Goddard College President Barbara Vacarr has declined an offer from its board of trustees to stay on for an undefined period of time.
Her decision puts the board — and the college — back at the juncture where it found itself last July, when Vacarr announced she would resign on Dec. 31, 2013. She was appointed president in July 2010.
With its stately shingled buildings mostly dormant (Goddard operates on a low-residency model), the campus’ peaceful appearance belies a tumult described by trustees, faculty, staff and students alike.
On the heels of its 150th anniversary, the tiny Plainfield college — considered a bastion of progressive education — is searching for a survival strategy.
Vacarr’s successor will face the immediate challenges of not only patching up a $1.5 million deficit, but also addressing curdled relations between the board and its faculty and staff.
The school, which draws 96 percent of its revenue from tuition, is reeling from a decline in enrollment. Seven Days reported that enrollment, roughly 800 students in 2010, has since dropped by approximately 100 students. Andrea Leebron-Clay, the chair of the 28-member board, said the downturn has created a “financial tidal wave” at the school.
Faculty and staff — anxious about both the college’s future and their own job security — have been clamoring for answers from the board about how it intends to put Goddard on solid financial footing. And they’ve been critical of both Vacarr and the board for leaving them out of the conversation.
Ongoing contract negotiations between the administration and both the faculty and staff unions have added to the tension. This standoff can also be traced, in part, to Goddard’s fiscal woes. Faculty and staff are resisting what they describe as unacceptable cuts to salaries and benefits.
Board members say they can’t divulge much detail about the search for a new president. They’ve created a task force to find one, but several months after Vacarr’s announcement, they have yet to decide whether they’ll seek an interim or a permanent president.
According to Avram Patt, an alumnus and a board member, the group hasn’t started looking for candidates yet. “The board is in active discussion, but I really can’t say more about that,” he said. “Other than that will be a transition.”
Trustees are also trying to devise a more sustainable revenue model (one that depends less on tuition), and they’re mulling “structural changes” to make that happen. The search for a new president is contingent on ironing out answers to those more existential questions, according to Leebron-Clay. “We can’t start thinking about that until we are clear on our direction,” she said.
She maintained that those proposals are too preliminary to be floated publicly.
Patt points to other unknowns that make the financial picture more nebulous — the pending status of contract negotiations makes difficult to budget, and exact enrollment numbers for the upcoming year are still uncertain.
“We don’t know the exact enrollment until people arrive, but given that it’s a small school, a variance of 10 students is something that’s felt,” Patt explained.
The board’s decision to invite Vacarr to stay — even though it was turned down — puts it even more at odds with the already estranged faculty and staff, who heralded her departure as positive step for the college.
Jan Clausen, who teaches creative writing and chairs the faculty bargaining committee, sees that decision as part of a larger pattern of disregarding input from faculty and staff.
“It wasn’t ‘Thank you very much for the input.’ It was more like, ‘You do your job, and our job is to decide who the leaders are,’” Clausen said.
As trustees deliberate their next steps, frustration among other members of the Goddard community is mounting.
Clausen says faculty members have ideas about how to expand enrollment, and they’ve been volunteering their time to call prospective students. But many of their efforts have “sort of vanished into the ether.”
Dvora Zipkin, the academic and disabilities support coordinator and a member of the staff bargaining team, said people are bracing for layoffs. “Staff don’t feel secure in their jobs and I think that needs to be repaired,” she said.
Calyb Hare, a 33-year-old from Portland, Maine, who is finishing up his final year at Goddard, said the stress has trickled down to the student population.
“I think it greatly affects the atmosphere,” he said “Morale on campus is very low.”
His faculty adviser, Hare said, took a leave of absence in order to protect other faculty positions.
Faculty are worried that the board, in its hunt for revenue, will divert resources away from academic programs. “Diversifying revenue is a desirable goal, but it shouldn’t turn us into something that’s only peripherally a higher education institution,” Clausen said.
The faculty union recently voted to give its bargaining committee the authority to call a strike, if the administration declares an impasse. A “solidarity statement” has picked up roughly 600 signatures, according to its organizers.
In late October, on the eve of the college’s 150th anniversary, people “sticker bombed” the college’s iconic Haybarn Theater with messages urging people to sign on to the statement. The same messages appeared tucked on car windshields, cafeteria trays and elsewhere on campus.
Board members seem puzzled by the accusations of poor communication and a lack of transparency coming from faculty and staff. “I think we have been transparent in terms of finances,” Patt said. “I can tell you things are pretty much an open book during negotiations.”
Leebron-Clay, who lives in Washington state (Goddard started a Seattle campus in 2011), said, “I’m not sure where that lack of transparency really is. Our meetings are open unless there is an executive session.”
Leebron-Clay and Patt both acknowledged that things are tense but they don’t attribute it to the board or to Vacarr. “There surely is a lot of frustration on campus,” Leebron-Clay said. “I’m not sure what the origin is. I don’t think any one person is responsible for it.”
Vacarr declined to be interviewed for this story. In an email to faculty announcing her decision on Tuesday, she wrote, “After much consideration, I have determined that the demands of my family and my responsibilities to them are such that I must decline the board’s invitation.”
Her email, which does not reference Goddard’s difficulties, concludes, “It is my hope that Goddard will continue to carry out its mission into the distant future, while maintaining a place on the cutting edge of higher education.”