Patricia Meriam: Vermont College of Fine Arts trustees must restore our trust

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This commentary is by Patricia Meriam of Barre, who is pursuing a master’s degree in fine arts at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.

To help those interested in the current situation at Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier, please consider the college’s leadership web page statement, which reads: “We believe in collaborative leadership that considers and values all voices in our global community.”

It’s important for readers to keep in mind that the Vermont College of Fine Arts Board of Trustees has not shared any official records — no conversations, no building improvements cost analysis, no appraisals, no financial projections — produced during its considerations resulting in the decision to move residencies out of state and sell all its Montpelier campus buildings except College Hall — steps the trustees now insist were the only ones possible in order to preserve the college. 

Most importantly, the board members did not take the essential step of seeking the voices of the very community they were entrusted with stewarding.  

No faculty, students, alumnx, and only a few select staff were given a voice in the decision to hold residencies at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and to liquidate all campus real estate assets but one. Program directors were unaware of these discussions and thus were not consulted on our residency needs. And after numerous requests by community members to access more detailed evidence of our leadership’s due diligence, only the most general of summaries have been shared. 

It now appears the board of trustees and senior administration were developing their plan to move to Colorado and sell the Montpelier campus properties from at least 2020 until the public announcement in June 2022 — a time period during which there was a curious absence of any Academic Council meetings. 

Up to 2020, the Academic Council (consisting of faculty, program chairs and directors, and other administration) had met on a monthly basis to discuss programmatic concerns and initiatives, and to plan any big developments for the school’s future. Newly, under President Ward’s leadership and during the pandemic, when Zoom meetings became a standard mode of communication, not a single Academic Council meeting was called.

Today I offer that it is the failure of the board to share substantive information and decision-making that is responsible for any lack of understanding and widespread dissent on the part of our college community. 

Given that we haven’t been able to review all that went into what feels like rash decision-making, we cannot be certain that divesting from the Montpelier campus is the only way forward. Everything the wider Vermont College of Fine Arts community knows indicates there was time to explore more options, solicit more community expertise and aid, and co-develop a plan with other stakeholders, including core faculty, program directors, student reps, and staff.

The recent loss of college staff expertise has been most astonishing; four of six program directors have resigned and at least 15 other resignations have occurred in staff and faculty since June 2022. Additionally, our community needs an update on current enrollment numbers since the announcement, and a plan for what the administration is doing to ensure that staff and faculty stop leaving.

At time of writing, 573 people have responded to a Vermont College of Fine Arts community poll that was recently circulated; 73% are strongly opposed to the direction the board and senior leadership are taking the college, with 11% somewhat opposed. 

Given the widespread community dissent for their drastic plans, it seems the trustees would be wise to consider some new steps from where we are at this moment vs. where they were when senior administration announced their decisions.

The board members should meet with the Vermont College of Fine Arts community to transparently present their research and analysis of the move and campus sale. Here, they would share the detailed records of building cost analysis, financial projections, and the options of host schools they explored from 2019 to 2022. Then, listen to the community about their concerns and suggestions. Next, press pause on the sale and create a plan for new option exploration. And finally, invite faculty, staff, student reps, and alumnx to be part of the co-development of those other options.

In my view, it’s clear the widespread opposition to the board of trustees’ actions isn’t born out of resistance to downsizing the campus or ensuring future financial viability for the college. From the onset, constituents have been both frustrated and angered that there was absolutely no outreach or attempt to involve our community in these discussions. Given that even the board has admitted (and tax filings suggest) there was no immediate financial distress for the college, there was likely time to find alternative ways to downsize and update the campus, increase our fundraising capacity, and make use of our community loyalty while exploring other local and regional campus options in the interim.

To so swiftly disassemble a revered model of progressive arts educational leadership, which has taken over 30 years to build, has consequences for all of us. I urge the trustees to admit their miscalculations and return residencies to Montpelier for winter 2024 and summer 2024, while thoughtful collaboration on next steps takes place — this time with more of our esteemed global community involved.

There is trust to be restored.

Read the story on VTDigger here: Patricia Meriam: Vermont College of Fine Arts trustees must restore our trust.

As Reported by VTDigger