As Goddard College celebrates the 150th anniversary of its incorporation this month, the future of the small school in Plainfield remains uncertain.
For sure, the school’s faculty, staff, management and board of trustees should be proud of the milestones that have been accomplished along the way. And certainly this weekend’s festivities paid tribute to many incredible people, as well as the ripple effect many of those people have gone on to have elsewhere in the world.
But with the imminent departure of Barbara Vacarr later this year, the school is once again in that all-too-familiar pattern of conducting a search for a new leader. In the last 25 years, the school has had 15 presidents. The median tenure for a president has been three years, and an average of 3.2 years. That does not suggest a problem; it suggests dysfunction.
One has to wonder why the school continues to chew up the visionaries whose intentions, for the most part, have been to make the college sustainable first and excellent second. Are the internal politics of the school so polemic and territorial that there is no room for change or compromise? Presidents leave frustrated and often demoralized.
Vacarr, who has served the last three years, has been widely criticized on campus for her tough stands aimed at bringing up-to-date processes and methods into a system that proudly and openly rejects such edicts. Yet, she has stated time and again that Goddard must adapt in order to compete in the cutthroat world of higher education. She built a management team — all women — and even recruited board members she hoped would help to bust the school’s stigma, shut down the old conversations, and build new partnerships.
But the challenge proved to be even more pronounced.
After an extensive analysis, Vacarr asked her board of trustees to allow her to take steps to move the school forward, broadening the outreach and opportunities, even at the risk of operating at a deficit that has come to be known as $1.5 million. Staff and faculty bristled, and the change of direction fueled fears over job security and other cost-cutting. Unions formed and remain in negotiation over their role in the school’s future. In turn, Vacarr has been characterized as a bully and out of touch.
We would say that is the price of leadership.
The greatest education for everyone at Goddard is the one to come in the next year or so. The school must take even bolder steps to ensure their future. The board of trustees has difficult decisions ahead, even some that could once again chart Goddard’s course in yet another direction. They need to choose the next leader wisely. They need to put their full-throated support behind the plan. And they need to push hard to put in place the guarantees that Goddard will be around for years to come.
Vacarr has been vocal in her concern that the future is blurry, yet she seems confident that with the Goddard community, and the broader community of central Vermont, all pulling in the same direction, the school will grow. Otherwise, Vacarr, her management team, Goddard’s leaders and the board, have good reason to be uneasy.
It seems ironic a place that prides itself in throwing structure and rules to the wind would need to be reminded that it needs to do so — and now — if it ever wants to celebrate another anniversary.
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