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How President Barbara Vacarr Plans to Save Goddard College 

“Is that place still open?” That’s the question Barbara Vacarr found herself fielding about Goddard College two and a half years ago, shortly after she took up residence in Montpelier. The college that Vacarr had moved from Massachusetts to helm sat just 10 miles away in Plainfield, but Goddard’s storied reputation as a hippie haven and progressive paradise had faded into obscurity. As far as most locals were concerned, Goddard was a ghost town.

Now, at the college that neighbors once called “Little Moscow on the Hill,” a new revolution is brewing. Vacarr — Goddard’s petite, poised and smooth-talking president — is promising a comeback for a school that went from trailblazing to treading water in a few decades. Critics say she’s introducing a “corporate mentality” into Goddard’s alternative fabric. But supporters say Vacarr has a good head on her shoulders, with an aptitude for business and education.

“We’re not going to be a secret anymore,” says Vacarr, now Goddard’s biggest cheerleader. She’s vowing to put the college back on the map, both as a local force to be reckoned with and as a national leader in education reform.

It’s a bold promise, but Goddard is no stranger to reinvention. In its heyday, the school was a hotbed of experimentation and progressive thought. No grades. No curriculum. No dormitories per se: The candy-colored residential houses peppering Goddard’s hilly campus were dubbed the “village of learning” during the 1960s. No endowment, either — which means that the college has not infrequently teetered on the brink of financial ruin in the decades since the 1970s.

In leaner years, Goddard resorted to a few drastic makeovers to get by. Perhaps most severe, in a last-ditch effort to stay afloat in 2002, the school permanently shuttered its on-campus residential program and shifted its focus to the low-residence model that Goddard itself invented half a century ago.

Today, the Plainfield campus — a one-time farm estate that more closely resembles an offbeat summer camp than an institution of higher learning — hosts intensive residencies where students gather for a single week each semester. On a recent winter afternoon, Goddard’s unpaved parking lot is filled with cars bearing license plates from around the country. Students flock from all over, both to Plainfield and to Goddard’s West Coast satellite locations in Seattle and Port Townsend, Wash., to study everything from education to the loosely defined “individualized studies.” For them, Goddard’s programs are a happy medium between hands-off distance learning and the time and expense of traditional on-campus studies.

But the school is still struggling to drum up students. Enrollment in the low-residency program, which awards both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, peaked in 2010 at around 800, and has dropped off to 700 this year. A model that was once unique to Goddard is now employed at dozens of colleges around the country, including the Vermont College of Fine Arts in nearby Montpelier.

At a time when colleges of every stripe are scrambling to define their relevance, Goddard needs to find ways to stand out. For Vacarr, that doesn’t mean embracing the latest trends — massive open online courses, for instance, or trendy technical degrees. She criticizes colleges that are “promising people degrees for jobs that in five or seven years we don’t even know will exist.” Goddard’s focus, she says, should be asking “how economies can support human communities, rather than how communities can support economies.”

Goddard costs most students roughly $16,000 a year — on par with public education, with the added bonus of a schedule that allows for full-time jobs. But it’s still a hefty price tag for an education that’s often more about personal transformation than explicit career development.

“It’s not like a technical school,” says Fred Wilber, a 1973 Goddard graduate and the owner of music and entertainment store Buch Spieler in Montpelier. “The focus isn’t on computers, or mathematics, or sciences — which seems to be the thrust of so much higher education these days. There’s a perception that if you’re not pursuing one of those, what’s the point?”

Given its nontraditional focus, Vacarr knows that Goddard needs more than tuition checks to survive. That endowment? “We’re building one now,” she says. Her bid to raise the school’s profile has as much to do with shoring up its ailing finances as it does with inspiring a return to Goddard’s educational roots.

Both an entrepreneur and an educator, Vacarr is promoting new programs to help increase the school’s local visibility — for instance, a grant-funded plan to educate Franklin County schoolteachers. She says she’s intrigued by the idea of “pop-up” campuses: programs Goddard might tailor for a specific community, much like the dual-language education program the college started in a diverse neighborhood in Seattle. Goddard’s new strategic plan, which Vacarr helped craft, is heavy on pedagogy and edu-speak, but it boils down to a strong, simple goal: Raise the college’s profile, and make money in the process.

It’s not always easy talking money on a campus where “corporate” is practically a dirty word. But Vacarr contends that fundraising and doing the work of social justice and educational reform are not, in fact, at odds. “The idea that you will lose your moral compass if you fund it well is a myth that I would like to do away with,” she says.

So far, the president’s efforts have translated into a new burst of energy both on and off campus. Goddard has packed its Haybarn Theatre to capacity for big-ticket concerts featuring the likes of jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp — a Goddard alum — and Suzanne Vega. Vacarr talks up the events as both community outreach and a way of “diversifying” Goddard’s revenue. Meanwhile, the school has set up shop in Montpelier with a new art gallery on Main Street and is sending representatives to local selectboard meetings.

