Goddard College's Unconventional Path to Survival

A 'low residency' program brings students together, but only for one week

Caleb Kenna for The Chronicle

"More of the citizens of this country need to develop intelligent thinking," says Goddard's president, Barbara Vacarr (left).
September 04, 2011

Someone like Rod Crossman, at his stage in life and with his professional success, doesn't often seek a way to reinvent himself. Yet Mr. Crossman—a painter, an assistant professor, and an artist in residence at Indiana Wesleyan University—felt that he was merely churning out pretty work to hang on gallery walls, increasingly feeling a schism between where his career had taken him and where his passion was telling him to go.

"My art practice had become marooned in the place where it was not connected to the world," he says. "There were issues that my students were facing, and I didn't think I had the tools to help them navigate those problems. Some of the issues they were facing were just the challenges of the world that we live in." He wanted an interdisciplinary M.F.A. to reinvigorate his work at Indiana Wesleyan, where he has taught for 30 years.

He found a tiny college in rural Vermont that has blown itself up and emerged anew time and again: Goddard College. The birthplace of some important academic innovations, it has long bucked traditional notions of higher education and, like many experimental colleges, flirted with financial ruin. Its latest transformation may be its most remarkable: Reaching a nadir in its financial health in the early 2000s, it did what many colleges would consider unthinkable. The college shut down its storied, core residential program and adopted its low-residency adult program as its sole campus offering. It has since re-emerged with 10-year accreditation, the highest number of students in decades, money to spend on refurbishing its campus, a new campus in Port Townsend, Wash., and plans to expand its programs to other cities across the country. One administrator put the college's turnaround in perspective: Today, Goddard is getting a $2-million loan to build a biomass plant, but 10 years ago the college couldn't have gotten a car loan.

Innovation is the buzzword of higher education these days. People talk about leveraging technology and scaling up, about treating faculty members like hired guns, and about adopting industrial models to bring down costs and ramp up "production." All of it in a bid to offer more college degrees—more cheaply, more quickly, and some worry, of a lower quality.

None of that is happening here. Goddard faculty members, who do not have tenure but are unionized, seem fiercely devoted to the college. Students say their open-ended studies are among the most rigorous they have ever experienced. And Goddard's president, Barbara Vacarr, is downright heretical when asked how higher education can scale up and give more Americans college degrees.

"I would say that more people do not need degrees—that more of the citizens of this country need to develop intelligent thinking, and higher education should be about that," she says. Goddard, after emerging from its financial straits, is ready for another bold move. "Where I see Goddard going is being very public once again about being an activist college—a college that is about not getting a degree, not getting anything really, but about human development and the kind of learning that compels people to take action in the world."

A Passion for Learning

As colleges go, Goddard was always peculiar. Royce S. (Tim) Pitkin founded the college as an offshoot of the Goddard Seminary in 1938. At Columbia University's Teachers College, Pitkin was a student of William Heard Kilpatrick, who followed John Dewey's progressive-education philosophy. So Pitkin adopted a Deweyan model for Goddard, seeking to mend the rift between daily life and learning. "Education is a process of securing a better understanding and an enriching of life, rather than the teaching of a subject matter in prescribed courses," Pitkin wrote in an early plan for the college.

Dewey held that students' passions energized their learning, so from its inception to this day, Goddard's new students begin their studies with a question: What do you want to know? With input from faculty advisers, students devise their own educational plans, including choosing books and other media to study. And they determine how they'll demonstrate what they have learned throughout.

Pitkin, who was president until 1969, did not believe in building an endowment, because he thought it might make Goddard too comfortable and hamper innovation. So the college was constantly experimenting with new models and new ways to offer education, in part because it was often struggling financially. Pitkin also thought the college's residential program should never have more than 200 students, because large numbers would hurt the community-building that was essential to the Goddard experience. But the college did try spinning off different programs and establishing alternate campuses. Most failed.

But in 1963, something truly new and successful emerged. Evalyn Bates, director of adult education at Goddard, devised the nation's first low-residency adult-education program—the idea being that students would study at home, with the exception of one week of the semester, which would be spent in intense meetings and seminars on campus. The first class of 20 students, who had to be 26 or older, was mostly women. "The folklore is that the initial recruiting list was the Smith College dropout list"—women who got married and left college early, says Josh Castle, the registrar and associate dean for enrollment.

