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Perfect Union? In Montpelier and Cincinnati, Judity Sturnick puts Vermont College back on course 

click to enlarge JEB WALLACE-BRODEUR
  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur

Dressed in bright reds suited for a seasonal greeting card, Judith Sturnick acknowledges she can count at least two blessings as Christmas approaches: The 62-year-old educator recently assumed the presidency of Vermont College, after negotiating a deal to put it under the umbrella of the nationwide Union Institute. And, late last week, she tied the knot with partner Barbara Walvoord in a Montpelier civil-union ceremony.

These are glad tidings for the svelte, ebullient Sturnick, whose destiny may have been foreseen at an early age because of another holiday. “I was born on Easter Sunday,” she explains, with a thousand-watt smile. “My grandmother thought that was a portent of great things to come.”

That paternal grandmother, who raised Sturnick in Minnesota for the first 12 years of her life, represents the Swedish roots. The other side of her family is German, Irish, Spanish, Bohemian and Dutch. “My mother’s people were interesting,” she observes.

Those ethnic threads, and a Midwest-ern childhood that continued in North Dakota with her parents, contributed to a certain self-assurance. At age 2, Sturnick decided she wanted to teach. “I was already talking about becoming a doctor,” she says. “My grandmother thought I meant a medical doctor. I knew then what I wanted was a Ph.D.”

Academia was always the goal and is today the shining accomplishment of the newly appointed president of the Cincinnati-based Union Institute — which has prided itself on being a nontraditional “university without walls” since the 1960s. In February, Sturnick convinced the trustees that it was time to find a campus.

By acquiring Vermont College from Norwich University this fall, she altered the Green Mountain State’s educational map. In doing so, Sturnick may have righted what some skeptics saw as an odd coupling of the nation’s oldest military academy with a decidedly liberal school. The new Norwich-free configuration is called The Union Institute and University, with Vermont College listed as a subhead.

These sweeping changes make perfect sense to Sturnick on a practical as well as symbolic level. But the labyrinthine legacy of schools and educational philosophies almost defies comprehension without a diagram. In a nutshell:

The Union Institute, offering undergraduate and doctoral degrees, is geared to adults in mid-career who spend two weeks each year at one of four “learning centers” in Ohio, California and Florida. It was launched in 1964 when representatives from 10 schools around the country — including Sarah Lawrence, Antioch, Bard and Hofstra — agreed to form a consortium while meeting at Goddard College in Plainfield. The consortium dissolved in 1982 and the Institute became “freestanding.”

The year before, financially pressed Goddard had sold its “low-residency” adult degree programs, similar to those of the Institute, to Norwich University — which had “merged” with a then-bankrupt and straight-laced Vermont College in 1972.

Goddard and the Institute are both inspired by the philosophy of John Dewey, a Burlington native and late 19th-century University of Vermont graduate who promoted a democratic alternative to more traditional pedagogic methods. This experimental model encourages flexibility, low faculty-to-learner ratios, social responsibility and students taking charge of their academic progress.

Professor Dick Hathaway, who started as a Goddard instructor in 1965, has been teaching history and politics at Vermont College for 19 years. He remembers the initial confusion when the bohemian Plainfield contingent invaded the more inhibited Montpelier school.

“Here was a radical, alternative series of programs on a conventional campus,” he recalls. “Goddard turned these formal settings with a single authority at the head of the classroom into democratic, decentralized spaces. We wanted indirect rather than overhead lighting. For a time in the early ’80s, there was even a scattering of Buddhist pillows on the floor.”

This scenario seems surreal in light of the fact that Norwich was the parent organization. Vermont College was where Goddard’s adult-degree learners visited twice a year for about ten days at a time. It also housed traditional resident students. The “conventionals,” as Hathaway calls them, were bussed to Norwich for their classes. “It cost $100,000 a year just for that bus,” he recalls. “Both schools were in economic stress. When they took over VC in ’72, someone described it as ‘the Titanic rescuing the Lusitania.’”

The arrangement apparently didn’t work well for other reasons. “Norwich never quite knew what to do with a two-campus system. Vermont College was doing OK by now, but I think the numbers didn’t justify their investment. Probably, the biggest thing was the historical citizen-soldier sense of mission. It was a clash of cultures,” Hathaway suggests, adding that he’s always been amused by the motto inscribed over a Norwich entranceway: “Obedience for the law is liberty.”

Sturnick thinks of the mismatch in plain horse-sense terms. “You can’t put a duck and a dog together and expect them to breed,” she says.

Nonetheless, Hathaway believes the faculty and adult-degree students were happy when Norwich moved the resident “conventionals” to its Northfield campus in 1994, leaving the low-residency “alternatives” in Montpelier. “That gave us coherence,” he says. “It gave us a place to grow and breathe. We loved it. Imagine: We had an immense freedom to experiment at Norwich, of all places. It was a blossoming.”

So, the latest switch -— Norwich euphemistically “releasing stewardship” of Vermont College — has been a little disorienting. “I didn’t mind the way it was at all,” Hathaway points out. “After 20 years, I had become a Norwich loyalist.”

