Home Arts Creating a College: The Story of the Vermont College of Fine Arts

Creating a College: The Story of the Vermont College of Fine Arts

College Hall at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.  Photo courtesy of VCFA
College Hall at the Vermont College of Fine Arts.
Photo courtesy of VCFA

by Nat Frothingham


Here is the remarkable story that details the skein of events beginning in 2001 that led to the formal incorporation of Vermont College of Fine Arts, Inc. in May 2006.

Here also is the just-as-remarkable story of the first 10 years of the college from 2006 to the present.

Both stories, as told to The Bridge by College President Thomas Christopher Greene, show us how the idea of a new and independent fine arts college survived adversity through the near-miracle combination of timing, vision, luck, community support, will-to-achieve and sheer hard work.

Tom Greene. Photo courtesy of VCFA
Tom Greene. Photo courtesy of VCFA

The Crisis:

In 2001, Norwich University gave notice of its intention to sell its Montpelier campus. At the time, Tom Greene was working for Norwich University President Richard Schneider.

Talking about that decision to sell the Montpelier campus, Greene said, “I was on the cabinet at Norwich when (President Schneider) made that decision. It was a decision I opposed.”

But once Schneider made that decision, Greene supported it and in hindsight, Greene said he believed that Schneider’s decision to sell the Montpelier campus “was really the right decision.”

“I had a conversation with him at the time,” Greene said, “because I had come from (the Montpelier campus) — I had started working here in 1993 and I knew everybody who was still part of the college. At the time I was Director of Public Affairs at Norwich and I worked very closely with Rich (President Schneider). I had a conversation with him when they wanted to sell it, where

I said, ‘Why not let the employees find a way to buy it out and take it as a separate institution?”

According to Greene, Schneider was “open to that idea” when the two of them spoke.

But then there was suddenly a new player on the scene. As Greene said, “Within a very short period of time, Union Institute & University out of Ohio, with a new president who wanted to make a splash, offered Norwich $14.5 million to buy the campus and all of the academic programs that were here.”

So Greene’s idea for “an employee buy-out” was superseded by a Union Institute purchase proposal.

“There was some general enthusiasm at the time,” said Greene about what was seen as a good match between Union Institute and the Montpelier campus. Union had grown out of Goddard College in the early 1960s. It was part of the Consortium of Progressive Colleges “with similar DNA between Union and what was happening here,” said Greene.

But that initial optimism about the fit between Union and the Montpelier campus quickly faded. Said Greene, “What quickly became apparent was that it was a merger that just wasn’t going to work.”

Some of the problems were these: Union was solidly based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Its new president was Cincinnati-based, as was Union’s board of trustees.

Then it came to light that Union, in Greene’s words “had got into significant financial trouble related to the Ph.D. program. They lost, overnight, probably some 800 students.”

“So behind the scenes,” said Greene, “what Union was doing around 2005/2006, was trying to find a way to sell the Montpelier campus.”

According to Greene, Union thought they had a deal in place with the University of Vermont. As Greene tells the story, the UVM president at the time, Dan Fogel wanted the the campus and he wanted the three MFA programs being offered at the Montpelier campus: the MFA in Writing; the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults; and the MFA in Visual Arts. As Greene explained, “He wanted these programs because UVM did not have MFA programs and because these programs had national reputations.” As part of its deal-making with Union, UVM had also created a blueprint for the development of a UVM campus in Montpelier.

But the UVM deal came to a screeching halt when it was presented by the administration to their board. UVM was facing technology cost overruns to the tune of an unexpected $25 million. According to Greene, the UVM board said, “You can’t do both.” You can’t both deal with the overruns and buy the Montpelier campus.

When the UVM bid collapsed, Union was in a panic because, as Greene said, “They were counting on that money in order to get them out of the trouble they were in.”

Summing it all up, Greene said, “There was a real possibility that for the first time since 1868 this campus would no longer be in educational use.”

There was also a good chance that the three MFA programs — including the highly regarded MFA in Writing, would have to shut down.

Just about at this time — to make bad matters worse, the Union Institute & University announced publically: “That the campus was for sale to the highest bidder, and it did not have to have an academic use.”

Nor was the ensuing panic limited to academic fortunes and misfortunes.

