Oh, Goddard: The Beleaguered College Reckons With Its Latest President | Education | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Oh, Goddard: The Beleaguered College Reckons With Its Latest President


Published December 1, 2021 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Dan Hocoy

This story was corrected and updated on December 9, 2021.

Kailina Mills, a 2018 graduate of Goddard College, spent countless hours over the past year planning her alma mater's Alumni Weekend, which was scheduled to take place in early October on the college's tiny, rustic Plainfield campus. This year's celebration would have marked the first gathering of alumni at Goddard since the school was released from probation by its accreditors in the fall of 2020, and Mills and her fellow organizers felt proud of their efforts to shore up Goddard's chronically ailing finances: During its previous three gatherings, the Goddard College Alumni Association had helped raise more than $80,000.

So Mills, one of the lead organizers of the 7,300-member alumni group, was dismayed when the school's newly appointed president, Dan Hocoy, announced in a September 17 Facebook post that in-person Alumni Weekend festivities had been canceled.

"Regretfully, the Plainfield campus does not have the staff or facilities capacity to accommodate the on-campus, in-person needs of the Alumni Weekend while serving the visit of the Board of Trustees simultaneously," the post read. 

To Mills, the cancellation felt like another manifestation of what she and many of her alumni peers viewed as Hocoy's callousness to the values of Goddard, where decision making by consensus is a hallowed principle.

"They never even consulted us," said Mills, a kindergarten teacher in Maine who studied anti-racist education at Goddard. On October 9, Mills and several dozen other Alumni Association members — enough to fill two Zoom screens — met virtually and took a vote of no confidence in Hocoy and the board of trustees.

In an 11-page statement, the group alleged a pattern of unilateral decision making, a lack of integrity in the process leading to Hocoy's hire and a failure to uphold Goddard's tradition of dissent from the status quo. In reply, the board's lawyer, Joseph McConnell of the Boston firm Morgan Brown & Joy, sent a cease and desist letter to the eight elected representatives of the Alumni Association, including Mills. McConnell rebuked them for using the Goddard College name and seal without permission and for publishing "misleading, incorrect, and potentially defamatory" statements. If they continued to publish such statements using the Goddard imprimatur, McConnell advised, the college reserved the right to take legal action against them.

Rifts between leadership and the school community have a storied tradition at Goddard, an experimental liberal arts college founded in 1938 to promote freethinking and democratic principles in response to the rise of fascism in Western Europe. But this latest dispute between alumni and the board of trustees comes at a crucial juncture in the institution's long fight for survival.

Goddard, which also operates two satellite campuses in Washington State, has no majors or grades in its undergraduate and graduate programs. Instead, students design an individual course of study with a faculty mentor, who provides painstakingly thoughtful feedback on their projects throughout the year. Except for two eight-day residency periods each semester, students learn remotely, an expression of the Goddard belief in abolishing the distinction between academia and the real world.

"Goddard is a very complicated place," said Sarah Van Hoy, who oversees the school's graduate program. "Students who come here usually have some educational trauma, so there's a little bit of therapy, too."

Goddard's enrollment now hovers around 390, roughly half of what it was a decade ago. When residencies aren't in session, the Plainfield campus has the slightly tumbledown feel of a deserted summer camp, which belies the jaw-dropping list of luminaries who either studied or taught there during its heyday in the '60s and '70s: actor William H. Macy, celebrated memoirists Mary Karr and Tobias Wolff, Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright David Mamet, Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück, Phish front man Trey Anastasio. Today, the water features on Goddard's grounds do not appear to have featured water in some time. The walkways are uneven and missing pavers; one building is currently uninhabitable due to mold.

 Like most idealistic enterprises, Goddard has often teetered on the edge of financial ruin, and the school has had to reinvent itself a handful of times to stay afloat. "The challenge of changing in order to survive is that you end up with generations of students who say, 'That's not the Goddard I went to,'" explained Avram Patt, a 1972 graduate and a former trustee who briefly served as interim president in 2014. For his senior thesis, Patt, a state representative who ran the Washington Electric Co-op for years, wrote a dime novel incorporating the tropes of classical mythology into a tale of the American West.

In 2018, after a string of short-lived presidents and years of skeletal revenue from declining enrollment, Goddard was placed on probation by the New England Commission of Higher Education, the accreditation agency for the region's colleges and universities. If Goddard failed to right itself, the commission warned, it could revoke the school's accreditation, which would disqualify Goddard students from receiving federal aid — effectively, a death blow. 

