5/1/96, Seven Days

Is Goddard Talking About a Revolution -- or More of the Same?

By Kevin J. Kelly

Beneath all histronics and the ritualized forms of protest, an important issue is being thrashed out at Goddard College this spring. In its own melodramatic manner, the small school devoted to "plain living and hard thinking" is demonstrating how much an innovative institution must adapt itself to a society hostile or indifferent to its ideals.

Faculty spokesman Kenneth Bergstrom frames the issue this way: "How do we respond to the forces operating in the 1990s without selling our souls?"

All parties in the current dispute over the college's direction agree that Goddard is well worth saving. Tucked into the woods of Central Vermont, this refuge for artists, social ecologists and educational experimenters is one of the country's oldest and more respected "alternative learning centers."

Although its prospects are problematic, everyone associated with the school believes it can occupy a prominent niche and meet a pressing need in contemporary America.

"In talking with admissions officers around the country," says Peter Burns, who recently resigned from the post at Goddard, "you realize that there's an obvious need for a school like this." Goddard President Richard Greene, whose policies prompted Burns' departure, thinks the college has "a clear and vital role to play. It's widely seen as a school that brought about significant change in American higher education."

Adds Jane Sanders, chair of the Board of Trustees: "Our country's current climate is crying out for the active participation of organizations with Goddard's principles. We're faced with an extraordinary opportunity."

Agreement ends there, however.

The 138 on-campus students and the 50-member faculty appear almost unanimous in the conviction that Greene must go if Goddard is to remain true to its traditions and fulfill its potential. But the 64-year-old president says he's not going anywhere. And Sanders, the wife of Vermont's Independent Congressman, firmly supports Greene's decision to defy the faculty's recent 46-1 vote of no confidence in his leadership.

While acknowledging that "the faculty does have some valid concerns," Sanders insists "the answer is not for the president to resign. What we're seeing is the same old pattern of putting all the blame at the president's doorstep and no blame whatsoever at anyone else's." In Sanders' view, the blame resides mainly with "a distinct group of very organized and outspoken people who want no hierarchical structure at all and want to be accountable only to themselves."

Some of Greene's opponents do in fact reject the president/board model. What they'd like to develop instead is a government scheme more in keeping with Goddard's commitment to democratic management. "We're trying to shoulder our share of responsibility," says faculty leader Kenneth Bergstrom.

It was only 20 months ago, however, that the faculty, staff and students welcomed Greene as their democratically chosen leader.

Bergstrom says now that the representational search committee "made a mistake" in selecting as president "a person with nothing in his background that's progressive or experimental." Having realize their error, Greene's erstwhile endorsers are working, Bergstrom says, "to cut our losses."

WAY OUT: Will Goddard President Dick Greene go the way of his predecessors?

There's nothing new about the trouble and strife currently boiling the isolated, dilapidated campus. Switchboard operator Lucille Cerutti, a Goddard employee for 31 years, has seen it all before.

"All the presidents of Goddard have had a hard time," Cerutti says. "Greene was hired to help straighten out the finances and to put together an effective board. He's done that, but many people here have problems with authority in general. It's a very tough place in that way."

Goddard does have a history of frequent turnovers in positions of authority. All six of Greene's predecessors as president, beginning in 1965, were forced out of office. And the latest round of "civil unrest" -- a protesters' press release hyperbolically puts it -- was marked by the April 11th resignation of admissions director Burns and two other dean-level administrators in the preceding months.

It's not clear though, that the college always sustains damage as a result of its propensity for purges.

Goddard did come close to a collapse in the early 1980s when enrollment had plummeted and the school's budget was wildly out of whack. Later in the decade, the New England college accrediting body slapped Goddard with an order to show cause why it should not be on probation. The chief issues, according to Sanders, an alumna who joined the board at around that time, had nothing to do with the quality of academics. The threat of losing accreditation stemmed instead, she says, from Goddard's financial and organizational instability.

The school managed to right itself in almost all respects, even as they continue to cannibalize those in command. By all accounts, the last three annual budgets were balanced -- even showing a surplus -- and enrollment climbed steadily during the early 1990s. "Goddard's in better shape now than it's been in since the 1960s," Sanders says.

But the positive trend went into reverse last fall. Due largely to a shortfall in projected enrollment for the autumn 1995 semester, the $5.5 million budget veered back into the red, producing an estimated deficit of $400,000, according to Burns.

Goddard has targeted a total residential and off-campus student enrollment of 505 for last September, but the actual figure was only 465. That triggered a crisis, since yearly tuition -- about $14,500 for on-campus undergraduates and $7,000 for off-campus students -- accounts for most of the school's revenues.

And Goddard isn't too choosy about who it enrolls. The college accepts almost everyone who completes the demanding application process, resulting in an undergraduate admissions rate of well over 90 percent.

Burns describes the typical Goddard student as "very bright, a good writer, someone who reads heavily and who isn't afraid to challenge authority."

"Richard Greene can be very smooth in public, but he's alienated a lot of people here by trying to turn Goddard into the sort of mainstream institution it was never intended to be. -- Peter Burns, former director of Goddard admissions"

Professors formulate detailed evaluations of each student's learning process, eschewing the standard grading system on the grounds that it "appears to quantify the unquantifiable and compare the incomparable."

Enrollment did return to the anticipated level in January, reports Burns, but the fiscal situation remains worrisome.

