Karen Gross: Why aren’t more people fighting for Southern Vermont College’s survival?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Karen Gross, the former president of Southern Vermont College, who is now an author and educational consultant in Washington, D.C.

[T]here is something both disturbing and odd about the sudden announced closure of Southern Vermont College. There seems to be a way too facile acceptance of the college’s demise.

Let me start with this example. I got an email from someone connected to the college recently, asking if I would talk to him about SVC. I said I would be happy to talk but one question: Was the point of the call to silence me or to talk about options for saving the college? If the former, that horse had left the barn; if the latter, delighted to share ideas and developments. I got no answer. Seriously, the person did not answer. Guess that means he wanted to use the call to quiet my efforts.

Within the town, there have been similar reactions, most nicely stated to be sure, to indicate that we must accept Southern Vermont College’s closure. The argument goes: The college’s shutting down is inevitable, we must accept the inevitable and the time for grieving is now — using Kubler-Ross’ famous stages of grief. The patient is dead.

Here’s the problem: these approaches assume death and loss. The whole point of my efforts (and those of others) is the opposite, namely to see if there is a way to save this amazing gem of a college in Bennington. You would think everyone would be fighting to save it, not bury it. Maybe the better question is why aren’t more people fighting for its survival? Doctors don’t give up on patients. We ask students not to give up either when things get tough.

I have been raising and asking questions. That’s a good thing. SVC fell precipitously it seems and its end announced suddenly. Playing nice and accepting “death” does not get answers to hard questions. Read James Ryan’sbook, “Wait What?” In my world now, there are three key items to say/do when things go wrong: acknowledge, apologize and act.

For me, closure is not the only form of acting. Far from it. And no, we don’t have to “accept” a demise; the patient hasn’t died. There may be options if we turn over enough rocks and are bold and innovative. By way of example, there is already a legislative effort underway that would benefit small colleges, including SVC. I am meeting with a team from Sen. Patrick Leahy’s office and a Vermont state representative today. I have calls, emails and a forthcoming meeting with at least three individuals interested in learning about possible acquisition of or funding for SVC.

And, lest folks think this is a pipe dream, read the recent article in Education Dive. It presents serious thinking on how to save small colleges. And, there is another piece in Inside Higher Education on how Bennett College is seeking alternative accreditation.

Bottom line, folks, the nail is NOT in the SVC coffin. I also sense, sadly, that some people are willing to accept this logic: see, all small colleges are struggling; nothing unique here; just the way it is. Times they are a changin’.

Yes, times are changing and that’s a signal to get going with new approaches. There needs to be change in higher ed to enable survival. But, it is far from a lock that all small non-elite colleges must fail. SVC produces those who work to improve our lives. Ponder that the next time you break your leg or have a car accident. There’s a high probability that an SVC graduate will be at your side.

I will not go quietly. I need to see if realistic solutions exist. True, blame doesn’t move us forward. But let’s be transparent. Let’s fight. Why go down with barely a sound of protest?

SVC is too important in some many ways to go the way of the dodo bird. I will continue searching for answers for a college that should be saved. And if I fail, so be it. But if I can help in bringing about success and a salvation, all the better. I have hope.


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