By last September, things seemed to be looking up. Hocoy's predecessor, Bernard Bull, managed to reverse a $1.2 million budget deficit, and accreditors discharged Goddard from probation. The school now has an $8 million operating budget and $2 million, or roughly three months' worth of cash, in reserves. 

Goddard remains on a formal notice of concern with the accreditation commission, which means that the administration must submit regular financial updates to demonstrate continued stability. But the commission will scrutinize more than Goddard's bank statements; the college was also placed on probation for failing to meet governance standards, mainly as a result of its high presidential turnover rate. Since 1990, Goddard has had a dozen presidents, including Hocoy. Just one, Mark Schulman, has lasted more than four years. 

Hocoy, a licensed psychologist who has held leadership roles at other small, financially distressed institutions, believes that Goddard has hamstrung itself by clinging to an overly narrow definition of "participatory democracy."

"Often, it gets interpreted as everyone has a say in every decision at the college, which is not realistic," he said. The vote of no confidence from the Alumni Association, he added, carries no weight: "They have no official authority or relationship to Goddard College. And so a vote of no confidence from them really means nothing."

But if the no-confidence vote means nothing, why the cease and desist letter? According to board chair Gloria J. Willingham-Touré, because the 11-page statement contained both outright falsehoods and cherry-picked facts, arranged to discredit Hocoy and the board. For instance, the statement alleged that the presidential search committee was instructed not to google any of the candidates and to base their assessments solely on their application materials.

In the cover letter accompanying his application, Hocoy wrote that he was  president and vice chancellor of Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City; in fact, he was a vice-chancellor of the college and president of just one of its five campuses. As a result, the no-confidence statement claimed, Hocoy misrepresented his credentials, and the moratorium on googling candidates suppressed pertinent information about his true qualifications. 

Willingham-Touré confirmed that she did, in fact, request that the committee not google any of the candidates — but only, she clarified, to "avoid introducing bias." "Things that show up on the internet can easily be taken out of context," she said. She also acknowledged that the way Hocoy characterized his role at Metropolitan Community College in his cover letter and résumé might be construed as misleading. Did she consider that a red flag? "No," she insisted. "We did our due diligence with each candidate."

Hocoy maintains that he did not misrepresent himself in the hiring process and that he was thoroughly vetted. "This isn't like applying for a job at McDonald's," he said.        

The tone of the Alumni Association's statement, said Willingham-Touré, was what made it defamatory: "It presented things that were true as if they were flaws," she said.

  • Jeb Wallace-Brodeur
  • Goddard College

In some ways, Goddard's culture is inherently at odds with hierarchical governance; the reality of presidential leadership does not graft easily onto a place whose pedagogy is based on challenging authority.

"I think most presidents just kind of give up," said Willingham-Touré. "When things are just going along, everyone's OK. But when someone has to take responsibility, be accountable, that's when things get a little bit different." Over the past few decades, Goddard seems to have fallen into a clockwork rhythm: When money runs short, as it often has, a president attempts to defibrillate the college by cutting costs, and the Goddard community rejects the new regime as a corruption of the school's core values. 

"Goddard tries to throw every president out," said Vermont College of Fine Arts founder Tom Greene. His father, Richard Greene, was himself an embattled Goddard president who had been charged with bolstering the institution's languishing finances. In April 1996, Goddard faculty demanded his ouster with a vote of no confidence; at a rally shortly afterward, nearly 100 demonstrators blasted him for "threatening the tradition of democracy and collaboration that Goddard was founded on 68 years ago" and "trying to turn the college into a generic cookie cutter corporate institution," as the Times Argus reported. Greene resigned that summer.

More recent presidents have encountered similar resistance. In 2012, a group of faculty members wrote to the board of trustees and then-president Barbara Vacarr, protesting what they perceived as Vacarr's corporate mindset — during her three-year tenure, she hired a consulting firm to handle the college's public relations — and a "pattern of unilateral decision making."

The charges that the Alumni Association has leveled against Hocoy bear striking resemblance to the criticisms of Greene and Vacarr. Among other concerns, the no-confidence statement noted that Hocoy, in a previous role as the president of the State University of New York's Erie Community College, gave naming rights to a common area to Citibank in exchange for a $200,000 donation. According to the statement, Hocoy expressed interest in "naming opportunities" during his interviews with the Goddard community. 

"Selling the soul of your campus to a for-profit company is hardly imaginative," reads one particularly scathing portion of the no-confidence statement. (In a recent interview with the Times Argus, Hocoy qualified his stance on naming opportunities by suggesting that Goddard might partner with a credit union rather than a bank, adding that he understands that, at Goddard, "bank is a four-letter word.")

