“Many Dead, Many Dying” by Will Wootton

SFWP 5

Excerpt from the memoir manuscript Good Fortune Next Time: Life, Death, Irony, and the Non-Profit Management of Very Small Colleges

 

December 13, 1993

When Rod Gander, the president of Marlboro College and my boss, climbed down from the hissing, dripping 6:00 p.m. Amtrak train from New York City, I’d never before witnessed such a visage of depression and defeat. His whole body seemed smaller, shrunken inside his topcoat.

He started off across the crowded platform, and then stopped as passengers and porters flowed around him. He shook a cigarette from a pack and lit it with a lighter. He looked up, caught my eye, and without expression hunched his shoulders up and down, once, then waved his cigarette toward the exit and headed that way.

That was not good. It was bad. In today’s nomenclature, the college—his college, my college—was on a short and economically unsustainable path. We had two, maybe three payrolls in the bank. That bad. This trip so carefully planned and prepared for…I guessed it hadn’t gone very well. It was a good idea. Being out of money was not exactly a new condition for one of the nation’s smallest liberal arts colleges. The trip to the Christian Johnson Endeavor Foundation was perhaps the last opportunity to put the college’s case—a desperate case, there was no hiding that—in front of someone who could actually help, who had the money at least, if not yet the motivation.

Julie Kidd, whose family foundation she inherited from her father, was familiar with Marlboro through a relatively new member of the board of trustees and his wife. It was because of them that the foundation had already given Marlboro one grant. A one-time gift, she indicated. That she would entertain the sort of meeting Rod had asked for was like being invited to a party, a dinner dance party, where you knew you didn’t really belong.

Rod had spent the week before at his desk, writing a report to the foundation, banging it out on the manual typewriter he’d imported from New York, stabbing away at the keys with two stubby forefingers. As a former editor and the former chief of correspondents at Newsweek, Rod wrote well and straightforwardly. He wrote with an ease I would have sinned to obtain, if I believed it was remotely obtainable. Instead and for the better, over fourteen years together at Marlboro I had the services, the almost exclusive services, of one of the finest editors in journalism.

I was very respectful of that. In New York, a generation of young journalists was also respectful because Rod was a natural born mentor and teacher, always willing to share his extensive journalistic knowledge. For instance, once we’d been discussing editors we’d worked for, the types who—back then, in pencil—deleted bits and pieces of your story and rewrote the same words above, so to the next editor up the line it looked like he was as actually doing something. So what’s your definition of an editor, I asked him. “An editor,” he said, “is a mouse who wants to be a rat.”

What we had pieced together was an economic plan, an explanation, of how the college could survive the current threat and begin to prosper, if the foundation became engaged. Still, whatever he wrote could not hide how awful the numbers were, how alarming, how fearful. The projected deficit was like a tsunami, building every moment and speeding to crash into the College, which was protected by the fiscal equivalent of a knee-high wall of sand bags.

Rod’s secretary retyped everything, packaged up the six or seven-page report, and put it in the mail to New York. Rod called and made the appointment.

We’d asked for $750,000 over three years, a lot of money even by today’s standards. And we asked that it all be unrestricted: money to get us from one very insecure place to another, more secure place. By any grant writing standards, not a convincing proposal at all.

Outside the train station, I hurried Rod into a small tavern and steak joint I’d checked out earlier in case we had reason to celebrate. Instead we slid into a booth. Rod ordered scotch and I got beer.

“She didn’t read it,” he said.

“She didn’t…” I said.

“She forgot, I guess, about the meeting.”

“Did you have a meeting?”

“We did. I outlined everything as best I could. She was very apologetic. She said she’d read the report and call.”

“When?”

Rod’s shoulders went up, paused, then down.

That was it then, December 1993. Disillusionment and despair, in a bar booth, next to the train station in dark, rainy, rundown downtown Springfield, Mass.


 

During those three decades in higher education, I had to live a human life as well. Work and career were accented by illnesses, deaths, injuries, births, surgery, fishing, hockey, automobiles, ratty old boats, dogs and cats, and farming. Farming because for some dozen years, Lulu, with my willing labor—so, it was “we” —operated a commercial cut flower farm on our sixteen acres in Marlboro, a few miles from the College.

