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In Love and Sorrow For Goddard College: Everyday Magic, Day 1097

Updated: Apr 15

Right before I was hired to teach at Goddard College in 1996, the then-president, who many believed was set to shut down the college, fired 16 faculty and staff, including many who ran the low-residency programs. The board then fired the president. Many staff and faculty returned, including the ones that ran the then BAMA (for students pursuing BA and MA individualized degrees) program. I was interviewed on a Friday, hired on the following Monday, and flew out to Vermont a day later to fall madly and deeply in love with the startlingly life-changing learning that was then Goddard College.

Since I came on the scene (right when Jane Sanders, the board chair, and yes, the wife of Bernie Sanders, took on the interim presidency), and for decades beforehand and afterwards, the college was always on the brink of going under. On Tuesday, April 9th, the board announced it was closing the 86-year-old college for good.

It's been a hard week, gutting, heartbreaking, and enraging for many of us who know what can and did happen at Goddard. A glory place of progressive education, Goddard was based on John Dewey's philosophy that education should be a hands-on, student-centered force for good in a society. We had narrative transcripts instead of grades, individualized study plans instead of classes, and a whole lot of one-on-one faculty mentorship enhanced by a continual experimental journey into what it meant to be a learning community.

Three graduates way back when: Amanda, Jackie, and Mike

Since the on-campus program closed about 20 years ago, the college has exclusively offered low-residency programs: students and faculty would arrive from around the world for eight-day residencies twice a year at the start of 18-week semesters. Residencies overflowed with workshops and meetings, intensive walks and talks, a whole lot of delicious food (from tempeh stir-fries to just-made puff pastries), and ceremonies and wild cabaret performances (everything from faculty performing dryland synchronized swimming routines to makeshift Zydeco bands to trans singers belting out "You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman"). While guzzling coffee or kombucha, students -- as well as staff and faculty -- were continually tripping into revelations fueled by insomnia, urgency, and the freedom to think differently about who we were and why we were alive.

I cried and laughed more at my first residency in 1996 than I had in decade, or so it felt that way. There was something about being on the campus, nestled in Vermont's Green Mountains, imbued with decades of humans acting on daring vision, that amplified our emotions, sharpened our thinking, and spun or crashed us into and often past the ground of our previous limitations.

Getting a kiss from Gayle Johnson, the first Transformative Language Arts graduate, in 2001

"Why are we here?" I would routinely call out to my colleague Bobby in the years to come. "To break open our hearts!" we'd gleefully call back. Returning to each residency, even if now it was winter (and nobody does winter like Vermont) with eight feet of snow on the ground and five-feet-long icicles hanging off the community building, felt like going back to Brigadoon. It might have been 100 years since we last were together, but it was just a day later when we were deja vu-ing all over again.

I thought I would never leave, despite all the close calls during my 24 years. Yet there were only four or five years -- most under the tenure of then-president, Mark Shulman -- when we weren't fretting about going under. Each morning, Mark would ask, "What are our numbers?", meaning what's our enrollment, a vital question for a small liberal arts college that didn't have an endowment fund or more than a smidgen of other support. Many other presidents focused on anything but the bottom line. One actually boarded up the president's office when she wearied of students and faculty coming in to complain. Another closed the marketing and outreach office for the college. Others inexplicably re-organized or broke apart effective and lucrative programs on a dime. I witnessed nine presidents, and dozens of deans, some of whom left in the middle of the night without explanation.

As someone who also helped with marketing our program, developing (or trying to develop) new initiatives, and even a semester as acting program director, I met a lot of no-way-over-or-around walls, as did so many fellow faculty and staff. I've lost count of all the things I tried and I watched others try to do, which likely would have helped enrollment and perhaps even fundraising, that vanished in the swamps of inertia, poverty mentality, and most of all, not enough staff or support. When I think of examples, my head spins and my heart drops. Sadly, I am not alone in this: so many people tried so hard.

The fate of small liberal arts colleges in America hangs by a thin thread of financial stability in most cases. Just to survive, many institutions had to keep inching or leaping up tuition past the point of any semblance of affordability while staff and faculty are often paid peanuts. Any missteps on this tightrope of money and management tumbles us into the changing landscape of academia. Add in the pandemic, and small college closures or mergers skyrocketed (see this list of many closings just in the last four years).

Staff and faculty in our union t-shirts in the middle of another negotiation

Goddard obviously had a lot of issues -- and until now, staying power -- for a long time. "Outside of the faculty and students' work together, it's continual tornadoes," one of the better deans once told me. Yet despite it all, so much went right between students, faculty, and staff.

We faculty knew that well, and many of us acted as best we could to protect students from the chaos. The faculty of my program even, in the last four or so years I was there, had a kind of faculty-roulette meeting each semester to figure out which of us would go on leave so that one or more of us wasn't laid off. Although the faculty and staff were unionized by the UAW, we sometimes worked without a contract and often took pay cuts on what was pretty low pay to begin with. Many of the people I worked with -- from fellow faculty to program directors to staff -- put in a lot of uncompensated hours. I saw and was one of many faculty members who stayed up late talking with distraught students. I saw the most astonishing staff members putting extra energy into shoveling snow in the middle of the night, whipping up pad thai for 100, or spending hours helping a student put together loans and grants.

This is where I met with the students assigned to me, a place we called "the womb room."

We taught and worked here because we loved our students, we believed in Goddard, and we found great satisfaction in being part of a community and a movement always focused on changing our lives and communities for the better. But in the last five years, things started to shift for many of us.

I went on leave for the first time in 2018 after about 34 years of continuous teaching at various institutions. To my great surprise, about a semester into my year-long leave, I started having dreams about following retired faculty into the woods. "I can't leave. I love my job," I would tell myself when I awoke, but then I had to ask, "Wait, is that true?" I was enthralled with the deep connections with students, faculty, and staff, and I adored the grounds and buildings, a place where I had always felt like I finally and completely belonged, something that can be hard to come by in academia. But Goddard was making me sick, and I don't mean metaphorically. I would return from each residency with intensive sinus infections and other ailments that lasted sometimes for months (later, I discovered many of the dorms had black mold).

The toxicity wasn't just something mold mitigation could fix. I was exhausted by the effort of continually hoping it would get better, and joked/no joke with friends that going back each semester was like returning to an abusive or neglectful boyfriend, telling myself that maybe now he would be better. But it more like returning to a beloved cast of thousands, so many the most loving, kind, hard-working, creative, and visionary people I've ever known. I resigned along with many others in last five years, taking with me all I learned into all I do now.

What I experienced over and over again

Goddard was a primordial soup of ingenuity and magic, giving rise to forms and areas of interdisciplinary study that can and do change lives. This included Transformative Language Arts, which I developed with faculty and students in the late 90s, and we launched in 2000. Students who are now alumni continue to do the big, hard, and life-giving work of lifting up their communities through writing, storytelling, theater, and other arts.

This came of a place that recognized learning doesn't happen in a vacuum, we know best how to teach ourselves what is more vital and timely in our lives, and the education that endures comes out of deep discernment, wide collaboration, and wild courage.

It's no wonder then that almost all the social media posts I've seen and conversations I've had in the last week include this sentence: "Goddard changed my life." Mine too, friends.

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1 Comment

Apr 15

Karen, What a beautiful tribute to Goddard College. I have a warm place in my heart for Vermont and the 4 years I lived there, so I understand the connection you felt. It's a special place with its own unique vibe. Thank you for sharing your story, as only you could write I'm glad I read it.

Blue Sky
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