Editor’s note: Vermont by Degrees is an ongoing series of commentaries by leaders in higher education that explores the challenges and innovations at schools across Vermont.
Recently, Vermonters learned that Green Mountain College will close at the end of the spring semester after 185 years educating generations of students in Poultney. The news of the closure of a peer institution is sobering. As I shared in an earlier statement, in many respects Sterling College and Green Mountain have been kindred collegiate spirits. Our colleges share an environmental focus, student applicants and supporters, not to mention the Green Mountain State itself. There is no victory in the loss of an honorable rival when the cause you both share is noble.
Over the past couple of weeks, the local and national media has reached out to higher education leaders in the state to comment on the wellbeing of the fourteen four-year institutions of higher learning in Vermont. Green Mountain is the second institution in our state to shutter in the last three years. Recently, our regional accrediting body has also taken actions to remove accreditation from one Vermont private college and placed another on probation. The prognosis for rural liberal arts colleges in Vermont, according to the media and experts from around the nation, isn’t good.
Small rural liberal arts colleges are indeed facing a difficult time, not only here, but across the nation. For people outside the state, the image of Vermont as a destination for a degree and, we hope, a place to live after graduation, is one of our most important opportunities for growth, and also a bulwark against the decline in Vermont’s population. The access that these institutions provide to low-income Vermonters and first-generation college students through institutional scholarships is essential for many state residents. It is therefore important to all Vermonters, and our elected officials, that private colleges continue to thrive. The challenges we see are, after all, not simply isolated to the campuses; regrettably, the residents of Poultney will be impacted by the loss of Green Mountain.
Even given recent events, it is in the number and diversity of the educational opportunities among private colleges that I see optimism for the future of Vermont. Many of these institutions are thriving — the college I serve is but one example. Prudent, strategic and conservative fiscal management is in Sterling’s DNA. Our financial health, thanks to donors and foundations from around the country, is stronger today than it has ever been, and our prospect for long-term sustainability, through innovative programs focused on critical issues, is excellent. Like other successful colleges in Vermont, Sterling is neither exclusively dependent on revenue from enrollment for its survival, nor is it saddled with a level of debt service that saps the quality of operations at colleges that have been pushed to the brink and beyond.
Prior to my service as president of Sterling, I led an alumni effort to save Antioch College in Ohio, and ultimately served as its interim president as it developed a vision for its future. My exposure to the challenges that face small rural liberal arts colleges has defined my career in higher education. Among the lessons I have learned, sometimes the hard way, is that there are a handful of circumstances that can tip the balance when an institution begins to fail. However, there are really only two characteristics that ultimately make the difference, both to survival of the institution, and, in unfortunate instances, to the efficacy of the approach to closure when it becomes unavoidable.
Simply stated, the first characteristic is the recruitment of a president who fits the institution. Recruitment is half the equation — continuity in leadership is the other half. In just the six years that I have been in Vermont, eleven of the fourteen presidents of Vermont’s private colleges have turned over. Presidents at institutions that are showing signs of distress have actually turned over more than once in these same six years. When decreasing enrollment and long-term debt are challenges, the quality of the relationship between a president and the board of trustees makes all the difference. Even institutions with modest resources and big problems can navigate tough times when leadership is stable and the board’s relationship with the president is healthy. Such a relationship is not simply about accommodating the president’s ideas, but rather it requires a balance of shared responsibility for the institution’s well-being. Since 1996, Sterling has had only three presidents. I believe it is that continuity, among many factors, that has sustained the institution in tough times.
The second characteristic that tips the balance in difficult circumstances is the failure to sustain transparency and good governance. For colleges under duress, sharing information too broadly is often seen as a threat to the survival of the institution. In my experience, however, the challenges with transparency — good, thorough and inclusive institutional governance — don’t simply appear when an institution is in trouble: the failure to cultivate healthy governance and transparency is a cause of the trouble. Engagement between a college’s stakeholders and those who lead the institution is critical. The quality of relationship, trust and communication are always important because, without them over the long haul, the quality of decision making will deteriorate and ultimately make it much harder to pull out of decline.
Recently, I participated in a program on WBUR in Boston that focused on what students and families should know about the financial health of institutions before they enroll. The tools families have at their disposal are poor and backward-looking. How a college performed financially a year or longer ago isn’t helpful when circumstances can quickly unravel. I encouraged listeners to the program to consider the longevity of leadership as a potentially important indicator of institutional health. Similarly, asking about college governance and whether or not board materials, accreditation reports, and audit results are made available to faculty, staff and students are all valuable questions to which prospective students should seek answers.
When a college fails, it is heartbreaking for those who are affiliated with it. The effect closure can have on careers and lives is profound. The faculty of Green Mountain advanced a curriculum that gained international recognition for its focus on the environmental liberal arts. The alumni, students, staff and faculty in Poultney have much about which they are rightly proud. Those of us who have the privilege and honor to serve as college presidents are well aware of the present challenges, and as Vermonters we have a shared vested interest in the success of our private colleges.
Matthew Derr was inaugurated in 2012 as the eleventh president of Sterling College in Craftsbury. For more about Sterling College, go to www.sterlingcollege.edu