“It’s not enough for me to be sitting on a [Chronicle of Higher Education] panel if I’m not also sitting at a local selectboard meeting,” Vacarr says.

But she’s not without her detractors — most of them within the college itself. Ron Patenaude is president of Massachusetts-based United Auto Workers Local 2322, which represents both the faculty and staff. He says employees are unhappy about what they sense is a “corporate retooling” not in keeping with Goddard’s history. Of particular concern is the college’s new enthusiasm for consultants: Vacarr brought in Montpelier-based KSE Partners, a strategic communications firm, to handle the college’s public relations, and commissioned a strategic review by a Massachusetts Institute of Technology consultant to bring the college’s technology up to snuff.

Vacarr is also after new blood for the college’s staff and leadership. She’s recruited at least 10 new members for Goddard’s board of trustees. Vacarr brought in Faith Brown, formerly of the Vermont Community Foundation, to serve as chief financial officer, and recruited experienced fundraiser Lauren Moye to head up development. From one perspective, Vacarr is building an experienced team of professionals — but from another, it’s rapid turnover.

“It seemed like every time I turned around, somebody was leaving and somebody was being replaced,” says one faculty member who asked to remain anonymous.

This same teacher praises Vacarr’s outreach efforts, and admits to having been won over by the new president’s enthusiasm for progressive education when she first took office. “Many of us were very excited,” the faculty member says. “I was very impressed at how she could talk the talk, and she could talk the talk in a way that felt sincere … like she really wanted to understand our uniqueness and to represent that to the world.”

But the honeymoon eventually ended. In a November 15, 2012, letter directed to Vacarr and the board of trustees, 46 faculty members complained that teachers haven’t had enough input into the restructuring of various academic programs at Goddard and alleged a “pattern of unilateral decision making” at the college.

Most distressing, according to the faculty member who spoke to Seven Days, was Vacarr’s response to a staff drive to unionize. Vacarr opposed a lightning-quick union drive in which staff members voted overwhelmingly last month — 58 to 8 — in favor of joining UAW 2322. The union has represented Goddard faculty, who are not eligible for tenure, since 2004.

In a January 22 email to allstaff@goddard.edu, Vacarr stated that she was not in favor of a staff union, in part because she believed it wouldn’t address the financial crises facing Goddard and would place a “further strain on [Goddard’s] resources at a time when we and other colleges are most vulnerable.” She further argued that the UAW was not the best fit for a future staff union, calling Local 2322’s negotiation techniques “oppositional, inefficient and extremely costly to the college.”

But these murmurings of disgruntled employees are drowned out, by and large, by Vacarr’s fans — among them many alumni in central Vermont who long believed their alma mater had fallen off the map. She’s Goddard’s “life saver,” says one — and an adept ambassador, says another.

“She from the beginning knew that part of Goddard’s success needed to be a much higher profile, both nationally in the academic world as well as in Vermont and central Vermont,” says Avram Patt, a 1972 graduate and Goddard trustee who lives in Worcester and manages the Washington Electric Co-op. “She’s really charged into that and has gotten over those initial comments about ‘Is Goddard still alive?’ We’re well past that.”

Reinvention might be the most defining characteristic of Goddard College’s 150-year history. The school got its start as a seminary in Barre; in the late 1930s, the college’s first president, Royce “Tim” Pitkin, relocated it to a former gentleman’s farm — Greatwood Farm Estate — in Plainfield and renamed it Goddard College. Pitkin was a progressive educator steeped in the teachings of John Dewey, who believed that educational reform — especially self-directed education — could help build civil, democratic societies.

Goddard, as Pitkin envisioned it, was a place for “plain living and hard thinking.” Students didn’t receive traditional grades. They worked — on the farm, in college offices or at jobs in the Plainfield community — in addition to studying. And, at a time when education was rigidly standardized, students had the freedom to design their own courses of study.

“I really woke up to education [at Goddard],” says Clo Pitkin, who came to Goddard in 1949 and later married one of Tim Pitkin’s twin sons. “At the time that I was going to high school, it was pretty rote. People told you what to think … It was a time when everybody was in lockstep.”

Goddard, by contrast, was nothing if not experimental, and it continued to be so well into its heyday in the late 1960s and early ’70s. In 1963, the college opened the country’s first low-residency adult- education program, introducing a new model in which students could study at home, on their own time, and spend only a few days each semester on campus. The first class was open to adults ages 26 and older — mostly women and, according to legend, dropouts of prestigious women’s colleges who’d initially left higher education for marriage and family life.

