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'Higher ed has lost something that's critical': Reflecting on Goddard College's closure

Students walk across the campus of Goddard College in Plainfield on Tuesday, April 16, 2002. The school announced it was closing this week, in large part because of a decline in enrollment that plagued the college for decades.
Toby Talbot
AP Photo
Students walk across the campus of Goddard College in Plainfield on Tuesday, April 16, 2002. The school announced it was closing this week, in large part because of a decline in enrollment that plagued the college for decades.

After 86 years, Goddard College in Plainfield is closing its doors at the end of the spring semester due to longstanding financial constraints and lower-than-expected enrollment. The announcement is heartbreaking for many alumni, staff and community members, though it’s not completely unexpected. Like many small, private colleges, Goddard has struggled for decades to attract students and make enough money to stay afloat. The announcement came just a few months after Goddard announced it would become an online-only institution.

Poet Dennis Rush joined Goddard's board as a graduate student, and again as an alum. He said when that announcement was made to go completely online, it was to enable Goddard to balance their budget and expand its reach.

"It was never the intent that it was just the first step in closing, by any means," Rush said. "In the last couple of weeks, more firm enrollment numbers came in, and truly, it just wasn't gonna balance it." Rush said after staff layoff, faculty furloughs, and deferred maintenance on campus, "there was nowhere else to take from."

The board of Goddard College is still working to determine the future of the Plainfield campus. Rush said that the money from the sale would go towards the college's debt, which is significant.

The college is a unique place – it was founded in 1938 as something of an experiment – and students would be largely self-directed, deeply involved with school policy, and help keep up the campus. It has many famous graduates and former professors, from Nobel Prize-winning poet Louise Glück to playwright David Mamet, who went there in the 60s. The college accepted people from non-traditional backgrounds, such as author and journalist Cara Hoffman, who wrote about the history of Goddard College for Teen Vogue.

Hoffman said that devastating is the most accurate word for the closing. "So many people have such fond memories of the campus itself, which is absolutely beautiful in this forested, pastoral way," she said. "I think Goddard is a place that gives people a break, in which they can exist outside of the dominant culture, just for a period of time."

Greg and Sarah Hooker have lived in Marshfield for 50 years and both have close connections to Goddard— Greg, as a former station manager for the community radio station WGDR, and Sarah, as a former academic affairs and alumni director. They were married on Goddard's upper gardens in 1980 and renewed their vows on campus in 2005.

Many, many listeners wrote in about the closing of Goddard College. Here are some of those thoughts, lightly edited:

Andre: I found my way to Goddard College in 1996 to complete my undergraduate education in the last years of Goddard's residential campus program. In my two and a half years at Goddard, I learned and experienced together with instructors, students, and community members who's lasting influences on my life are immeasurable. I will miss the place and the many special times there, however, the people and ideas that made Goddard the place it was are still very alive in the world and doing wonderful things!

Megan: In the 1960s, my mother attended Goddard for her Master’s degree so that she could be on-campus for six weeks at a time, and then back with my Dad and the four kids for the next six weeks, etc. She was juggling so much at that point, but Goddard was flexible and individually-tailored to students’ needs. My mom loved it!

Carl in Winooski: Goddard College had a significant impact on my family and far beyond. Growing up in nearby Barre Town, I was surrounded by farmers and granite workers. My mother (Nancy Severance)--a 30-year-old stay-at-home mother with four children--took a secretarial job at nearby Goddard College around 1970. Before long, she was bitten by the “knowledge bug" and became devoted to higher education for the rest of her career. Goddard provided an opportunity for my mother to obtain her bachelor’s degree on nights and weekends, something that seemed quite unconventional to our friends and neighbors at the time. She eventually earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Vermont and spent the rest of her career working in various leadership roles at the Community College of Vermont where she helped (literally) tens of thousands of non-traditional students pursue higher education opportunities like she had. Goddard College really provided the rich soil for my mother to plant a single seed that grew and blossomed into an amazing garden.

Andrew in Montpelier: He attended from 1961-1966. Looking back, I find that probably more than half of what I learned in college was outside the strictly academic, including learning how to live in and contribute to a community. This included the school's 'work program' which required each student to devote several hours a week to jobs that needed doing around campus; in my case, some carpentry work, administering audio-visual equipment and services, some gardening, and working in the cafeteria. All of those experiences have proved valuable throughout my life.

One of those jobs was breakfast "dish crew" in the cafeteria. That required me to get up early in time to be at the dishes window when most of the other students and staff finished and returned their dishes. Being one of the first students to cross the quad on those mornings, several times I crossed paths with President Tim Pitkin as he came to work, and noticed with interest that he always carried a large bag and picked up whatever trash had accumulated the previous night. How many college presidents can you say that about?

Sam in Essex: Their late father, Forest K. Davis was an administrator dean, and professor there in the 1950s and 60s. When he died, Goddard named their archive room after him. Sam writes, “I know my father would have been truly saddened by the news of Goddard closing. He was always interested in what was going on there even decades after he left. I imagine he would have felt like it was the death of a life-long friend.”

Kathleen: My most vivid memory was the first day move-in in May 1973. As we were all settling in, people came marching through the dorms telling us to not unpack because the banks were closing the college down the next day. More seasoned dorm mates countered the school owed the banks so much money they couldn't afford to shut us down! That was in the full-to-bursting days of the mid-70's and the threats of closure have continued since then. I'm sad Goddard has to close but it's been shrinking for a long time. We were the first with alternative education but other colleges picked up on it and Goddard is no longer special.

Tatiana: Sometime in the 1990s, I accompanied a friend to one of her classes at Goddard. I was so impressed and moved by the close interaction between students and teachers, and the way the conversation about what students were learning was so deeply connected to their lives… I remember thinking “this is how education should be.”

Ann: There was not a better college. Goddard allowed a young person to explore, learn and find reason. 

Bert and Britten write: We're a husband and wife team (both alumni) working to create a digital archive in order to collect and document first hand stories from Goddard students, staff, community members and faculty. The Vermont Folklife Center in Middlebury is supporting this work by housing the digital archive, and we thought it might be of interest to your story. We truly believe there will never be another institution like Goddard, and hope this archive serves as both an outlet for those processing the loss of the college while also preserving the unique histories, images, songs, art and stories first hand from the community for future generations.

Broadcast live on Monday, April 15, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Andrea Laurion joined Vermont Public as a news producer for Vermont Edition in December 2022. She is a native of Pittsburgh, Pa., and a graduate of the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine. Before getting into audio, Andrea worked as an obituary writer, a lunch lady, a wedding photographer assistant, a children’s birthday party hostess, a haunted house actor, and an admin assistant many times over.