Maverick Chronicles: Teachers and a school without walls

Editor’s note: This essay is part of a series excerpted from “Maverick Chronicles,” a memoir-in-progress by Greg Guma, a longtime Vermont journalist. This is the ninth installment. All of the essays in the series can be found here.

In 1956, Frank Wilkinson, a housing organizer from Los Angeles, was summoned to appear at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. The committee had already wrecked the local housing authority in a hunt for Communists. It had also cost Frank the job.

Frank Wilkinson

Frank Wilkinson

When subpoenaed he refused to speak – but not on the usual Fifth Amendment (self-incrimination) grounds. Instead he took the First Amendment on the grounds that the committee, by forcing him to answer questions and using tactics of intimidation, was violating his right to freedom of speech.

Wilkinson spent a year in jail for that defiant stand. But he emerged unbowed and fought for the abolition of HUAC for more than a decade. In his dissenting opinion on Frank’s Supreme Court case, Justice Hugo Black called it an attempt by HUAC “to use contempt power … as a weapon against those who criticize it.”

Fortunately,the tactic didn’t work. Frank poured his energies into the National Committee to Abolish HUAC – and finally succeeded in doing it in 1975.

I got to know him around this time, helping with his ongoing national road tour to talk about constitutional rights and the threats of repressive laws. Frank was one in a series of mentors, people who demonstrated through their ideas and deeds how to make a difference and, in some cases, live a conscious life.

For spiritual grounding I turned to Buddhism, studying with Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, exiled leader of the Surmang Monastery in Tibet. Trungpa Rinpoche, one of the first teachers to introduce Buddhism to North America, had come to the U.S. a few years earlier and established a meditation center, Tail of the Tiger, in Barnet, Vt. It later became Karmê Chöling, first in a network of Buddhist retreats known as Dharmadhatus. I frequently visited Tail of the Tiger during its early years, meditating for days, sometimes weeks.

I also learned valuable lessons from anarchist thinker Murray Bookchin, Toward Freedom publisher Bill Lloyd, renegade lawyer Bill Kunstler and peace activist Dave Dellinger.

Defending dissent

As HUAC faded away Frank Wilkinson’s organization changed its name to the National Committee Against Repressive Legislation, known as NCARL. Nixon was gone but a Senate bill to re-codify and revise all federal criminal laws was being actively pushed. It was packed with new repressive features, Frank warned, and left obsolete laws in place.

He lobbied against the bill in its various forms and guises – S.1, S.1437, HR.6869, S.1722/HR.6233, and so on – until he retired from field organizing in the 1990s. By that time he had spent about half a century on the road.

One of Frank’s main arguments was that so-called “omnibus” legislation usually gets worse before it passes. In this case, it was also unnecessary. Like many things, criminal law can be reformed and unified step-by-step. The need to improve fragmented, inconsistent laws is obvious, but the atmosphere in Congress makes comprehensive reform – in this or almost any area – virtually impossible without compromising basic rights.

At one point in the Criminal Code fight, a bargain was struck in the Senate between the liberal Edward “Teddy” Kennedy and arch-conservative Strom Thurmond to co-sponsor a version of the basic legislation. Their brainchild was a bill that improved some statutes while making others worse. Provisions aimed at dissident activity were kept and new offenses were created.

Frank Wilkinson

Frank Wilkinson and 4,000 pages of incriminating FBI documents.

When I briefly cornered Teddy Kennedy for an interview behind the stage in Burlington’s Memorial Auditorium during his 1980 presidential run he denied that there was a problem.

Constitutional rights could be violated, I suggested. “We won’t let that happen,” he replied, testily. Famous last words. Two decades later, under the Bush administration and a compliant Congress, the ghost of Criminal Code revision was resurrected within the USA PATRIOT Act and other “war on terror” laws.

Explaining the dangers of “omnibus” lawmaking, Frank Wilkinson would point to the enormous size of the criminal code bill – hundreds of pages, thousands of provisions. Then he would note wryly that legal experts, sitting quietly in a library, could carefully make a thousand amendments and probably come up with a decent law. But the Senate and House are not law libraries, and the chances of a slow and dispassionate debate are slim.

Beyond his power to persuade, Frank was one of those special people, a truly courageous and fully human being, a peaceful warrior on the side of the people. When his government files – literally several hundred thousand pages – were released under the Freedom of Information Act in 1980, we learned that he had been tailed, harassed and generally messed with by the FBI for decades on the personal orders of J. Edgar Hoover. The bureau even watched an assassination plan unfold in 1964, filing reports as the scheme was being hatched. Word from the top was to let it happen.

As we became friends and political allies I organized speaking tours, carried his bags, did advance work, and learned more about civil liberties and the life of an organizer. Frank’s grasp of history and politics, combined with a selfless and compassionate style, was deeply impressive.

