Goddard College in Plainfield announced Thursday that Barbara Vacarr will step down as president at the end of this year to “focus on her family.”
Vacarr, who’s been in the position since 2010, is cutting her contract short by two years. She stepped down for personal reasons, according to the news release she and the board of trustees jointly issued.
Tino O’Brien, vice chair of the board, said Vacarr’s daughter is fighting an infection that arose after she gave birth to a daughter three weeks ago. Vacarr’s elderly parents, who recently relocated to an assisted living facility in Montpelier, are also struggling with health problems.
Those problems are “very real and very pressing,” O’Brien said.
Some faculty members have been critical of Vacarr’s efforts to deal with financial difficulties at the liberal arts college, but it’s not clear what, if any, role that played in her decision to step down.
Vacarr will stay on until Dec. 31 to assist in the transition, O’Brien said.
“We are very happy that we have the time for a very orderly transition and time to figure out the leadership next steps,” O’Brien said. “She’s a hardworking lady and very committed, and she’s going to do her best to deal with her family and support the college. We hope she can stay sane in the process.”
The board hasn’t decided if it will install an interim president or try to find a permanent president by Jan. 1.
Reporters were told that Vacarr would not be available to field questions Thursday because she was traveling to New York to visit her daughter.
O’Brien had high praise for Vacarr. “She’s been wonderful. She’s brought enormous energy to the role.” He cited her leadership accomplishments: a five-year strategic plan, a new board, the launch of undergraduate programs in Washington state and improved fundraising.
Goddard has been grappling with declining enrollment, and since the school depends on tuition for about 96 percent of its revenue, this problem has contributed to a budget gap. The two-year deficit projection is $1.5 million, according to the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus, although administration officials say they have plans in place to reduce the shortfall by roughly $500,000.
That financial strain has been the backdrop of Vacarr’s tenure, and her handling of the situation has irked some faculty and staff.
O’Brien stressed that Vacarr’s resignation was “absolutely voluntary,” but faculty and staff mentioned that some employees were prodding her to step down.
Jan Clausen, a creative writing professor at Goddard and a member of the faculty bargaining committee, said, “there have been very active discussions about having a vote of no confidence and some efforts to organize that were under way.”
Several staff members on Goddard’s campus Thursday declined to speak on the record about Vacarr’s resignation, citing concerns about “repercussions.”
As first reported by Seven Days, 46 faculty members sent Vacarr and the board a letter on Nov. 15, 2012, complaining about a “pattern of unilateral decision making” at the college. Clausen said the signatories represented about 44 percent of the faculty, but didn’t capture the full extent of the discontent.
“There has certainly been a lot of tension and a lot of criticism,” Clausen said. “There’s an overwhelming feeling among both faculty and staff has been that we need different priorities. We need to focus on the academic mission, and faculty need to be consulted about academic policy decisions and there’s been a lot of concern about where financial resources are being put.”
Some faculty members have been put off by Vacarr’s emphasis on diversifying the college’s revenue sources, which, they feel has detracted from the school’s academic mission. Vacarr’s decision to hire KSE Partners, a lobbying and strategic communications firm, to promote the college also rubbed some the wrong way, according to Clausen.
More recently, the Times Argus story highlights a conflict between Vacarr and the administration and the union representing faculty and staff at Goddard. The parties are in the middle of salary negotiations, and the administration is pushing for faculty pay cuts.
O’Brien said he’s familiar with “rumors” about faculty and staff discontent expediting Vacarr’s departure, but the board was definitely not aware of any imminent effort to prompt her resignation.
“I’ve heard those rumors and who knows where that’s going to go,” O’Brien said. “There is obviously some dissatisfaction on campus as there is at Middlebury or UVM. Who knows how much of that dissatisfaction is a real issue.”
The board only recently learned Vacarr was thinking about leaving, O’Brien said.
“It’s been about a week or two … she’s been wrestling with it and we’ve been talking with her, but it’s relatively recent.”
O’Brien said the board is disheartened to see Vacarr go, but it wouldn’t be a serious setback for the school. “We are blessed with an excellent faculty and Goddard’s been around for 150 years … We’ve been through leadership transitions before and we’ll weather this storm just fine.”
Clausen was also optimistic about the college’s prospects after losing Vacarr. “This is a time of hope as well as one that gives us pause … I think the college has a lot going for it, despite this difficult transition.”