Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Burlington College: Forward into the Past

It’s been about 30 years since I last taught at Burlington College. At the time it had a different name, Vermont Institute of Community Involvement, also known as VICI, unusual for a college and somewhat misleading – if you assume involvement means an engagement with local issues.

What VICI’s founder actually had in mind was more modest, mainly the use of local venues – libraries, galleries, public buildings, other schools and such – as meeting spaces for classes. Involvement was primarily a question of location for what was called “a school without walls.”

After its first four years, the college had about 100 students, 15 faculty members, and an annual budget of under $200,000. In addition to using existing community spaces for classes rather than focusing on bricks and mortar, VICI also allowed students to design their own academic experience, and used qualitative, written evaluations rather than grades to assess student performance.

But in 1976 enrollment in the school’s associate degree program dropped for the first time. Steward LaCasce, a professor of literature who had launched the college with a small group of friends in 1972, attributed its financial troubles to a decrease in the number of veterans enrolling and a delay in degree-granting privileges for its new B.A. program.

The main building on a new campus
Faced with a growing deficit, LaCasce told the Board of Trustees in February 1977 that either staff salaries needed to be cut or the school might be forced to close. VICI survived that early brush with insolvency and won full accreditation in 1982. Over the next 20 years it became Burlington College, bought property on North Avenue to accommodate its growing staff and provide in-house classroom space, and more than doubled its student body. This year it moved to much larger facilities on land purchased from the Catholic Diocese for $10 million.  

In an exclusive story for vtdigger, I discuss the current challenges confronting the school. See Burlington College Grapples with Growing Pains. In the meantime, here is the story of how I left VICI back in the late 1970s:

The original idea was to attract non-traditional students, those who felt uncomfortable with conventional academic restrictions. About a third of VICI’s first students were young Vietnam era vets. Others were single parents and “adult learners,” people returning to school after a break. That contrasts with today’s younger student body.

At the 1976 annual meeting, held at the Baird Center in October, I joined the Board of Trustees as one of two elected faculty members. There were also two student seats on the Board at that time. After approving a series of bylaws amendments, the group voted to have the chair set up a special committee to evaluate the president’s performance, since he was coming to an end of a five-year term.

Shortly after that, I was elected to the executive committee, which led to an unusual assignment. I was to complete an analysis of the college’s administrative structure and processes, in line with other bylaws changes being considered and, especially, concern that the school might be facing budget cuts. I reviewed documents, observed meetings, and conducted extensive interviews with the staff.

The result was a report, issued in early January 1977, concluding that the administration was divided, morale was low, and the president was seen as mistrustful and isolated. The problems had been brewing, but this put them on paper. My concern, noted at the end of a seven-page report, was that “organizational health may soon be jeopardized.”

A month later, as Lou Colasanti became the school’s first recipient of a Bachelor of Arts degree, LaCasce responded with an analysis of his own during a “special meeting” of the trustees. He acknowledged an atmosphere he described with words like “conflict, demoralization and confusion.” But his main point was that fewer vets were applying and the Associate Degree program had been neglected in favor of new psychology and self-designed B.A. programs.  The result was a serious, survival-threatening situation:

As LaCasce presented it in his February 5 report, there were three choices:

1. Cut all staff salaries by 10 percent, but increase a half-time institutional services position to full time to improve morale. That would mean work over the next months to balance the budget.

2. Eliminate almost all staff positions, with the president and a few others taking on more tasks. This could be even more demoralizing, he admitted, and would require that the Board of Trustees  begin fundraising, or

3.  Close the College on June 30, 1977.

Unless the school was closing, he added, he wanted “the authority to suspend the current College committee structure until the Spring Meeting of the Board.” It was a bold move, designed to preempt the growing discontent among faculty and students.     

Two days later he asked me into his office. I was being fired, he explained, for three reasons. First, during the previous week I had participated in a student meeting that he considered disruptive. Second, I’ had said at a meeting that I was willing to accept a reduced salary due to the budget problems. This undermined other staff members, he charged. And finally, unity was necessary and other staff members didn’t trust me.

Afterward, I asked around and learned that his decision had been completely unilateral. No member of the staff or Board had requested that he fire me. In fact, the core staff disagreed.

Over the next few days a petition began to circulate and a community meeting was announced.  The idea was to combine my firing with some pro-active ideas, including a fundraising project and more student involvement in recruitment, curriculum and development.  In the meantime, LaCasce sent me two letters. The first was an immediate dismissal, although it ended with this:

“I’m extremely sorry that things have worked out this way, and I believe that many of your ideas will, in time, be incorporated as part of VICI.”

That didn’t prove to be true In fact, as VICI became BC it dropped some of the elements that had made it different than other colleges. What elements? Consider Article III from the original by-laws, concerning the powers of the Trustees.

The President, although having extensive authority, was treated somewhat like an elected official. In Article III, one section outlined what should happen before the president’s “term of office” expired. A nominating committee “shall be established to solicit names of possible candidates, and to submit to the trustees its choice of the best candidate.” The committee itself was to be composed of both trustees and others “nominated by the Policy Committee and ratified by a majority of the students and faculty.” That’s community involvement in an important institutional process.

On February 10, 1977, a day before the community meeting, I received another letter from LaCasce. “Many of your friends and students have asked me for specific details to support my decision,” he began. “I have said that I thought you could not work constructively within VICI this spring to help us reorganize the College and reach the goals that our trustees set at their February 5th meeting.” But he was willing to attend the meeting, he added, and would be more specific in public. It was an offer I could not refuse.

To be continued...
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