It had tremendous appeal to people who wanted something more intense than traditional distance education, yet had families or jobs to keep in another part of the country. Within a decade, the low-residency program had 400 students and to this day has influenced similar offerings at some 60 other institutions, including Antioch University, Prescott College, the Union Institute & University, the Vermont College of Fine Arts, and Warren Wilson College. Ms. Vacarr, Goddard's president, who left high school at age 15 and dropped out of college to raise a family, returned to college as an adult through a low-residency program at Lesley University started by faculty who came from Goddard.

"Evalyn Bates is not known by anybody in higher education, but her legacy is profound," Mr. Castle says.

A Gathering in Plainfield

Today Goddard's low-residency program enrolls some 800 students in certificate, bachelor's, and master's programs in a dozen fields, like education, sustainability, psychology, the fine arts, and creative writing, along with the open-ended "individualized studies," the college's most popular offering. (Tuition and fees for most programs run about $16,000 per year, and most students finish in three to five semesters. More than 90 percent of students in the bachelor's program entered with credits from another college.)

This summer, M.F.A. students in the interdisciplinary-arts program gathered at Goddard the way most programs here do: Faculty members traveled from locations across America and Canada to the campus, a historic gentleman's farm, a couple of days ahead of the students. Here in a converted barn, their nameplates were hung outside empty offices that once belonged to residential faculty members.

Students, who sleep in the old dormitories, soon arrive for an intense week of meetings, private conferences, seminars, social gatherings, and meals (always with vegan options), which are frequently interrupted by someone ringing a little white bell to announce a learning activity that students have thrown together. The days typically start at 7:30 a.m. and run until 10 p.m.—or later, if students decide to stay up, talking into the night.

The residency serves as a transition from the faculty adviser (they are not called "professors") who oversaw a student's work over the past semester to a new adviser who will help that student design coursework for the coming semester. When the residency is over, the students and faculty members go home, the cleaning crews sweep through, stripping the faculty nameplates from the doors, and faculty members and students from another degree program arrive several days later. The cycle continues all year long.

After a residency, a faculty adviser will expect a "packet" of work from students every three weeks, to which the faculty member will respond with a long, detailed letter. Over the semester, the students and professors will periodically contact each other individually and in groups online and over the phone.

The conventions of distance education are widely known and accepted, but Goddard's style of teaching is markedly different—and not for everyone. With all the hype in academe about sages on stages and guides on sides, the faculty members at Goddard are truly the latter, and that seems to involve both setting aside egos and putting in more work.

"It requires a kind of commitment and risk, because you do not have the status of faculty that are dispensing information and facts," says Francis X. Charet, an expert in psychology, religion, and consciousness studies who has taught at the college for 13 years. He has seen many faculty members quit because they can't handle the pedagogical style. At Goddard, where faculty members work under short- and long-term contracts, people have also frequently left for more secure jobs. But faculty members say that turnover has slowed since the college's financial health improved.

Barriers to Innovation

Programs like this also come with major administrative hassles, especially for a college on a $13-million budget. Goddard has overlapping semesters, for example, but the National Student Clearinghouse doesn't allow it to report until all students have completed a semester; that means Goddard administrators have to write student-loan deferment letters for individual students to attest that they are still in college. Goddard has also had to fight the government on visa rules following September 11, track state rules for programs requiring licensure (like education), and put up with a rule at the Veterans Administration that doesn't recognize low-residency programs for a housing allowance.

"It is interesting that the federal government in particular is pushing for innovation, but none of the ways that schools can interact with the federal government encourage it," Mr. Castle says. And then there are acts of God: A residency has not yet been delayed or canceled because of a harsh Vermont winter, but Mr. Castle wonders if that scenario is inevitable.