As the Montpelier community turned its attention to the Union Institute sale, the failed UVM bid and what could happen to the campus, several rather unpleasant possibilities came into view.

What had been in Montpelier for almost 150 years a seminary or a college on the hill could easily become a condominium development.

Nor was there any guarantee that the college green would be protected from development. And if the college shut down and the campus was sold for development, what about the 100 college jobs?

Then, as VCFA President Greene observed, something else could have happened, not to anyone’s liking — the Montpelier community could have lapsed into endless conflict and discussion over a number of years in figuring out how to redevelop the site.

After the Panic:

VCFA Music Composition residency. Photo by Stefan Hard
VCFA Music Composition residency. Photo by Stefan Hard

In the aftermath of the panic, Greene remembered that earlier moment when he suggested to Norwich University President Richard Schneider that the college employees in Montpelier ought to buy the Montpelier campus.

At about the same time, Louise Crowley, Greene’s academic colleague and longtime director of the MFA program in Writing,  told him of a dream she’d had: “That we create a new college called Vermont College of Fine Arts.”

Her idea, together with the existing UVM blueprint, envisaged the three MFA programs and the Montpelier campus that in Greene’s words “became the idea for creating the College of Fine Arts.”

In all of this, what’s important to remember is that the three MFA programs continued. They never stopped even as Union offered the campus for sale or when UVM put forward its ultimately failed bid.

So as Greene said, “We began talking about (a new College of Fine Arts) internally and I said, ‘I think we can do this. And I said to the staff and faculty, ‘This is something we can do. We can take this independent and we can start a new college.”

In his interview with The Bridge, looking back on the risks he was prepared to take in starting a new college — and this comment drew a laugh — Greene said, “It was an odd combination of naivete and hubris. I knew a few things about running colleges. I knew nothing about starting one, or where we were going to get the money, or how any of this was going to work.”

In the vacuum created by the failed UVM bid, some Montpelier people suggested, according to Greene, that the City take out ads in The Chronicle of Higher Education and other higher ed newspapers saying, “We have a campus for sale. Come in and buy it and give us a college.”

At about this time, something very important happened, as Greene put it, “A very seminal moment for me — now this was around May 2006 — there was a meeting downtown in the City Council chambers. Mary Hooper, who was mayor at the time,  was there, and there were other concerned citizens who were asking the question, ‘What do we do about the college closing?’”

“I stood up and gave a talk about how since 1993 I had worked at the College in different capacities. I taught there. I’d been an administrator. I’m a graduate. I thought there was the will and energy within the community to create a new institution, take it independent, have it be independent for the first time since 1972, which was the last time that decisions about the campus were made on the campus.”

Moving “fast forward” to reflect back on what ultimately happened, Greene said, “This is a Montpelier story because everyone got behind it. It wasn’t about me. Everyone got behind it and someone said, ‘What do you need?’ and I said, ‘The first thing I need is a lawyer. I need to incorporate. And Gerry Tarrant was there and he raised his hand and said, “I’m a lawyer, and I can do that for you.’ Gerry and I went down to the Secretary of State’s Office, and we incorporated Vermont College of Fine Arts, Inc.’”

VCFA Writing residency Photo coutesy of VCFA
VCFA Writing residency Photo coutesy of VCFA

Starting from Scratch:

Vermont College of Fine Arts, Inc. was incorporated in May 2006.

“The address was my house,” said Greene. And these were the critical needs that Greene and others had to deal with.

Said Greene, “We needed credibility. We didn’t have any money. We had an idea and a vision. We fortunately had a number of graduates (from the three MFA programs) that were people of real significance in the world and we began to reach out to them — myself, Louise, Jessica Lutz, the Program Director of our Visual Arts program, we started to build up a board because we knew we needed serious people in order to make it work.

“The first call I made was to Harry Groome, who is a graduate of the writing program and who was a longtime CEO of SmithKline Beecham Pharmaceuticals. I called Syd Lea who is a Poet Laureate and also a one-time faculty member here.  I called a woman in New York whose husband had been a publisher of The New York Times and who was a graduate of the visual arts program. And people were saying, “Yeah, we’ll come on — we’ll do this.”