I graduated from Marlboro in 1972, when the College was only twenty-four years old. That same year I met my sweetheart, whose full name is Lulu Ballantine, who was an entering freshman. Her formal education was almost immediately interrupted due to…due to us beginning what’s been going on for forty years, following each other’s passions in a divergent, entertaining sort of way. Together we have a son and a daughter, who are now long-time adults with their own children. So today there’s a small bunch of us.

We returned to Marlboro in 1983 after a decade of short-lived careers for both of us, and for me, graduate school at Boston University, where I earned a journalism degree. Before that move, I cooked in restaurants, worked in the woods with a famous old forester, Halsey Hicks, and put in my time on that Colorado ranch—still today called Singing River Ranch. After my year as editor of Sampan, I was a freelance reporter in Boston until we abandoned urban life and, packing up our two small children, moved to the bucolic Amenia, New York countryside where I taught and coached hockey and lacrosse not very successfully in a private high school for dyslexic boys. I taught the oldest boys and Lulu the youngest. After a couple of years, we were back at Marlboro and I was the alumni director and editor of the magazine, Potash Hill. Marlboro grew from a perilously low 167 students to just over 300 in the nineteen years I worked there.

After those nineteen years, as Marlboro’s vice president of institutional advancement and a husk of my former self, burnt-out, exhausted in a way where rest was ineffectual, I resigned. I got a few months’ pay, a big party, and celebratory dinner. Even the trustees attended. My older brother knew better, but my mother and my two sisters attended. I got to make a speech. I was fifty-three years old. I didn’t have another job lined up. I hadn’t spent one minute looking.


 

It took a while to figure out even where to look, and after so many years, how to look for a new job. I was trapped amongst the streams and swamps, the hills and swales of higher education. I had a “skill set” not unlike a hunter gatherer with his collection of stone tools and knowledge of the terrain. I might even have acquired a very valuable set of implements and experiences, but how would I know, having lived solely with institutional crisis and fiscal catastrophe for, say, seventeen of those nineteen years?

Of independent colleges and universities, there are financially shaky ones, old, settled in their ways, and constantly aging badly. There are colleges newly born, others approaching adolescence, and still others finally nearing something like adulthood after seventy or eighty years of hard living. There are huge twenty thousand-student universities and colleges with thousands of undergraduates, and finally there are tiny places like Sterling and Marlboro, shrews dodging the footfalls of dinosaurs.

But we are all colleagues, absolutely, all part of the history and traditions of academia. Our mission statements could live together comfortably in an old shoebox. We talk the same language, know the same people. We fight the good fight. We live confidently under the umbrella of the liberal arts.

But higher education also competes, and not always nicely, for students, grants, philanthropists, and maybe most of all for status. We steal ideas, language, and personnel from one another with impunity. We will undercut the competition for a single student. We wouldn’t hesitate to cut out a major donor from another’s herd, like a cowboy on a quarter horse.

So, really, we are more part of an industry than we are members of the same team, or even the same movement, or anything like that. It’s an industry where each member is focused on replicating itself, and protecting its assets while growing in size, or stature, or geographical reach. I tell you, if private colleges and universities were all bobbing around on a giant, stormy sea and one of us started to sink under the waves, well, too bad for that guy. It’s that sort of industry.

I’m not saying the whole enterprise is fractal, but it’s interesting that higher education in America, particularly the liberal arts approach to undergraduate studies, works about the same way whatever the size of institution on both faculty and administrative levels. All colleges are non-profit institutions (except the online for-profit education mills, of course). And college professors look pretty much alike everywhere, their various rankings, degrees, and colorful academic hoods serving to individualize members of the same species. All colleges are run by a president—a character as hard as steel round shot—being crushed from above by a wedge-shaped board of trustees to whom he or she is responsible, and ground away at from underneath by the roiling magma of faculty, staff, students, and community. All have professional people running complex programs in fundraising and development, finance, enrollment, plant and operations, all the pieces needed whether the student body is 10,000 or 114.