Hocoy dismisses the notion that Goddard would automatically cease to be progressive if it focused on improving its bottom line. "Goddard's survival as a college requires that we have a business model that is sustainable," he told Seven Days.

But alumni and faculty are skeptical. Kris Hege, a Goddard graduate and a part-time faculty member who served on the board's presidential search committee, said that Hocoy made clear in his interviews that he was interested in preparing the school for mergers and acquisitions. "I thought that was a pretty huge red flag," said Hege.

"We do want to make Goddard attractive for mergers and acquisitions; that's absolutely true," said Willingham-Touré, the board chair. Both she and Hocoy firmly denied that they have any plans to sell Goddard. "But we do have to be ready for anything, because who knows what might happen?" she said. "And that's true for all colleges, by the way, not just for Goddard." 

The no-confidence statement's insinuation that Hocoy was hired to bring corporate partnerships to Goddard, said Willingham-Touré, could sabotage his presidency before he's had a chance to prove himself. "At Goddard, 'corporate' is a code word that can kill a president," she said. 

Hocoy has inherited at least one unpopular effort to keep Goddard in the black. Last year, just a couple of months after Hocoy became president, the faculty union barely ratified a new contract, negotiated under the previous administration, that will reduce the union's ranks by a third. Of the 89 faculty members who have jobs this fall, 58 have been offered positions next semester, which has only intensified the rancorous atmosphere. "The administration is actively relying on the goodwill of people to work beyond what they're being paid in order to accomplish what needs to be done," observed Van Hoy, the head of the graduate program. Van Hoy said she has already logged a handful of uncompensated hours to fulfill the duties of faculty members who won't be returning next semester, even though she's officially on leave until January: "That, I think, is pretty demoralizing and unethical."

Under the new contract, the faculty-student ratio will increase from 1-4 to 1-7, and students have already voiced concern that the essence of the Goddard experience, which hinges upon intensive one-on-one relationships between students and their faculty mentors, will be lost. 

"The end result is a sense of chaos, uncertainty, and distrust in the leadership of Goddard College to deliver what students were promised when we enrolled at the beginning of this term," declared the Goddard Student Council in its own statement of no confidence in the administration, sent to Hocoy and the trustees within days of the Alumni Association's no-confidence vote.

Elle Stanforth, a co-organizer of the alumni group leading the no-confidence campaign, fears that everything she holds sacred about Goddard is on the line. "This is not how Goddard raised me," she said. "We're taught to challenge the status quo and to challenge powers that want to silence and intimidate us, and the school that taught me those things is trying to silence me."

In this highly charged atmosphere, Hocoy has struggled to articulate his vision for a financially viable Goddard. During a virtual town hall last month, he told faculty and students that he wanted Goddard to become more attuned to the changing needs of society, to, as he put it, "hold tension between mission and market," to provide a valuable and relevant service in a competitive higher-education market in which other institutions are also providing value and relevance.

He suggested that Goddard should fulfill its social responsibilities by opening some dormitories to Afghan refugees, an invitation the Alumni Association has deemed a "publicity stunt," given that Hocoy ostensibly canceled Alumni Weekend over concerns about the habitability of campus residences.

"And lastly, in terms of internal operations, we need to employ best practices and engender a culture of excellence," he said. "In my mind, we need to operate more like a college than a commune."

This last comment did not go over particularly well.

"I understand, Dan, given your worldview and the fact that you come from mainstream academia, why the collaborative nature, the democratic nature, the critical pedagogy, the radical pedagogy, the focus on decolonization, all of those things could give the appearance of a commune," said Herukhuti Williams, a member of the Goddard faculty and copresident of the faculty union. "But that false binary, that if it's not what traditional academia is, it is therefore [a] commune, doesn't allow us to answer authentically and fully and comprehensively." 

And yet, even the most radical institutions must battle with inertia. "We're going to have to find a way to change and make this place radiant and fantastic and better," said Van Hoy, a few weeks after the town hall. "If we're not smart enough to figure that out, we shouldn't be faculty at an experimental institution. And if we're an experimental institution, and we're attached to the way it's been for the last 30 years, we are not, in fact, experimental."

Editor's note: On December 9, 2021, this story was updated to correct and clarify several points: The Goddard College Alumni Association helped the school raise funds. An inaccurate figure for the association's membership total has been removed from the story. Also, Kailina Mills had been warned by the administration that the Alumni Weekend would be canceled.

Further, the section about the association's accusation that Goddard President Dan Hocoy had misrepresented his credentials — which he disputes — did not make clear that he did serve as a vice chancellor of Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, as well as president of one of its campuses.

Lastly, the story was corrected to note that the faculty union’s contract ratification occurred after Hocoy became president.

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