Greene also made a phone call to an alum whose identity, he said, “will remain anonymous.” She was someone of significant means. “I called her up and told her I needed funding to get this thing going, to save this campus and save these programs and I didn’t know how exactly much I needed. I assumed I needed a phone and an office and attorneys and maybe an assistant —somebody who could help us out.”

“I called her up and she said, ‘How much money do you need?’ And I said, ‘I need — I need $250,000.’ And she called back 20 minutes later, and said, ‘We can do it. Give me your bank account information so I can wire the money.’ And I thought, ‘We don’t even have a bank account.’ I didn’t want to tell her we didn’t have a bank account.”

So Greene went downtown to the Community National Bank, opened an account, and told the bank to expect a wire of $250,000. And the money arrived.

“That got us up and running,” Greene said. His next step was to tell Union Institute that the College of Fine Arts was serious about its intention to buy the campus.

Reaching Out to the Competition:

As Greene relates it, the nascent Vermont College of Fine Arts was not alone in its bid to the Union Institute to purchase the Montpelier campus.

According to Greene, “There were a number of developers — five or six prominent Vermont developers … looking to buy the campus.”  And serious enough to be measuring roofs, doing inspections, and as he said, “moving relatively quickly and we had a crunch of time against us.”

Most of the developers, Greene said, were interested in condominiums. Some wanted to get the State of Vermont and other tenants onto the campus to pay the bills. “So they were about a real estate investment, primarily,” Greene said, “but certainly not a college.”

Remember, the new college had been incorporated in late May 2006.  Then came the board development and the needed fundraising and all through the summer the developers were on the campus assessing the buildings and grounds and preparing their proposals.

In August 2006, Greene was introduced to Bill Kaplan, who lived locally and had commercial real estate experience. Kaplan also knew how to do complex financing. Kaplan came aboard at the College, as Greene’s business partner in September 2006.

Greene remembers a particularly critical — even decisive — meeting with all the developers who were looking to buy the campus in October 2006.

Greene said, “One of our board members set it up. We all met in a room. And I told them all about what we were trying to do. We are trying to save these 100 jobs. We’re trying to preserve the campus as a college.”

As Greene recalls, at about this time, “I think it was November,” he said, “that was when Union wanted the new college and any developer to submit sealed bids.”

As the meeting with developers continued, Greene said, “We don’t exist to make money. We exist to fulfill a mission. We’re going to have to take on a whole lot of money. We’re going to take on a whole lot of debt.  If there are six, seven bids on this place, that’s going to drive up the price and cost us more to do it.”

In closing, Greene said to the developers, “I’m determined that this is going to happen, that we’re going to create a new independent college on this campus — that it’s going to happen. Nothing’s going to stop us from that.”

The meeting ended. Although Greene can’t assert with confidence why what happened did happen, he said, “None of the developers bid on the campus. Each one walked away from it. We were the only ones left standing. We made an offer of $10.75 million, the same offer UVM had made for the 33-acre campus, 15 buildings, 250,000 square feet and three MFA programs.

Getting the Financing & Getting Accredited

VCFA Master of Arts in Teaching in Art & Design Education. Photo by Stefan Hard
VCFA Master of Arts in Teaching in Art & Design Education.
Photo by Stefan Hard

By November 2006, Union accepted the bid from Vermont College of Fine Arts. “It was the highest bid,” said Greene, “and it was the only bid by an academic organization. I think there was a separate bid for just the academic programs. I think (that Union) had no choice but to take us seriously at that point.”

Then Greene said, “There were two big questions in front of us. We needed money.” And not just $10.75 million. “We needed more like $13.75 million because we needed operating capital to get up and running — and create a college.”

“The second piece we also needed was accreditation, Greene said. “Because without accreditation, you can’t offer financial aid, you can’t be an independent school.” This was a problem, because the three MFA programs had to continue. They couldn’t stop running.

Happily, this problem had a solution. According to Greene, “Now, we worked out a creative agreement with Union that actually let us run the college before we owned it. So I was actually running the institution in the middle of 2007.  I was running this college – and the three MFA programs here — and I was an employee of Union Institute & University. It was kind of like an expatriate government coming in and running it on an interim basis while we worked through the financing and the accreditation.”