Fueling the get-rid-of-Greene campaign is fear among faculty and staff that Goddard may soon be hit by the wave of downsizing that's swamped corporations and nonprofits alike. Green says he is closing the budget gap by pairing "non-personnel areas," but employees suspect the cost-cutting will eventually take the form of layoffs.

"We're not the only ones going through this sort of thing," notes Francis Malgeri, a self-described Jill-of-all-trades at the college who generally supports Greene's objectives. "Economics is what's behind a lot of the unrest -- not just at Goddard itself but in people's lives as well."

In addition to their concerns about job security, faculty and staff members expressed anxiety over Greene's policy decisions. There is considerable resentment, for example, over Greene's retention of an outside consulting firm to run the admissions office following Burns' departure.

Students, too, worried that the president may eliminate many of the freewheeling features that attracted them to Goddard in the first place.

"He doesn't understand Goddard's mission," charges Burns, whose resume hardly qualifies him as an insurrectionist. Prior to coming to Goddard three years ago, Burns served as director of admissions at a technical college in Maine and a business school in New Hampshire. "I left because of Richard Greene," says Burns. "He can be very smooth in public, but he's alienated a lot of people here by trying to turn Goddard into the sort of mainstream institution it was never intended to be."

Burns cites the recent loss of a longtime administrator whose grab-bag of duties include overseeing the library, radio station and registrar functions. "Greene hadn't seen such a configuration at any other college," Burns says, "and he popped her out of that position so we could look like everybody else."

Brett Sullivan Santry, a 21-year-old student from Hershey, PA, thinks it's "tragic" what Greene is doing to the school. "The man is on a destructive past. He's using tactics that are harmful to the facilitators and professors who are very important to my education."

Santry, a theater major, is like many Goddard undergrads in that he transferred to it from a much more educationally conservative institution.

"I feel as though I was just being made to regurgitate knowledge there," he explains. "I was turned on to Goddard by its method of facilitation, as opposed to professorship, and by the opportunity to do independent study and fieldwork." In only his second semester at Goddard, Santry has already directed a full theater production and obtained a radio operator's license. Next semester, he'll be taking advantage of the school's proffered "study leave" by attending Cork College in Ireland.

The Goddard faculty are an equally creative and independent-minded bunch. It's due largely to their insistence on self-expression and self-determination that, in Bergstrom's view, "this is one of the very few colleges or organizations left today that really believes that process is important. In most other places, and ends are seen as justifying the means."

That's one positive aspect of having such an individualistically inclined faculty and student body; a downside, in the opinion of at least a few onlookers and participants, is that facilitators and learners alike often exhibit insular, self-indulgent behavior. It's tempting, in fact, to see Goddard as an irrelevant ivory Tower of Bable inhabited by an old-fashioned avant-garde acting out some hoary 1960s script.

It's tempting to see Goddard as an irrelevant ivory Tower of Bable inhabited by an old-fashioned avant-garde acting out some hoary 1960s script.

"I don't think we listen enough to one another," says Malgeri, whose official title is assistant dean of administration. "There's constant talk year about 'community,' but I'm not sure we all understand what exactly that means. If we took all the negative energy in this place and turned it into something positive, there's nothing we couldn't accomplish."

While conditions have clearly improved at Goddard in some respects during the past decade, says Sanders, "it's become even more insulated from the rest of the world, even more bogged down in its own problems." Until recently, the college on a hill even held itself apart from little Plainfield, Sanders says, having virtually no contact with the economically hard-pressed town.

A substantial minority of students are also keeping their distance from the latest round of protest-the-president. They prefer, Santry says, to remain focused on artistic pursuits rather than take part in campus politics.

It is easy to float off on a contemplative idyll admidst the serenity and silence of Goddard's woodsy surroundings. In fact, the campus looked all but abandoned on a recent Tuesday afternoon, with only a few students making their way among the architecturally distinguished but often tattered looking buildings.

The neglect in disrepair are actually not as acute as was the case a few years ago. Significant investments were made in upgrading the physical plant during the flush years of the early 1990s. And last month a portion of the campus was entered on the National Register of Historic Places.

Greene says he is similarly seeking to modernize Goddard's program all preserving its historic character. "My aim is to bring about a rebirth of freedom at Goddard that will allow its creative energy to once again be applied in constructive ways.

"I'm a change agent," Greene declares.

The former president of St. Thomas College outside Miami wants to develop an on-campus think-tank to conduct research into "educational theories and practices for the classroom of tomorrow." Greene says he's already secured a $65,000 grant for this endeavor, with "a couple of hundred thousand more" expected in the next two years. Godard should also concentrate, he says, on "training teachers in holistic education for grades K-12."

Greene stresses the need for the school to exercise self-discipline. "Goddard launches good ideas but doesn't always follow through on them," he says, pointing to the example of its single-parent program. Goddard pioneered this effort to serve the educational needs of the sector of the population usually left outside the groves of academe. Many other colleges followed that model, which was allowed to "dissipate" at Goddard itself, Greene notes.

With changes of any sort comes tensions, observes administrator Malgeri. "I think we've actually gotten a bit stale here," she says in defense of Greene's attempted shake-up. "There's too much invested in the status quo, not enough willingness to experiment."

At least a few faculty members seem prepared to give Greene a further hearing before pressing harder for his ouster. A recent rally of Greene's opponents "left the door cracked open a bit" for dialogue that might lead to compromise, Bergstrom says.

"If we can get past all this," the faculty spokesman suggests, "Goddard will be on solid footing." Echoes Sanders, "Things may well get worse before they get better, but I see resolving this current situation as almost the last breakthrough to a strong future for Goddard."