For Mr. Crossman, this summer's residency was his last, in which he submitted a portfolio of critical writing, photomontage, and video, and said goodbye to friends. Over the past five semesters he studied the work of prominent thinkers like Jacques Derrida, Allan Kaprow, and Sherry Turkle. His faculty advisers may not have been painters, but that was fine with him. "In academia, especially when you have been teaching as long as I have, you become a specialist, and in some ways, that insulates you," he says. "I wanted to get outside of this specialization and this language that was almost like an echo chamber."

But he learned as much or more from his fellow students. The residency, he says, offered an opportunity to network with other artists and talk about big ideas, or even about working together someday. "There are a lot of really bright, successful people in this program," he says. "It opens up doors and possibilities." Among the people who attended the program this summer were a member of the Martha Graham Dance Company, a world-class tabla player, and a performance artist who held a string of Guinness World Records, including one for riding a lawn mower from Maine to California in 1986.

And what did Mr. Crossman take away from his education? "I am wondering now if I will ever paint again," he says. "I am really fired up about helping younger artists and being an advocate for them in building a practice that serves the world and also allows them to eat. I have always been this artist that sat in my studio and painted, then threw my art out into the world. ... I want to be much more intentional about serving the community."

Distinguished Alumni

Many colleges talk about their community service, but it has always been an explicit goal of the education here. The activism and Deweyan pedagogy of both the on-campus program and the low-residency program attracted freethinkers, artists, and radicals, particularly in the college's heyday, the 1960s and 70s. Goddard harbored organizations that shaped the Vermont landscape and counterculture, like the politically activist Bread & Puppet Theatre and the Institute for Social Ecology, which focuses on sustainability research. Among the college's famous alumni are the actor William H. Macy, members of the rock band Phish, the jazz saxophonist Archie Shepp, the death-row inmate and activist Mumia Abu-Jamal, and scores of writers, including David Mamet, Walter Mosley, Piers Anthony, and Mary Karr. (Goddard was a gathering place for Raymond Carver, Frank Conroy, Richard Ford, John Irving, Tobias Wolff, and other writers who taught there.)

Mark Doty, one of America's best-known poets, was a student in Goddard's low-residency M.F.A. writing program from 1978 to 1980. He says his faculty advisers pushed him to read much more deeply than he had before, but his student peers pushed even more, forcing him to strip the artificiality from his prose.

He recalls the solitude of the wooded campus and the intensity of the studies. "It was a rich time for me," says Mr. Doty, who is now a professor of English and director of the writing program at Rutgers University. "You get put in a psychic pressure cooker."

He later returned to Goddard to teach literature and writing from 1985 to 1990. When he arrived, the college had fewer than 50 students, and whether he would get paid each week on time, or at all, was always in question. He loved it, however. He'll never forget looking out his office window on his first day and seeing eight students walking across campus, stark naked and covered in mud, returning from some adventure in the forest. "I thought, Where have I landed? This is not like teaching at Boston University."

By the 1990s, Goddard College was starting to deteriorate—financially and physically. The college could not generate the critical mass needed to support a range of offerings and services, so administrators brought in a consulting company to goose enrollment by aggressively discounting tuition. Numbers went up to around 200, selectivity went way down, "and the attrition was abominable," says Mr. Castle.

The college had no money to spend on maintenance of the historic campus—and no time to do the work anyway. Goddard was cramming the low-residency programs into summer and winter breaks, when resident students were away. "Our beds were continuously full," says Mr. Castle.

By 2002, things were looking dire. Closing entirely, merging with another college, selling off programs piecemeal, and selling Goddard to a for-profit—all those options were under consideration by the Board of Trustees, says Mr. Castle. But while the residency program was failing, the low-residency program was healthy, so the board made the risky and unpopular decision to permanently shut down the residential program and make the low-residency one Goddard's primary focus.

Faculty and some alumni were embittered. Mark Greenberg, who was laid off from his job teaching American studies and humanities, believes that board members had become conservative with age, and were unwilling to support the zany antics that were associated with the residential program. Others were quick to eulogize the college. "The end of Goddard—a school deeply committed to educational experimentation—as a residential college is lamentable," said an editorial in The Boston Globe. "Goddard's board claims it terminated the on-campus program in order to maintain Goddard's independent name, since continuing residential classes would have forced the school to merge with another institution. But what is a name if the educational premise behind it no longer exists?"