It would be hard enough at any time for an untested not-for-profit intent on opening a new, independent college to secure $13.75 million in financing. But  2007 and 2008  were not just any time. As Greene remarked, “We were a brand new, non-profit trying to borrow $13.75 million in the middle of the worst recession since the Great Depression.”

Then, said Greene, “The bond market collapsed. We thought we had financing in place. There was a major bank that came and told us, ‘You don’t have it.’

At the same time Greene and others were hurrying to get accreditation. “Because we couldn’t become an independent college until we were at least a candidate for accreditation.”

“That’s a process that takes time,” he explained. “You’ve got to write a 150-page self-study. You’ve got to have a team visit. You have to go and testify in front of the commission in Boston that accredits colleges in New England. And it’s not quick. Fortunately we had Gary Moore, our founding academic dean, to spearhead the effort.”

Then there was the financing problem. “We were trying to put together our financing, trying to build a leadership team, continuing to build a board of trustees.” Then of course, the financing that was thought to be in place was suddenly gone.

Speaking candidly, Greene admitted, “We were in a panic about what to do.” Right about then, the College went to Community National Bank. But Community National said, “This is too big a deal for us. They had never done anything on this scale. They had never lent anybody $13 million.”

But it didn’t end there with Community National Bank – Community National stayed involved and Greene said,“They were fantastic and wanted to work with us, and we put together a team of banks.” The Vermont Economic Development Authority (VEDA) played a key role. The U.S. Department of Agriculture guaranteed the debt.  U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy helped. So did Gov. Jim Douglas. In the end, Union also helped by financing $3 million of the debt.

In conclusion, Greene said, “We were able to get the $13.5 million.”

And Greene got more good news, this time about accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the same organization that accredits Middlebury College and the University of Vermont.

“We became the fastest college in the 125-year history of New England Association to get accreditation.”

According to Greene, “In June 2008, we became the first new (higher education) institution in Vermont in a generation. Greene remembers June 23, 2008 as he sat for a full day “in a law office in Burlington, signing documents that spanned an entire conference table.” A new college had been born.

Adding Programs:

According to Greene, “We started out with the idea of “Save Campus, Save Jobs” and it quickly grew into an idea of becoming a national center for education in the arts here in Montpelier.”

“So the question in front of us was, ‘How do you do that?’”

His answer was, “We needed to be bigger. We needed more programs and more students. If we were going to be a national program for education in the arts, we needed to offer programs that were reflective of this. And so that led first to the creation of a Music Composition and a Graphic Design program and then we added a film program. We followed with a Master of Arts in Teaching Art & Design, and our first full-time residential program in Writing & Publishing.”

So the College went from three programs to eight. The College also focused on its national reputation. Said Greene, “We focused hard on getting the highest quality of academic programs. We brought leading artists in the world to this campus: To teach, to be here, to guide these people as they move into their respective fields.”

Photo courtesy of VCFA
Photo courtesy of VCFA

Transforming the Campus

“We also set up a process to raise money to transform the campus to be a campus that’s reflective of our mission of creating a national center for education in the arts.” About the campus, Greene said, “It’s one of our greatest assets and in some ways, also our biggest liability, because it was built for a 19th century form of education.”

Remarking on the campus, Greene said, “It’s a beautiful, historic New England campus. We’ve also done a ton of work to preserve the history of this campus.” Almost in wonderment, Greene said, “Would you believe this building — College Hall?”

Then he noted that the College has spent more than a million dollars on College Hall over the past three or four years — preserving and maintaining it.

Beyond the College’s stewardship role, Greene spoke enthusiastically about some of the positive changes to the college campus. “We have renovated Alumni Hall, an old gymnasium that was barely used into one of the great, multi-use spaces in Vermont,” he said.  Then he remarked on the Louise Crowley Center – “the first new building on this campus since 1967.”

Turning to the achievement as a whole, he said, “Ten years later, we’re growing, thriving, and I think we’re making as big an impact on the arts nationally in this country as any graduate college.”

When he elaborated on this point, Greene said, “Let me give you two examples.” He mentioned the National Book Award for Children’s Literature and said, “In every year since our inception – except for one year – we’ve had at least one of the four finalists that have come from VCFA. Some years we’ve had two – two of the four finalists. So if you’re looking at where the next great children’s writers are coming from – there’s a strong chance that some of these people are coming from VCFA.”