And so when colleagues assemble at conferences, or meet in regional associations, the issues they face are similar and familiar; the frustrations, depending on source, identical; their stories of students nearly interchangeable. The quality of instruction, studies have shown, is roughly equal across the type of colleges. That’s as it should be when the uniformity of the liberal arts institutions extends into the graduates who go on to become teachers in liberal arts institutions.

As a whole, it is a robust industry, and although the likelihood of failure and death is real, it’s actually quite rare one of us up and dies outright.

The huge land-grant universities aren’t going to go broke, and if they were to, they’re still not going to close. State and community colleges may shift around, merging and unmerging amongst themselves, but there is little chance of a single president or group of overseers causing the actual demise of one. The publics are protected by politics, cronyism, alumni, and history, and that adds up to security, if not always to excellence. Among the couple thousand independent liberal arts colleges, the Ivies and the potted Ivies are cushioned by enormous endowments and their own gold-plated histories, shaped from a studiously cultivated alumni, their alumni parents, and alumni children. There must be another thousand regional institutions, including faith-based colleges and universities that are fiscally and institutionally sound and have been for generations.

Death and its dismissive cousin, death-by-merger, is reserved for the old and infirm, the shrinking, the undernourished, and the timid, and for the young, the experimental, and specialized. To this segment of the industry, death visits quite often, especially in New England where the college-going population has been in decline off and on for twenty years, while the competition from state institutions and for-profit colleges has surged.

In Vermont, Windham College succumbed in the early ‘80s, as did the fledgling Mark Hopkins College before the decade was out, then Trinity in 2000, and Woodbury in 2008; in Massachusetts, Atlantic Union College in 2011, Urban College of Boston in 2012, and in 2012 New Hampshire’s Chester College went under. Famously, Antioch, in Ohio, succumbed after more than a century (it reopened after some years, unaccredited and struggling). Recently Sweet Briar announced its closure, but the alumni rescued it, at least for the short term.

Unlike those examples and plenty of others, the death of an institution is usually more a warping due to an unequal merger or partnership, followed by a slow but inevitable disappearing to nothingness. A last, desperate, move. It’s like hospice if you work there, or went there, or even live nearby. No one wants to oversee that. No one wants to pretend a merger is a good thing, even under the circumstances. No one wants to see a mission vaporize.

For me, however, there’s another and critical aspect to endemic institutional fragility: that in some perverse way for some of us it is the odds against a future (and a future paycheck) that makes it all worthwhile, that justifies spending one’s effective working years at worthy places that, to express it gently, are not assured the level of stability enjoyed by their wealthier and better known partners in the higher education world.


 

I did look eventually, with Lulu’s encouragement, but the job I found meant leaving Vermont. Worse, it meant leaving my two senior hockey clubs, where wintertime Tuesday and Friday nights were spent at the rink. And the flower farm. And the place where, cumulatively, I’d lived twenty-two years of my life, met my wife, enrolled our children, and learned what I thought at the time was about ninety percent of everything one needed to know about non-profit higher education management.

Our children were grown, the farming business was slowing down anyway, and we were attracted to the notion of coastal living, where fishing for striped bass could easily be substituted for Vermont trout. So off we went, barely three hours away but far enough to land in the middle of Beverly, Massachusetts, on the North Shore of Boston, at Montserrat College of Art, home to three hundred undergraduate refugees from traditional higher education. I was the new vice president for advancement and second in command generally.

Everything was new to us and to me professionally. Not strange, but new and exciting. Beverly was our first and, as it has turned out, our only genuine urban experience. We were thrilled. We rented, then bought a little in-town house where with some head-bobbing you could see an orange marker out in the harbor. For the first time in our lives we ordered out food and wine and had it delivered to our door. I walked on sidewalks to work. We had trash pick-up. Cell phones worked. We felt like we were living in Imperial Rome.

The whole experience, from the paint-splattered studios and white-walled galleries to the shore-side mansions of art collectors and the parade of Yankee wealth, just out of grasp, was all so refreshing after the woods and hills of rural Vermont. And what finer students are there, really, than those whose learning is on display every day? Art college, leading to a BFA, is a clear example of the beauty and power of experiential learning, a practice too often missing from more traditional liberal arts institutions.