However, he now feels that the fusion of former Goddard programs at Vermont College with the Union Institute is “reuniting the DNA of the Lost Tribes. When we met our faculty colleagues from the Institute in August, we didn’t have to explain everything. All the energy for 20 years that’s gone into explaining what we’re about to Norwich!”

The purchase price is a secret, but Hathaway suspects between $12 and $16 million has changed hands. The Union Institute is now the proud owner of 21 buildings — a mix of sturdy Ivy League-like brick structures, graceful Victorians and renovated Civil War-era bungalows — on a hilly 63 acres in Vermont’s capital city.

One profound benefit for both Vermont College and The Union Institute is cross-pollination. “They needed a doctoral program. We needed a master’s degree program. We are sisters in every possible way,” says Sturnick. “Our university without walls needed to be grounded in one place. Our undergraduate students like the idea that they can go right straight through to a doctoral degree.” The Montpelier campus will continue to serve as a twice-yearly gathering place for low-residency, long-distance learners who work from home the rest of the time.

The changes for Vermont College’s 180 full-time or adjunct faculty and staff are significant. For one thing, there’ll be no more tenure — including for those who already have it. “We worked it out informally in meetings,” Sturnick says. “Tenured people, some of whom have had it for 20 or 30 years, will get five-year contracts. Tenure-track people get three-year contracts.”

The Union Institute’s belt-tightening has required closing a Washington office that was dedicated to lobbying Congress. The Los Angeles learning center might also go. The future of the Cincinnati headquarters has yet to be determined. “We’re in the middle of analyzing lots of things,” explains Sturnick, who will spend two weeks each month in Ohio “for a long time to come.”

The Vermont campus, with 1100 low-residency students, “gives us a depth and energy we couldn’t quite achieve in Ohio,” she notes. “This is a small state. We can make an impact here and make it fast. I immediately felt as if this is what we were meant to do. The trustees told me, ‘We don’t invest in real estate.’ But it was clear to me from the get-go that you buy the whole show.”

When Sturnick accepted the Union Institute job in June 2000, she came prepared to stir things up. “They wanted an entrepreneurial president ‘who can see possibilities we can’t.’ I thought that indicated I should look for something innovative. I knew it was destiny the minute I stepped foot into this building,” she says, gesturing at her office with two immense diagonal ground-to-ceiling beams on the fourth floor of stately College Hall. “I believe we’re very much guided if we stay in tune with our higher selves.”

This transcendental perspective comes from a well-grounded woman with a 16-page curriculum vitae.

After graduating magna cum laude in 1961 from the University of North Dakota, where she majored in English and history, Sturnick’s graduate school years were spent at Ohio’s Miami University. Her thesis on poet Emily Dickinson paled in comparison with the raw research she then did at Harvard, Yale and other libraries for a doctoral dissertation at Ohio State University in Columbus. The subject: George Meredith, a British wordsmith in the Victorian era.

“He had a stroke but later came back to resume working on his final book,” she says. “When the original manuscript was put before me, I couldn’t even breathe. There was his handwriting… I could date fragments based on how the handwriting changed after his stroke. I reconstructed what he’d intended to do. My dissertation is still the landmark study for Meredith’s last novel. It was one of the most exciting periods of my life.”

By that time, Sturnick had ended her seven-year marriage to a man she wed while a college sophomore. She gave up an opportunity to publish her dissertation as a book in order to teach at a small Ohio liberal arts school, Capital University, where she was chosen Outstanding Professor of the Year and named chair of the English department in 1970.

That university’s president convinced Sturnick to pursue a similar career path. “He loved the idea of turning me on to leadership,” she recalls. “He told me there is this great work to be done in higher education. He thought I was a visionary.”

In 1978, Sturnick returned to Minnesota to become vice-president for academic affairs at Southwest State University. “We got enrollment up from 1400 to more than 2000 and rebuilt faculty morale,” she says of her five-year sojourn at what had been a faltering school.

In 1983, a college presidency came her way at a time when women accounted for only 4.5 percent of all college presidencies in the United States. An organization she helped found, the American Council on Education’s Office for Women in Higher Education, had nominated her for the position. “It was basically a white-male bastion back then,” Sturnick says. “The ACE was committed to changing that.”

When she was recruited for a similar post at New Hampshire’s Keene State College in 1987, Sturnick became “only the fifth woman in the country to get a second presidency.”

“Judith faced an extraordinarily difficult road,” explains Jim Fisher, a former president of Towson State College in Maryland and a psychology professor who has been associated with the Union Institute since the early 1970s. “She endured all the trials and travails of professional women, but she’s so darn strong.”

Yes, but there’s been a price to pay for that strength. “I’m such a double-type-A personality,” Sturnick acknowledges. Her blue eyes, blazing with conviction, illustrate that assessment. “I burned out in my seventh year at Keene. I was working 70 or 80 hours a week, with no vacations. Then, I woke up one morning completely wiped out. I’m a deeply spiritual person who spends a lot of time meditating, but I couldn’t even meditate. I decided to resign and take a hiatus. The college wanted me to just take a leave of absence. I felt I needed to do something different with my life.”