The 'Real' Goddard

Goddard wasn't the college it had been, but experimentation and the progressive ideals had not disappeared. Mark Schulman, who became Goddard's president shortly after the residential program shut down, went on a listening tour to meet alumni. The residential alumni, who were livid, would complain that the "real" Goddard was dead. People in the room who graduated from the low-residency program shot back at them.

"They would say, I resent that," says Mr. Schulman, who is now president of Saybrook University. "I would just sit back and let the graduates of the adult degree programs challenge the notions of their fellow alums. And that, more often than not, would work, making people reconsider what was going on."

Dustin Byerly, who graduated from the residential program in 2001, came back in 2005 to work in the cafeteria after he was laid off from a construction job. He expected to hate what he saw, but he was blown away.

"The students seemed to be of a higher caliber, seemed to be more self-directed, confident, prepared," says Mr. Byerly, who now works as an archivist and college historian in the library. But these students were, at the core, the same kind of person he was—someone who found Goddard when traditional education failed him. "The types of individuals who are drawn to this—an education that gives them a say in what they do and empowers them in a way that they might never have been empowered before—those individuals are still the same."

In fact, faculty members and others at Goddard make a convincing case that the low-residency version of the college offers the most relevant education for modern times, particularly in its focus on localism and community-building. Peter Hocking, a faculty member in the interdisciplinary-arts program, who was an administrator at Brown University and a faculty member at the Rhode Island School of Design, says that students at traditional colleges might get access to great facilities and snazzy equipment. "But the minute they graduate," he says, "their ID card gets turned off and they are not let back into those buildings, and they go into a period of crisis for two or three years of rebuilding their lives and reintegrating their practice into their lived world."

In Goddard's program, "you are not being torn from your reality," he says. "You are asked to build the ties to your reality more solidly."

Ms. Vacarr, who took over as president in July 2010, sees Goddard growing up, in a way. The college will start building an endowment to support needy students. (For now, staff members hold bake sales and dock their paychecks to contribute to a student fund.) And Goddard will push out into the world even more. The college's campus on a state park in Port Townsend was formed in partnership with a community college, the state of Washington, and nonprofit organizations. She says Goddard is now forming partnerships in other cities. This fall in Seattle, Goddard is starting a bachelor's program in education in the most ethnically diverse ZIP code in the country. The program, which will be offered in Spanish and English, is aimed at students who cannot make the trek back to Plainfield.

But Goddard, which turned inward during its latest financial crisis, will also try to recapture its role as an evangelist for progressive education. Imagine the world when Pitkin founded the college in 1938, Ms. Vacarr says: It was mired in a devastating depression, with people embracing political extremism as answers to complex problems. "Pitkin said we need a more intelligent citizenry, and I would say the same thing now," she says. But national conversations about education tend to focus on outcomes and assessment, rote memorization, and teaching to the test.

"It's despairing," she says. "We are in great need of people who can think beyond the messaging that is out there. We are not going to be able to solve some of these very complex problems, unless people can think in complex ways." She plans to carry that message beyond Goddard into higher education. And from the kinds of testimonies she hears on graduation days, she thinks Goddard graduates will, too.

Graduation day for the M.F.A. program this summer began as it could only at a place like this: Two students, a rail-thin man and a stouter companion, both dressed in stunning high heels and feather boas, stood in front of a pounding grand piano, belting out "Bridge Over Troubled Water" for a raucous audience.

When it came time to pass out degrees, the mood turned somber. Graduates stood and spoke to the crowd about mothers who died during their studies, the bonds they formed with fellow students, and the unique opportunity that Goddard gave them. One woman directly addressed her three preteen children in the audience. "I want to make a vow to them in front of all of you," she said. "I will do everything I can to find a Goddard for you."

At his turn, Mr. Crossman stood and thanked his peers for changing him. The college had taught him to break rules and abandon his long-held notions about art. He quoted the poet and philosopher Paul Valéry. "'Seeing is forgetting the name of the thing one sees.' That is another thing that Goddard taught me."

His voice faltered with emotion before he could finish his thanks, and the room exploded in applause to fill the silence.