable in a time when students and their families are also justifiably concerned about student loans. As a result, Vermont’s “remaining” higher-education institutions — entities that comprise what is arguably the “greenest” industry in our state and serve as incubators for inspired citizens and responsible livelihoods — find themselves in turbulent times. The resulting consequences for our rural communities and our state economy are significant, if not dire, right at a time when we are trying to retain our young people and recruit people to come work in Vermont.
Of course, the vacated infrastructure of a hollowed-out campus serves no town well. However, the buildings are simply the substrate of the growing medium we call a college — it is the health and stability of the social mycorrhizae that interweave students, faculty, staff, community members, businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations that really matters. When the academic community vaporizes, so do untold relationships that provide our rural towns with fresh insights, artistic vibrancy, intellectual vitality, interns and future residents.
Having watched the collapse of Green Mountain College, my employer for more than 20 years, I have observed the impact of the college’s closure throughout this summer and fall. The businesses on Main Street in Poultney may be faring the transition better thus far than many expected, but regional farmers, food-sector businesses, service organizations, public schools and renewable-energy businesses are feeling the loss. Interns, community-focused service-learning projects, faculty-led research teams, art openings, concerts, summer employees — the losses are palpable but still not entirely evident.
What is clear, however, is that it is all too easy to assume that a college’s role is simply to “train the workforce,” when in reality, our Vermont higher-education institutions serve a higher purpose by doing that in context, in place, in real time, among real people in living communities. When we lose colleges, we lose embedded problem-solvers, students and faculty who often stay put and craft a lifetime working on solving the challenges they discovered while pursuing their academic and professional interests in a Vermont town or city.
Fortunately, some colleges in Vermont are pivoting, and I was fortunate enough to join one of them, Sterling College, a place that has historically seemed to reject the status quo in higher education, and instead take note of critical inflection points and then pivot in its own authentic way.
Such is the case with the Wendell Berry Farming Program of Sterling College. With a capacity for only about 120 students on its Craftsbury campus, Sterling procured funding to support twelve new students each year to attend a two-year, tuition-free program in sustainable agriculture in Port Royal, Kentucky, the home of agrarian author Wendell Berry and his family. Like so many areas in rural America, this region of Kentucky is struggling to hold onto its economic vitality and the fraying strands of its social fabric. However, drop twelve passionate students, eight of them Kentuckians, into a small community along with three talented faculty members, and things are going to start happening, particularly with the support of The Berry Center.
Visiting the program in Kentucky in October, I listened to community members describe the impact of infusing a small town with the energy and hope of a dozen students daring to dedicate their futures to a rural renaissance born out of healthy agricultural practices. I heard two of the female students speak of their joy in learning about sustainable agricultural methods that they hoped to utilize as they took over farms from their parents, who had ceded any prospects of maintaining viable farms where soybeans and corn had gone from cash crops to crash crops. It was all a reminder of how a college education is much more than workforce training when it is embedded in community — it is transformative for students and communities alike.
Pivoting often takes multiple forms, and four years ago, Sterling wisely developed a unique continuing-education model with the support of Chelsea Green Publishing. The School of the New American Farmstead at Sterling has been offering an array of intensive hands-on short courses for persons with less time or money to invest in learning cutting-edge methods in sustainable agriculture and artisan food craft. At the end of November, The School of the New American Farmstead plans to launch not just the course catalog for 2020, but also four new professional certificates focused on artisan cheese, organic wine and spirit production, sustainable food craft, and educational farm and garden management.
Building Professional Studies at Sterling involves not just adding more courses, but also expanding our collaborations and geographical reach. Craftsbury remains the anchor point for these offerings, but we are also reaching beyond our usual demographic by also hosting courses in Italy, France, California and Kentucky, and beginning to integrate some online education components into our coursework.
If Sterling and other Vermont colleges and universities pivot well, we have the opportunity to be competitive players in the sectors of higher education that are actually growing and making a difference. Picture that.
Philip Ackerman-Leist is dean of the School of the New American Farmstead at Sterling College, as well as a farmer and author.