Goddard bucked tradition outside the classroom, too. Pitkin did not believe in building an endowment, insisting that a cushy fund could hamper innovation and believing that students should pay — or work to subsidize — the true cost of their educations.

“The college never really went out to become a corporation in the sense of some of the huge colleges and universities,” Clo Pitkin says. “That was maybe a mistake — I don’t know.”

What it meant, ultimately, was that Goddard was almost entirely dependent on enrollment to fund its operations. For a time, the system worked: Goddard’s enrollment peaked at more than 1000 students in the early ’70s. The student body populated two campuses: the original Greatwood farm estate and a satellite Northwood campus that today serves as low- and moderate-income apartment housing.

It wasn’t enough: Wilber, who matriculated in 1969, remembers that every single apartment in Plainfield was full. By 1970, Goddard was beseeching local residents to rent out rooms in their homes to students. Eventually Goddard switched to an academic schedule that allowed students to cycle through on a trimester system, permitting additional enrollment without an increase in the school’s physical size.

It wasn’t just students who flocked to Goddard. The college became a common stopping point — a mecca — for East Coast countercultural wanderers. “People were coming through all the time,” says Patt.

Among them was Rick Winston, a longtime co-owner of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier, who first visited Goddard in 1970. “Nobody could tell the difference whether I was a student or not,” Winston recalls. “I just went to class.” The tenor of those days, he says, was that students were there to learn, and teachers to aid their efforts; actual enrollment mattered less than enthusiasm. “There was a very free and easy atmosphere on campus.”

That mood eventually spilled over into neighboring Montpelier, as Goddard graduates set up shop in what was then a staid government town populated by bankers, insurance-industry types and state workers. Winston started a film society that eventually became the Savoy. Ginny Callan opened the Horn of the Moon Café. Wilber founded Buch Spieler in 1973 as part of his senior study at Goddard; when he graduated, he stayed on to run the fledgling music store.

Wilber describes himself as the “black sheep” of the Montpelier business community at that time; Goddard’s notoriety as a countercultural center didn’t ingratiate him to the city’s old guard. “When I first opened my store, there were people in town who basically told their kids, ‘You can’t go down Langdon Street, because that’s where that long-hair, hippie, commie guy lives who runs that subversive music store,’” he says.

Yet as Montpelier grew livelier, Goddard’s good fortune waned. What followed was a period of rapid institutional turnover. After Pitkin stepped down in 1969, the college churned through a string of presidents. Enrollment went into a decline.

Why? More and more colleges were beginning to offer the kind of experimental, progressive programs that Goddard had pioneered, giving prospective students that many more choices. Burlington author and musician Marc Estrin, who taught theater at Goddard from 1969 to ’79, speculates about another reason. The college drew more than its fair share of draft-dodging students looking to avoid service in the Vietnam War, he points out, an incentive that disappeared when U.S. military involvement there ended in 1973.

Enrollment continued to drop through the 1990s and early 2000s, and the on-campus student population stood at just 171 in 2001. But Goddard still held its appeal for a certain kind of offbeat learner. Scott Kerner, who co-owns Montpelier’s Three Penny Taproom and attended Goddard in the late ’90s, describes his college experience in much the same terms as alumni of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s: “eye opening.”

Chaos crept in during the years that followed. In 2002, as Goddard’s board scrambled to draft a plan for the school’s survival — including exploring possible mergers with other institutions — faculty bridled at its approach. Just a few months later, after students had left for the summer, the board voted to shut down the residential program altogether. Anthropology professor Daniel E. Chodorkoff told the Chronicle of Higher Education that the trustees had a “corporate mentality: Grow or die,” which he argued wasn’t appropriate for higher education, “especially at an experimental school.”

Students such as Dustin Byerly — a dreadlocked, goateed member of the second-to-last graduating residential class — say that, while the board’s decision came abruptly, the writing was on the wall. Byerly, who now heads alumni outreach at Goddard, says his job is sometimes complicated by the fact that graduates of the residential program are still bitter about the change.

“Residential alumni feel like it’s a different place,” Byerly says, though he insists the spirit that animated Goddard’s on-campus program lives on in its low-res offerings.

Winning back those alumni has been a big thrust of Vacarr’s presidential program, even as Vacarr herself represents a sharp departure from Goddard’s crunchy reputation. At five-foot-one, Vacarr jokes that she’s a small person with big ideas — hence the perfect fit for a small college with big ideas. On a recent winter afternoon, she clicks around campus in sleek boots with a high wedge heel, clad in a polished, all-purple outfit accented with big silver jewelry. The look is less Birkenstocks and more Bergdorf.

Yet the president has the pedagogical pedigree — and the background — to jive with a college that embraces nontraditional paths to learning. Vacarr, 58, was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Queens. Though her parents were staunch believers in education, she says she was an alienated, uninterested student in high school. She dropped out at 15, earned her GED, and entered college and left it in her late teens, just 12 credits shy of her diploma.

