By Julia Purdy
If farmers know how to do anything, it’s making things grow. That’s the spirit being expressed by faculty and alumni of Green Mountain College, which stunned the campus community and the town by suddenly announcing that spring semester 2019 will be its last.
But since the initial shock of finality, the tradition of hands-on innovativeness that drew students there is gradually reviving. As the college website states: “Because tomorrow’s world will flourish or fail due to the environmental choices we make today, our focus on the future means acting now — when it counts.”
The impression of GMC in the community has been an award-winning college full of award-winning students, who don’t shy away from the compelling, often complex, challenge to address the urgent need for sustainability and conservation.
Greg Cox, president of the Vermont Farmers’ Food Center in Rutland and former adjunct instructor at GMC, said GMC kids are “unique … a special type of person.” They are innovators, “on the cutting edge of the future,” he said.
Jenna Calvi Olson,’09, landed a position as stormwater program manager for Burlington. At GMC she majored in natural resources management and serves on the alumni advisory board.
“It’s hard to explain Green Mountain without becoming emotional,” she told the Mountain Times. “One of the great advantages was you could be whoever you were. At the larger schools you end up being in a high school setting again where you feel you have to find a niche to fit into.” She called GMC students “misfits but incredibly talented,” not just the tree-huggers as some characterized them.
“Will the larger schools be able to nurture that independent, critical thinking?” she asked. “The professors were so good at fostering that.”
Philip Ackerman-Leist has been dean of Sterling College’s School of the New American Farmstead since he resigned from GMC last fall.
Joining the GMC faculty in 1996, Ackerman-Leist developed a half-acre college kitchen garden into a 23-acre organic college farm, in tandem with academic programs in sustainable agriculture and food systems, and integrated the college dining hall into the GMC Farm & Food Project. Later, he designed the nation’s first online graduate program.
“Caring for the emotional scars is challenging but remedied with time and constructive work borne out of the pain and anger,” Ackerman-Leist said. “And then there is something else not recognized or discussed immediately: the loss of future entrepreneurs and farmers who have come out of GMC’s academic programs and settled in the region, not to mention the value of internships to farms, organizations, and other businesses in the area. … the college was providing the surrounding region with interns, researchers, grassroots organizers, food entrepreneurs, and new farmers…. Our relationships with regional farmers, entrepreneurs, and policymakers helped support the formation and development of RAFFL [Rutland Area Farm and Food Link], the Vermont Farmers Food Center, Vermont Land Trust initiatives, and local NGOs….
“It’s also an intergenerational loss. Ultimately, what we were doing with the development of all of these programs and initiatives was weaving a web across the generations, passing on knowledge, market opportunities, cultural history, and sometimes even land and infrastructure.
“In terms of what is lost in the sustainability movement with GMC’s closure, I hope that it is ultimately more a transformation than a loss,” he continued. “Perhaps there is a sustainability diaspora that will happen as students, alums, faculty, and staff disperse across the U.S.,” said Ackerman-Leist.
On Feb. 13 the college hosted a recruiting fair, which representatives of over 30 colleges talked with students, including EcoLeague partner Prescott College of Prescott, Arizona.
While no one is happy about the closure, students are resilient and their reactions and plans vary.
“I’m disappointed and frustrated and sad,” said Olson. “I worry – where are those kids going to end up now? I have an intern right now that is panicking because he will be walking out into the workforce looking for entry level positions from a college that just closed.”
The Mountain Times caught up with two current students at the Winter Farmers’ Market on Saturday.
Bailey Heller, a senior from Virginia, is scheduled to graduate this year but won’t have enough credits to graduate because she also has a job, so she will be taking online credits from Unity College in Maine. “It is very disappointing,” Heller said. “This is the third school I have gone to and I was excited to graduate with all my friends but it’s not going to happen anymore.” She transferred to GMC three years ago from Virginia Commonwealth University. Her major is animal conservation and care, specializing in captured-wildlife management and rehab. She would love to work somewhere like VINS (Vermont Institute of Natural Science in Quechee), she said, adding, “I love it up here, I found a really good niche of people down in Poultney. I’m really bummed.” A lot of her friends are moving away, some to Arizona.
Phil Prevosto, a second-year student from Maryland, entered last year as a freshman. He is planning to turn lemons into lemonade if he can. “It looks like an opportunity to take time off and see some things, I guess, and get a degree later on,” he said. He majored in English and also studied sustainable agriculture and ecological design, and he wants to stay in the sustainability field.
Prevosto attributes GMC’s difficulties to his impression that the larger schools and state universities are “capitalizing on the sustainability label” and are displacing the smaller schools that had a niche. “I was looking forward to spending a lot of time down around the Poultney River,” he said.
Until its board announced the closure, Green Mountain College stood with five other private liberal arts colleges in the EcoLeague – Alaska Pacific, College of the Atlantic, Dickinson, Northland and Prescott. The league shares resources and faculty, offers exchange programs for students, posts a jobs board and applauds alumni for leadership, innovation and entrepreneurship in the sphere of sustainability.
Green Mountain College’s website lists accolades as the “top performer” by the Association for Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) and a 2018 STARS rating system Gold score of 81.82, “the highest score any college has achieved.”
GMC also attained top rankings in the areas of Air and Climate Operations and Investment and Finance and scored among the top five institutions for energy and research.
Recognition by AASHE follows several other accolades GMC has received for social, environmental and economic sustainability. In 2017 GMC shared the spotlight with College of the Atlantic as one of the top two “Cool Schools” by Sierra magazine and made No. 1 in the “Cool Schools” ranking the next year. This year GMC made The Princeton Review’s Green Honor Roll for the fifth consecutive year. For 2019, GMC took 11th place on the Green Honor Roll.
President Allen blames declining enrollments and therefore tuition revenue. But Olson feels that the college “underutilized” the potential of alumni to attract students. “Cold-calling for donations once a year doesn’t work,” she commented. In the 10 years since she graduated, she said, she has been contacted once to speak to a prospective student. The alumni board was blindsided like everyone else, she said. The college always “struggled” with recruitment and alumni relations – “not the sexy part.”
“Nobody who didn’t attend that college believes the magic that can happen there,” she added.
“My way of processing my deep disappointment at what occurred and didn’t occur at GMC in the past few years in order to avoid this situation, is to try and channel that disappointment into something constructive,” Ackerman-Leist said.
“And finally, as painful as it is, I think there are lessons to be learned about how to achieve economic sustainability in any kind of business, be it higher education or some other enterprise,” he observed.