Saturday, December 20, 2014

Back to the Seventies: Leaving Burlington College

The original name -- Vermont Institute of Community Involvement -- was unusual for a college, and a little misleading – especially if you assume involvement means a deep engagement with local politics. What VICI founder Steward LaCasce had in mind was more modest and much more practical, the use of local venues – libraries, galleries, public buildings, other schools and so on – as meeting spaces for its classes. Involvement was primarily a matter of location for what was called “a school without walls.”

After four years VICI - which later changed that unwieldy name to Burlington College (BC) -- had about 100 students, 15 faculty members, and an annual budget of around $200,000. In addition to using existing community spaces for classes rather than focusing on "bricks and mortar," it allowed students to design their own academic experience, and used qualitative, written evaluations rather than grades to assess performance.

Author as
Vanguard Press Editor, 1980
In 1976, however, enrollment in the school’s associate degree program dropped for the first time. LaCasce, a professor of literature who had launched VICI with a group of friends in 1972, attributed the financial troubles to a decrease in the number of veterans enrolling and a delay in degree-granting privileges for its new B.A. program.

Faced with a growing deficit, he 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 decades it became Burlington College, bought property on North Avenue to accommodate a growing staff and provide some in-house classroom space, and doubled the student body. In 2011 it moved to much larger campus on land purchased from the Catholic Diocese for $10 million. Today the college is fighting for survival.

At first the admissions strategy was to attract what were then called “non-traditional” learners, a catch-all for anyone not between 18 and 22 or who wanted an alternative to conventional academic restrictions. About a third of the first students were young Vietnam era vets. Others were single parents and “adult learners,” people returning to school after a break.

At the 1976 annual meeting the previous October, I'd joined the board of trustees as one of two elected faculty members. There were also two student board members. After approving a series of bylaws amendments, we voted to have the chair set up a special committee to evaluate the president’s performance, since he was coming to the end of a five-year term.

Shortly after that, I was elected to the executive committee, which led to an unusual assignment. I was tasked to complete a system analysis of the college’s administrative structure and processes, in line with other bylaws changes being considered and, especially, the concern that the school might face budget cuts in the near future. As part of my due diligence I reviewed documents, observed meetings, and conducted interviews with the staff.

The result was a report, issued in early January, concluding that the administration was divided, morale was low, and the president was viewed as mistrustful and isolated. The problems had been brewing, but this put them on paper. My concern, mentioned at the end of a summary, 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 the new psychology and self-designed B.A. programs.

The result was a serious, survival-threatening situation. As LaCasce outlined it to the board of trustees in his Feb. 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 more 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 work. This would 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.

But not only that. Unless the school was going to close LaCasce wanted “the authority to suspend the current College committee structure until the Spring Meeting of the Board.” It was a bold move to quiet criticism of his performance and quell discontent among faculty and students.

Two days later he asked me into his office and explained that I was being fired – 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 explained. And third, unity was necessary and other staff members didn’t trust me.

Afterward, I asked around and learned that his decision had been unilateral. No member of the staff or board had requested my dismissal. In fact, the core staff objected since, in the long term, if he could do this any of them might be next. As it worked out, several more soon left.

Over the next few days a petition circulated and a community meeting was arranged. The idea was to combine my firing with some proactive 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 official, 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.” I can't say that the prediction was true.

The second letter was dated Feb. 10, the day before a community meeting at which we would both appear. “Many of your friends and students have asked me for specific details to support my decision,” he wrote. “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.”

He was willing to attend, however, and said he would be more specific in public. When he did appear nothing much more was revealed. The real motivation for such an abrupt dismissal, I’ve concluded, was most likely a course I had added to my load — Systems and Change — and its long-term group project, to conduct a deeper analysis of the school.

I could have sued and did confer with a lawyer. But what was the point? To win a few thousand dollars after years of legal sparring and potentially deeper bitterness. That felt like the optimistic forecast. No, I still loved the idea of the school. It seemed better for now to let it go.

A few weeks later I turned 30. As a birthday present I decided to give myself a vacation, the first in years and also the first outside North America. (The destination was Haiti but that’s another story.) In less than two years I was editing a new weekly newspaper called The Vermont Vanguard Press, and also back teaching at the college.
. . . and the story continues...
Post a Comment