We thought it would be my last job, but it didn’t last even a thousand days. There were major problems, mostly with a micromanaging, budget-cutting president who was increasingly ineffective, splitting the faculty and staff into camps and clumps of confused employees. And there was I, impatient, even pushy. I thought I could do better, and it wasn’t the first time I’d thought that; even at Marlboro I’d thought that, with both presidents. The truth is, at times I chaffed working for presidents, and, after a polite leave-taking from Montserrat, promised myself I’d never work for one again.

Rod was the first. He started at Marlboro just a year before I returned in 1983. He was a summer resident with a stream-side cottage in Green River, a few miles from the college. In New York, he was chief of correspondents at Newsweek, and was being pressured he felt irrevocably toward the management side of journalism. So he quit, fifty years old, and moved to Vermont with his wife, Isabelle, and became Marlboro’s third president.

He had thought, as he pondered the meaning of abandoning a top newsman’s job and departing Manhattan, that a Vermont college presidency would be a sinecure from which he could write books. That forgivable fantasy crumbled mere weeks into his fifteen years of service. Rod was a generation older than me, and we were much alike, but he was more worldly, smarter, and funnier. We were passionate about politics and journalism, the glory days of hockey, poker, fly-fishing and Marlboro’s desperate search for money and students. He repeatedly saved the college in those days, seeming to yank $100,000 rabbits out of plain air. He was a friend and mentor, but there were times I thought I could see the way ahead for Marlboro better than he could. In 1996, Rod retired at sixty-five as he said he would, so as not to hang on and on as too many college presidents do. He wasn’t quite done, and was elected as a Vermont State senator, then died early in his second term, too young at seventy, of cancer.

I had—the question came up and recurs—no inclination to apply for the Marlboro presidency. I don’t recall even thinking about it. I was not qualified and certainly not qualified in the eyes of those doing the hiring, my board of nineteen years. I wanted change, yes, but I was, after my career there, after my student years there, also wanting out.

Replacing Rod was Paul LeBlanc, still a few years from forty, without an ounce of Ivy League blood in him, and with absolutely no management experience except ideas he’d read about. He had a PhD from Framingham State and the energy of a gang of teenage boys, but I don’t think he’d ever hired or fired or even bossed anybody around. His fiscal management experience was nil; his marketing opinions were, well, singular. And everything he knew about student admissions he’d learned in a three hour meeting with a fellow who ran a successful office at one of the potted Ivies, Hamilton or Williams, where full-pay freshmen begin lining up when they’re in the seventh grade.

I like to joke that I taught Paul how to be a president, something he doesn’t fully deny and I’d never disabuse him of, but it’s not true. All that ignorance intimidated him not one bit, and his smarts and charm and refreshing ambition carried him through each error and stumble of his first year, and then some. Innovative and bold, he believed in Harvard Business School’s Clayton Christenson’s ideas about disruptive technologies and innovating at the edges of an institution, so as to avoid being hidebound by traditions and fear of change. A lot of that worked, and a lot didn’t. But it had great effect on me and how I was thinking, and I could tell that this was going to be a wildly different ride than the one I’d been on.

I happily put in five years with Paul, after assuring the board I’d stay at least one with Rod’s successor. Paul carried on another three years, never at anything slower than 110 miles an hour. Today he’s the hugely successful and entrepreneurial president of Southern New Hampshire University. And he’s still a friend.

Regarding Montserrat, so much for Imperial Rome. Instead, I’d closely experienced a liberal arts model I was only vaguely familiar with, the professional college of art, which I became completely enamored of. And I learned much from a community and college that might as well have been 10,000 miles from college of my immediate past, and the one of my immediate future.

In late summer 2005, I applied and survived a fairly typical months-long presidential selection process and became the new president of Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, Vermont, a village almost as far north as one can go in Vermont before running into Canada.

