hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News February - March 2019



College to shut down, leaving a Vermont void


Green Mountain College has announced plans to shut down at the end of the current academic year and surrender its 155-acre Poultney campus to creditors.

The private liberal arts college, which specializes in environmental studies and in recent years won accolades for its campus sustainability projects, cited financial pressures resulting from shrinking enrollment as the main reason for the closing, which was announced Jan. 23.

The Rutland Herald reported that at a series of campus and community meetings in late January, college President Robert W. Allen explained that Green Mountain has $22.5 million in debt, mainly in the form of U.S. Department of Agriculture loans. The debt dwarfs the college’s endowment, which totals about $3 million.

But Allen said the bigger problem is that the college’s enrollment has continued to lag far below sustainable levels. Green Mountain needs about 600 tuition-paying undergraduates “just to break even,” he said; the current enrollment is only about 450. The college has 40 full-time faculty members and a total staff of about 150.

Similar financial pressures are affecting small liberal arts colleges across the country, and especially in New England, as the population of college-age students shrinks. In Massachusetts, Hampshire College in Amherst revealed in January that it is considering a merger -- and that it might opt not to accept new students for the school year that begins in September.

In a statement announcing Green Mountain’s closing, college officials said they had spent 18 months in a fruitless effort to find a way to keep the institution running.

Allen revealed in December that Green Mountain was actively seeking a “partnership” with another institution of higher learning. Although serious merger talks were held with three other institutions, he said in January, the college wasn’t able to reach a merger deal with any of them.
The college did make an arrangement with Prescott College, a 1,200-student institution in Prescott, Ariz., to allow any Green Mountain students who wish to transfer to complete their degrees there. Prescott and Green Mountain both are part of the Eco League, a consortium of six colleges across the country that all specialize in environmental studies.

Prescott has agreed to maintain Green Mountain’s student records, hire some of its faculty members and create a new center in Arizona that will carry on the Green Mountain name.
Several other colleges, including Castleton University and Sterling College in Vermont and Paul Smith’s College in northern New York, also have agreed to accept students transferring from Green Mountain.

At the beginning of February, the Burlington television station WCAX reported that a group of Green Mountain College alumni were organizing an 11th-hour effort to save the college. The station reported that the group, calling itself Save Green Mountain College, or Save GMC, announced its formation in an online letter signed by more than 170 people. The group hopes to come up with a plan to restructure the school and put it on a more secure financial footing.
At a community forum in late January, Allen responded to a questioner by saying that if $22.5 million were to suddenly appear to pay off the Green Mountain’s debts, he would try to keep the college alive. But he cautioned that even if the debt were paid off, that wouldn’t resolve the school’s annual operating shortfalls. In recent months, a group of faculty members studied options for restructuring the college, but their last proposal, based on a model of 300 students and 18 faculty, still had a projected annual budget gap of more than $1.5 million, Allen said.
Green Mountain College also has suffered from what education experts consider a low student-retention rate, with just 66 percent of its freshmen returning for a second year. By comparison, Williams College, Skidmore College and Middlebury College all have retention rates in excess of 90 percent, according to 2013-16 figures compiled by U.S. News & World Report.
Green Mountain’s roots extend back to 1833, when the United Methodist Church established the Troy Conference Academy in Poultney. The institution adopted the Green Mountain name in the 1940s. For many years it operated as a two-year women’s junior college, but it switched to a four-year academic program and began admitting men in the early 1970s.

In other news from around the region in December and January:


No charges in racial harassment of legislator
The Vermont attorney general has declined to pursue any criminal charges in connection with a campaign of racial harassment against former state Rep. Kiah Morris, D-Bennington.
Attorney General T.J. Donovan announced the findings of his investigation at a Jan. 14 news conference in Bennington. The news conference ended in disarray, however, after a local white supremacist who’d been accused of stalking Morris showed up, setting off shouts and a confrontation with supporters of the former legislator.

In a 10-page written summary of his investigation, Donovan said Morris and her family were the victims of a series of property crimes as well as online messages that were “clearly racist and extremely offensive.” But he concluded there wasn’t enough evidence to identify any suspects in the property crimes – and that the online comments were likely protected by the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech.

“The First Amendment does not make speech sanctionable merely because its content is objectionable,” Donovan wrote. He contended the courts would likely consider the messages sent to Morris to be examples of political “hyperbole and insult” rather than actual threats.
Morris, first elected in 2014, abandoned her bid for a third term in August, saying she had been the target of threats and harassment by white supremacists for more than a year. She was the only black woman serving in the Vermont legislature.

Donovan’s report detailed a string of racially charged messages sent to Morris and her husband beginning in 2016. In one case, someone using the screen name Marcus Cicero2 sent a picture of a black person working at a laptop with the message, “Kiah Morris hard at work destroying White Vermont.” Another message, from “Infostormer,” stated, “Go back to Africa, it’s the only place you’ll ever be safe.”

And a series of “extremely racist” messages came from Max Misch, a self-described white nationalist from Bennington. In December 2016, a Bennington County Superior Court judge ruled that two of those messages met the definition of stalking under state law, and the judge issued a one-year protection order barring Misch from having contact with Morris.

It was Misch who walked into Donovan’s news conference as Morris was speaking, setting off a disruption that soon ended the discussion.

A Washington Post reporter covering the event wrote that Morris “took a breath and then grimaced as everyone turned to find a man in a black shirt emblazoned with Pepe the Frog – an adopted meme for the alt-right – standing in the back” of the Congregation Beth El social hall.
The Bennington Banner reported that “Misch was blocked by several people in attendance, who soon began holding up their coats to block out a T-shirt he wore,” while others loudly sang “We Shall Overcome” in an effort to keep him from speaking. The paper also reported that state and local police “stood near Misch and helped to calm the situation until he left the building.”
Another tense moment followed, though, when Kevin Hoyt, who was an unsuccessful Republican candidate last year for a state House seat in Bennington, criticized Morris, saying, “I call bull---- on Ms. Morris,” drawing boos and shouts from the crowd.

The Banner reported that Hoyt said Morris “has falsely exaggerated an image of Bennington and Vermont as racist” and that “he was himself discriminated against when he was unfairly labeled a Nazi after criticizing Morris.”

About 10 days later, Donovan spoke at a Rutland forum organized by the local branch of the NAACP and wound up spending much of the two-hour session defending his handling of the Morris case. The Rutland Herald reported that the attorney general stood by his view that there was no evidence that could be used as the basis for a successful prosecution of Morris’ tormenters. But he acknowledged that the result was unsatisfactory for Morris and her family.
“We need to listen to people of color, and we need to validate their experiences,” Donovan said. “Public safety is driven largely by perception. Do you feel safe? We came up short on that.”
-- Compiled by Fred Daley