Turning quickly to his second example, Greene discussed the college’s graphic design program. It’s already making its mark. Said Greene, “It’s in the top 10 in the country. The other graphic design programs in New England that are on the list are Yale and the Rhode Island School of Design, both of which have been around forever.”

Speaking in more general terms, he said,“I think you are seeing students coming through here and faculty being attracted to teach here who are going out and making an immediate cultural impact. And not too many schools can say that.”

Many things account for the College’s success in looking back over 10 years. But possibly the College’s teaching model makes a strong contribution to that success. Said Greene, “It’s the faculty-student relationship. It’s in the things that support the education.”

Most of the students at the College of Fine arts live someplace else and visit the College for residencies lasting 7 to 10 days. These are periods of concentrate face-to-face learning and interaction.

“No,” said Greene, “we’re not saddled with athletic teams and fancy dining halls, fancy dormitories. Our work is built on the teaching relationship between established and emerging artists and how they work together.”

The College’s teaching model offers distinct advantages. One such advantage is that the College of Fine Arts can attract faculty members who are at the top of their artistic practice from all across the world.  Not every leading artist might choose to relocate to rural Vermont. And some of leading artists live in LA or Tokyo or New York or London. “We’re able to get them here to teach,” said Greene. “They can live and work where they want to live and work. They can also come here and work with students and go back home. It’s a huge advantage.”

The College and the Community

Photo courtesy of VCFA
Photo courtesy of VCFA

When he was asked if people in the local community are as aware of the college as they might be, Greene said, “We sit up on a hill here. We have built a strong reputation nationally in the fields that we offer. But we are less known locally. It’s a slow process.” Then he added, “I think it’s hard for people to come to a realization that things are lively here.”

Perhaps the College is less known locally. But there are solid signs that the community is beginning to be aware of what’s happening at the College. “We have opened our residencies and our experiences to the community,” Greene said. “We have major events every year, such as the Vermont Book Award this past September. We have events where we have famous writers come in that I’ve interviewed and we’ve gotten as many as 600 people to those events, kind of extraordinary for Central Vermont.  So I think we’ve worked hard at trying to become a cultural center for Central Vermont.”

Turing to the economic impact of the College locally, Greene said, “Ten years later, this college is a huge growth engine for Montpelier and Central Vermont.” Students and faculty are having a direct economic impact with as much as a million dollars a year being spent at restaurants, bars, bookstores such as Bear Pond Books, and shops in downtown Montpelier.

Adding to this theme, he said about the college, “It’s a dynamic place. It’s judged every year as one of the best places to work in Vermont. We’re adding jobs, good-paying jobs — five or six jobs a year at the college — it’s extraordinary, when most colleges are shrinking.”

Greene cited these statistics, “We’re the fastest growing college in Vermont. In June 2008, we had a $5 million operating budget with 212 students. We’re now a $12 million operation with 420 students. We’ve grown 85 percent in eight years.”

As the interview neared its end, Greene said expansively, “I go back to one of my favorite quotes, a quote from thinker and writer and former U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who said, ‘If you want to build a great community, start a college, and wait for 300 years.'”

“I really think we’ve done that in 10 years,” Greene said. “I’m astonishingly proud of the amount of work that’s been accomplished by so many people for this place — and what we are.”

Appreciating Bill Kaplan

As part of the interview with Tom Greene, he took a moment to acknowledge his partner of 10 years, Bill Kaplan, who left the College at the beginning of October.

Photo courtesy of VCFA
Photo courtesy of VCFA

Speaking about Kaplan, Greene said: “Bill provided a tremendous service in starting the college and I couldn’t have done it without him. He was a partner in that effort. But I will say that institutions, when they’re built right, are always bigger than individuals. That goes for me, too. If I decided to leave next year, which I’m not, but if I were, after running it for 10 years, the college would be fine. I think that’s the beauty of institutions: That when they’re built right, they’re built for the long haul. They are not the reflections of any single person or even several people. They are part of a larger narrative that goes on.

I’m very grateful to Bill for his friendship, his leadership, and his support for me in getting this place up and running. I think Bill wanted to do something different and I totally support that. There will come a time when that happens to me, too. But not yet.

I still have some more work to do here.”