It was only years later, married with children, that Vacarr went back to school. At Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., she enrolled in a program catering to adult learners, fashioned after the adult-education model that Goddard pioneered in the ’60s. Vacarr made her career at Lesley, where she earned both a master’s and doctorate and went on to develop a slew of new programs, including a doctoral program in adult learning. When Goddard was searching for a new president in 2010, Vacarr says, the board came knocking at her door.

Today, Goddard College retains some of its storied eccentricities. On a recent winter afternoon, students in residence for the master of fine arts program in interdisciplinary arts filter through a dining hall that serves locally sourced meals. They murmur over laptops and black-bean burgers topped with organic ketchup.

Lunch finished, the artists spend the early afternoon setting up exhibits for the evening’s arts walk: everything from blown-glass hammers to fuzzy self-portraits, not to mention one intriguing exhibit titled “Aaron V. Kirchhoff’s Adventures in Vapor Deposition.” But then they scatter for afternoon lectures and workshops, and the campus feels almost eerily still.

Vacarr is on the road frequently these days; she spends at least one week a month traveling outside Vermont to meet with alumni and cultivate, as she calls them, “friends of the college.” But the PR campaign at home is just as strong. She greets employees and students over lunch and makes a rigorous practice of meeting with community members and alumni. Upon taking the job, Vacarr moved the president’s office to a large, sunny sitting room in Martin Manor, the onetime home of Greatwood’s gentleman farmers — where, she likes to point out, one bank of windows looks over the campus, the other toward Route 214. She’s got one eye on the college and the other on the community.

Community relations were a challenge when Vacarr took office. “There really was an invisible line between the town and the gown when I came here,” she says.

So, just a few months into her tenure, Vacarr called a meeting and invited Plainfield locals with a connection to the arts community. That sparked the formation of a regional arts group, Central Vermont Arts, which is still getting off the ground. Plainfield selectboard chair David Strong says the vision is to use the college’s three abandoned arts buildings — designed in the 1970s under the tutelage of Warren architect David Sellers — as studio space for community artists.

Goddard also chipped in $750 to the fundraising effort to reopen Plainfield’s historic opera house and town hall, tossed $2000 to the local fire department, and helped pay for Plainfield’s admission to Front Porch Forum. It may not amount to much cash, but Strong says the token gestures of support go a long way toward winning back Plainfield residents.

At a school without a history of financial success, Vacarr admits that patience and trust can be hard to come by, from staff and alumni alike. But her winning-hearts-and-minds campaign is making progress. Many alumni in the area — who form the backbone of central Vermont’s cultural community — say they’re pleasantly surprised to see their alma mater reawakening after a decades’-long slumber.

“She’s a very attentive listener, and you don’t feel like you’re talking to a car salesman,” Kerner says of Vacarr. She’s dynamic, say many alums. Energetic. Goddard’s best bet.

Still, it isn’t easy to pair the school’s mission with a robust culture of fundraising and annual donations. Alumni joke that their Goddard education, for all its values, didn’t prepare them to become “wealthy capitalists,” as Wilber puts it. “If anything, it prepared me to question the fairness and justice of capitalism, and my motivation has never been to accumulate wealth,” he says.

That isn’t preventing Vacarr from cozying up to possible donors. She and Moye stress that, at this point, they’re more interested in rekindling conversations than in glad-handing for donations — but they hope the dollars will eventually follow. So far, annual giving is up 160 percent in the first seven months of this fiscal year, compared with the entirety of the last.

Vacarr is optimistic about the school’s outlook — and so are her fans.

“After years of feeling like Goddard was becoming a ghost town, it’s been really wonderful to drive by the parking lot and see it just about full when there is a residency, when there is a concert happening, when there are speakers there,” says Winston, that hanger-on who slipped into classes in the 1970s. “The reanimation of Goddard is a good thing for everybody around here, and the signs are good. [Vacarr] certainly has energy, and a vision of what Goddard could be.”

That vision may not include Volkswagen buses and nudity-friendly dorms, but Vacarr insists she wants Goddard to remain what it’s always been: a place where people come to “uncover their stories.”

Only, this time, the school’s own story will be as much about dollars and cents as it is about freewheeling freethinking. Who’s to say little Moscow can’t have both?

The print version of this article was headlined "Presidential Appeal".

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Kathryn Flagg

Kathryn Flagg

Bio:
Kathryn Flagg is a Seven Days staff writer. She completed a fellowship in environmental journalism at Middlebury College, and her work has also appeared in the Addison County Independent, Wyoming Public Radio and Orion Magazine. She lives in Shoreham with her husband and son.

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