The search ended in December but I didn’t begin actually begin until July 1st, the start of the fiscal year. A couple of things happened within a month or two of moving into North House, the president’s house, smack in the middle of campus, and across from the iconic common of Craftsbury Common.

First, I came to understand that I knew, at best, not ninety percent but maybe thirty percent of everything one needs to know about non-profit management. Then, in a little ceremony in my own mind, I forgave the three presidents for whom I’d worked for all their transgressions of common sense, their stupid decisions, blundered opportunities, or misguided choices I had so confidently made judgment upon. It was arrogance that made me do it, self-contained, but arrogance nevertheless. It had the consistency of pudding and, upon this revelation, slipped off without argument from me.

If Marlboro is very unusual because of its size, town meeting-style of governance, and tutorial-based Plan of Concentration (which still today both attracts and terrifies students), then Sterling is of another planet altogether. Iconic New England, white clapboard houses, church and steeple, Holstein cows, maple trees, hills upon hills, and an uncluttered 200 year-old common as large as two football fields, Craftsbury Common is at times achingly beautiful. The New England of your mind.

Sterling, now with about 125 students, is distinguished by a curriculum that weaves together traditional and experiential academics. It is also the nation’s only genuine year-round residential college. Students work hard, stay enrolled, graduate more quickly than normal, and as a cohort, I swear, are mentally and physically the healthiest student population I’ve ever seen anywhere. Sterling also grows and raises a large percentage of its own food, and has the best, least expensive dining room in higher education.

All that and not a spare dollar, an endowment you couldn’t trip over in the dark. For six years I paced the porch of worry at the rear of the President’s house, the gods of anxiety at my side, whispering, urging me on. During those years, deeply formative ones for the college’s curriculum, physical infrastructure, and fiscal profile, Sterling also delivered forth a disproportionate bounty of surprises, crises, opportunities, disappointments, and successes.

The first of these, definitely a crisis, escaped its cage hardly a month into my six years. It’s always comptrollers who bring the bad news. “You’re not going to like this,” is how mine begin.

Sterling’s comptroller, who was soon to resign and leave me fiscally blind for months, did manage to work through the current budget and that afternoon came down the hall to my corner office.

“You’re not going to like this,” she said. The college was facing a $350,000 deficit, and that was after having to raise $200,000. Before I could manage to fall over dead she added, “We also have some serious cash flow problems you might want to take a look at.”

I took everything home, every number and audit we had—and within twenty-four hours confirmed that this was no Tsunami barreling towards the college. That was Rod’s problem years and years ago. This was more like a cow-sized meteor streaking in from space and aimed to impact exactly on my head eleven months hence. It meant there was, again, no money, and, this time, no plan. And it was all mine.


 

Rod came into my office at Marlboro, down the hall from his, and plopped into the red, as opposed to green, chair. It had been days since we drove back from Springfield to Vermont, and waited for Julie Kidd to call.

I was typing a story for the alumni magazine, Potash Hill. I didn’t turn around.

“She called.”

I stopped typing.

“She read it. She’s going to do the whole thing. Two hundred and fifty thousand a year for three years. Unrestricted.”

The tsunami disappears like fog does, like it was never seriously there. I turn around and see Rod is practically floating from the weight off his shoulders. He’s grinning. He starts to sing, holding up his palms—he knows the words to hundreds of tunes, from the twenties to the mid-fifties: “We’re in the money / The sky is sunny / Old man depression, you are through.”

“Yes,” I said. “That’s great. But what have you done today to save the place?”

“Not a thing,” he said. “I’m waiting for tomorrow when I tell the board we’re halfway to a balanced budget. And it’s only November. It reminds me of the newspaper hawker in Chicago. We’ll have to send him to another corner.”

“What hawker?”

“Whatever the headlines were, he stuck with only one call, over and over, for years: ‘Many Dead, Many Dying! Many Dead, Many Dying!’ ”

 

 

About Will Wootton: After sixteen months serving as the interim vice president of advancement and executive director of the Highlands University Foundation in Las Vegas, NM, in December, Will and Lulu returned to their home in Craftsbury Common, VT. He is to finish his memoir, find a publisher, and await the brief but verdant summer of northern Vermont.

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