Nearly 100 alumni of the Vermont College of Fine Arts said they strongly oppose the school’s plan to end on-campus programs and explore the sale of campus buildings.
In a letter sent to the college's board of trustees Tuesday, 95 alumni of its low-residency master’s degree programs expressed “profound disappointment in, and strong objection to” the school’s recently announced decision to move its on-campus programming to Colorado College and online.
“In our home communities, as professionals and academic leaders and teachers, board members and parents of students ourselves, we have witnessed, experienced, and led many educational change initiatives,” the two-page letter from alumni says. “Few are met with outright grieving, and few are as poorly and suddenly communicated as this one.”
In previous years, students in the school’s low-residency programs spent about three weeks on the Montpelier campus every year, split between the summer and winter.
But last week, the Vermont College of Fine Arts announced what it called a “reimagining” of the school’s programs.
Under that proposed transformation, the school will move its summer residency programs to Colorado College, a liberal arts school in Colorado Springs, and shift its winter residencies online. The school also hopes to add international residency programs.
Despite the views expressed in the alumni letter, college president Leslie Ward said she feels confident the school made the right decision.
“We've been communicating with close to 4,000 people in our community and, while I take very seriously the point of view of the 100 or so alums who signed that letter, they're not representative of the entire community,” she said.
Ward disagrees that community feedback has been “almost universally negative,” as the letter states.
The college has received a fair amount of positive feedback, she said — though she did not provide an estimate on how many people the college has heard from directly who were pleased with the change.
In response to concerns expressed in the letter, the college will host two open alumni forums on Zoom this week, she said.
The alumni letter claims the way the college arrived at its decision lacked both transparency and effective communication, and even violated the school’s own governance policy, which the letter quotes as saying: “Information about issues, proposed developments, and decisions will be communicated in a timely and helpful fashion to assure that all members of the college community are given an opportunity to provide input on matters affecting them.”
Ward and board chair Mike Goldstein denied the board violated policy and asserted that its members acted in accordance with all institutional bylaws, despite not offering an opportunity for direct input to all members of the institutional community before making the decision.
“As we grappled with this decision, the board engaged a core leadership team that represented various aspects of the college,” Ward said. “We realize that some members of our community would have preferred more involvement.”
It took the board of trustees — most of the members of which are alumni themselves — a year of deliberations and vetting to come to this decision, Goldstein said.
Ward and Goldstein said the institution’s decision-making body is representative of the broader Vermont College of Fine Arts community. The directive took many voices into account, but Ward and Goldstein said they also value the voices of those who disagreed.
“We are an arts organization and we value diversity of opinion and encourage it,” she said.
The leadership team involved the academic dean, advocating on behalf of faculty and students; the director of operations in the admissions office, who also oversees student services; and the director of institutional advancement, who is in charge of alumni support and lifelong engagement, Ward said.
Additionally, the chief financial officer was deeply involved in decision-making from the standpoint of financial sustainability, Ward said.
Ultimately, however, the decision was made by the board of trustees, Goldstein said. He found it concerning that the alumni letter made a separate point of drawing into question Ward’s appointment as the college president, and her leadership directive.
“At the end of the day, the decision of what to do, and when, is the decision that the board made, so I'm a little bit stressed about this issue being raised: ‘Obviously she did it.’ She didn’t,” Goldstein said.
He also said the board’s decision was unanimous. The college’s website lists 21 trustees, including Ward and emeriti.
Though Ward told VTDigger last week that the college’s finances are sound, Goldstein cited the New England Culinary Institute — a similarly small, specialized institution, which shut down due to financial stressors — as what the board’s decision aims to prevent for the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
“This is the right path at the moment that we're in. I mean, this is a really tough time to be responsible for an institution of higher education,” he said. “We have a heavy lift to make sure that we continue.”
Ward said she empathizes deeply with people’s attachment to a sense of place as a formative aspect of their memories and academic experiences.
“Connection to place is an anchor and that is the lens through which many people experience this news that we are now having our summer residencies in new locations,” she said. “It can be emotionally wrenching.”
Tom Greene, founder and former president of the college, who left in 2019 to focus on his writing career, believes place is “a critical part of admission for institutions.”
“You are seeing a lot of mourning right now from this community,” he said. “The campus is such a significant part of their experience and so I think you are seeing a real outpouring. I've seen a ton on social media, from alumni of the programs who are deeply, deeply grieving the loss of the campus.”
Greene declined to comment on whether he has confidence that the Vermont College of Fine Arts will remain a strong community into the future.
“What you're seeing is a response from people who care deeply about this campus who care deeply about Montpelier, Vermont,” he said. “A lot of the magic of the experience is tied to that physical campus and the fact that it's been a campus since 1868.”
Montpelier City Manager Bill Fraser said the school called city officials to inform them of the decision prior to announcing it publicly. The city has had subsequent conversations with the college’s real estate consultant about future possibilities, he said.
“We're sorry that they're leaving the city and we hope there's an opportunity for some new and exciting things in the city,” Fraser said. “We're kind of approaching this with an open mind and to see if we can have a positive outcome for everybody.”
The letter also claimed that the change would devalue alumni degrees. However, Ward said she believes the value of the degree does not depend on the location of the campus facilities.
“The place of Vermont has been lovely, but that is not what has created the value of the degree,” she said. “The value of the degree are the faculty and your colleagues and the relationships and the growth that take place, and I can only see that being enhanced into the future.”
Ward said the college has also received positive feedback from donors, contrary to the alumni letter’s prediction that the decision is likely to destabilize future charitable donations. Goldstein said the college is over 90% tuition-dependent.
Many alternative suggestions in the alumni letter were considered in past years, but none proved to be the most financially sustainable option long-term, Ward said.
“Supporting a residential campus when you don't have residents here for over two-thirds of the year is not a model that allows you to invest fully in scholarships, in your equity efforts, in supporting your faculty,” Ward said.
Although administrative offices will remain in College Hall on the Montpelier campus, the ties between the Vermont College of Fine Arts and Vermont itself remain unclear.
“Our DNA is in Vermont and our roots are in Vermont and I think much of the spirit of the school being innovative and progressive has come from these wonderful roots,” Ward said. “Should the community feel it is important to consider a new name as we continue to have experiences in the future, it is certainly something that we would be open to.”
As for the future of the buildings the school may sell, Fraser hopes something just as good might come along. One option Montpelier could benefit from, he said, is additional housing.
The city government is also looking into the possibility of acquiring a college building that contains a gymnasium, as it could be a public recreation facility, Fraser said, though there has been no proposal or city council discussion yet.
“Obviously, Vermont College of Fine Arts has been a nice contributor to the community because of the arts culture, and bringing students here, and so it's a shame to not have that presence,” Fraser said. “It's also possible that whatever comes in its place, whether it's more housing or more opportunities, could positively impact our economy as well.”
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