Sturnick is unflinching when it comes to self-scrutiny. “I’m frank about my burn-out, and I’m also frank about being a recovering alcoholic,” she says. “I’ve been sober for almost 22 years. You have to be real about just who you are.”

She’s also been out of the closet for three decades. “It was difficult for me at Keene,” she reflects. “The trustees wanted me to be quiet about it.”

After six months of resting and soul-searching, Sturnick left New Hampshire for sunny California. There, she opened a consulting business to coach CEOs in Silicon Valley high-tech companies. “I knew how to prevent leaders from burning out,” she explains. “We worked on conflict management and resolution, decision-making skills and goal-setting for the home life as well as the workplace.”

Sturnick bought “a little house on the water,” and traveled all over the world — England, Australia, Egypt — to accommodate her clients. It was bliss, until another offer derailed her paradise plan. “The director of the Office of Women in Higher Education was retiring and I was asked to take her place,” she says, “I told them, ‘I’m making an awful lot of money. You can’t match my salary. They said, ‘Higher education needs you.’”

Ending four years on the West Coast, Sturnick relocated to D.C. and soon accepted a promotion to vice-president of the organization. “Life keeps opening up new opportunities, and you don’t grow if you don’t throw yourself into them,” she suggests.

That bit of wisdom prevailed just two years later, in 2000, when The Union Institute came calling. The group’s innovative outlook enticed Sturnick to say yes. “I had actually become tired of remaining in lock-step, without a great deal of creativity, in higher education — particularly at the doctoral level,” she says. “I was told, ‘This is a model for independent thinkers, for people who want to build their own standards of excellence.’”

Little did anyone realize then that the independent-thinking Sturnick would think her way into a Vermont College presidency, taking the Union Institute along for the ride.

“She goes like a whirlwind,” says Professor Jim Fisher, who first met Sturnick 10 years ago at meetings of the American Council of Education’s editorial board. “Judith has so many balls in the air at once. She acts as if she’s 21, though I know she’s at least 35.”

The Norwich-Union Institute changeover has happened at record speed, but Sturnick seems thoroughly unflustered by a pace that would leave others in the dust.

Dick Hathaway describes her as “a red-headed dynamo. She’s the Mount Everest of education, a mover and shaker with eruptions of novelty.”

Not to mention a persuasive deal maker. “She’s able to ethically seduce people to her own point of view,” Fisher suggests.

In laying a foundation for the Union Institute’s entrée into New England, Sturnick really applied herself. “I made 100 calls myself to other college presidents in the region, to former VC faculty members, to bankers, to the Department of Education in D.C.,” she recalls. “I met with the Montpelier City Council, with planners, ministers, Lost Nation Theater, the superintendent of schools. I told everyone this was not a hostile takeover, that we were actually bringing together two halves of the same whole.”

Sturnick’s flurry of activity does not surprise Fisher. “She’s unequivocal and does everything with passion,” he says. “So the future of Vermont College has to be extraordinary.”

Hathaway welcomes that future. “We’ve been acquired, but we’re still autonomous,” he concedes. “Now we’re brick-and-click: A campus in a sweet little town and sweet little state where we create a lot of cyberspace, long-distance learning.”

For Sturnick, the horizon is full of promise. “The adult degree program will expand to California as soon as we can merge it with our undergraduate level,” she says a bit breathlessly. “We’re looking at the potential for enrollment growth in the Master’s and Ph.D. divisions; I hope to double it within three to five years. It’s now about 3000-strong nationwide, including Vermont College. And we’ll go global as soon as we can.”

A first step in that direction took place in June, when Sturnick spent five days in Italy at a retreat dedicated to looking for solutions to the world’s problems. She was among 15 leaders in various fields — including the granddaughter of Mahatma Gandhi — invited by the Dalai Lama to participate in the session.

“I was nominated to be there because of a chapter I wrote on higher education in the 21st century for Imagine, a book that came out last January,” Sturnick says. “There were people representing the arts, politics, religion. The Dalai Lama kept really pushing the margins. He wanted each of us to go back to our arena to make a difference. We reserved two hours a day for private meditation, which was pure gold for me. I came back recommitted to my own daily spiritual practice and to trying to be a truly different kind of college president.”

That she is. Among other unique attributes, Sturnick ranks as one of only three openly gay American college presidents, out in front of “a lot of male and female gay presidents who cloak their lives.”

Although uncloaked for almost 32 years, Sturnick is “absolutely thrilled with the idea that there could be a ceremony,” she says, twirling the rose-gold band on her ring finger. Her saga, albeit filled with significant accomplishments in education, is also an amazing love story. “Barbara and I have been together as a couple for a year,” she says. “But we’ve been best friends for 38 years. When we realized how we felt, it just swept us both away.”

At 60, Walvoord is a director of faculty development at Notre Dame en route to becoming an English professor there. She plans to split her time between Indiana, Cincinnati and the three-bedroom Montpelier condo the Institute bought for Sturnick.

The honeymooning twosome plan to relax for the remainder of December in Vermont. “I needed to give myself a break,” Sturnick says with a grin. “There’s no place I would rather be doing that.”

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