He also knew how to work a crowd, getting his audiences activated and motivated to contribute.

A peaceful warrior

Dave Dellinger was just as inspiring. For over 60 years, whenever racism and imperialism raised their heads, he was there – a force of nature in the global movement for justice and freedom. His efforts were all the more heroic for being nonviolent. Repeatedly putting himself in harm’s way he often managed, almost miraculously, to turn antagonists into allies with the moral force of his convictions.

Dellinger and Kunstler

Dave Dellinger and Bill Kunstler met with the press after the Chicago 8 trial. At left, Jerry Rubin and Rennie Davis; right, Tom Hayden.

In 1940, while Dave was a young man working in Harlem and studying at the Union Theological Seminary, a conscription law was passed. He opted not to accept an exemption because of his status as a seminarian. Instead, he and others refused to register for the draft. The decision led to a year in Danbury federal prison.

Early on, when Dave sat in the black section during a Saturday movie, he was put in solitary confinement. Later, when he refused to answer to a number or submit to harassment by a guard, he was thrown into the notorious “Hole.” Some prisoners were broken by the experience. For Dave it led to a spiritual breakthrough.

A demonstration at the Capitol in 1943 led to another prison term, this time two years at a prison farm just outside the walls of the Lewisburg penitentiary. During that sentence he joined a strike to end segregation and fasted for weeks to stop prison censorship and the use of “The Hole.” The protesters won a small victory that time, ending censorship of mail and reading material.

By the time Dave was released in 1945, his wife Elizabeth had given birth to their first child, and the family was living on a Pennsylvania apple farm. Before long, between picking apples and working on a nearby dairy farm, he teamed up with Bill Kuenning and Ralph DiGia to launch Direct Action, a magazine reflecting their militant opposition to war and faith in the power on nonviolent action.

It is common to hear that the ’50s, and even the early ’60s, were times of conformity and repression. There was of course the Korean War, the McCarthy era and the Cold War, plus the uncomfortable conformity of mainstream society. Father “knew” best and the “American dream” was in full regalia. But storms brewed beneath the surface calm, and Dave was part of those shifting winds of change.

Direct Action was succeeded by Alternative, Individual Action, and finally Liberation, a venerable magazine that lasted for 20 years. Through this period Dave lived and worked in an intentional community, as well as with the Libertarian Press. He was also active internationally with campaigns of liberation in Europe and the colonized world. Eventually it led him to help organize the March on the Pentagon in 1967 and the historic protests at the Democratic National Convention in 1968.

Dave Dellinger joined Staughton Lynd and Robert Paris Moses to lead an August 1965 protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, DC.

Once Dave and Elizabeth moved to Vermont we became close allies, working in coalitions to protest U.S. intervention, staging sit-ins at the GE weapons plant in Burlington, creating the National Committee for Independent Political Action, and expanding Toward Freedom. We did not always agree, but Dave was never disagreeable, and consistently looked for pathways to reconciliation.

On board at VICI …

Lessons were also learned at Burlington College, known then as the Vermont Institute of Community Involvement. An unusual name for a college, and also a bit misleading – if you assume involvement means engagement with local issues.

What VICI founder Steward LaCasce had in mind was more modest and practical, mainly 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 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 also allowed students to design their own academic experience, and used qualitative, written evaluations rather than grades to assess performance.

In 1976, however, enrollment in the school’s associate degree program dropped for the first time. LaCasce, a professor of literature who launched VICI with a small 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 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.

The original idea was to attract what were often 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 had 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 an end of a five-year term.

The author at 30.

Shortly after that, I was elected to the executive committee, which led directly to an unusual assignment. I was asked 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 be facing budget cuts in the near future. As part of my due diligence I reviewed documents, observed meetings, and conducted extensive 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 down on paper. My concern, mentioned at the end of a seven-page summary, was that “organizational health may soon be jeopardized.”

In hindsight, it was a poor career move.

… and out the door

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 preempt criticisms of his performance and quell the growing 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.

Over the next 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.” That didn’t happen.

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 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 long thought, was most likely the course I had added to my load that term — Systems and Change — and its long-term group project, to conduct a deeper analysis of the school.

I could have sued and conferred with a lawyer. But what was the point? A few thousand dollars after years of legal sparring and potentially deeper bitterness. And that felt like the optimistic forecast. No,just let it go and move on.

A few weeks after being fired I turned 30 years old. As a birthday present I decided to give myself a vacation, my first in years and the first outside North America. The destination was Haiti – but that’s another story.

For now let’s leave it at this: Two years later I was editing a hot new weekly newspaper called The Vermont Vanguard Press, and also back teaching at the college.

To be continued …

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