Home News and Features Rumored Goddard Sale Sparks Community Protest

Rumored Goddard Sale Sparks Community Protest

Demonstrators concerned about the proposed sale of Plainfield’s Goddard College exit the driveway of Patrick Malone, of Malone Properties, in Calais on June 5. Photo by John Lazenby.
By Tracy Brannstrom

Following a late May announcement by the Goddard College Board of Trustees that the school is in the process of being sold, community groups are arguing that the sale is being done on illegal grounds. On Monday, June 10, Plainfield residents asked the town to urge state officials to investigate. 

Residents told the Plainfield selectboard that the Goddard Board of Trustees is breaking its bylaws, as well as state laws that govern nonprofits, by selling off college assets in executive session over the course of a year. Residents also said the Board of Trustees did not meet requirements for board member representation in their decision-making process — excluding representation by Goddard students, faculty members, and others. 

Plainfield resident Debra Stoleroff asked the town to send a letter to the Vermont Attorney General, the Governor’s office, and the Vermont Secretary of State asking them to investigate unlawful conduct by the Goddard College Board of Trustees and Goddard President Dan Hacoy. They made it clear that they were not asking the selectboard to weigh in on who the buyer should be, but to alert state officials that the sale process has not included important stakeholders. “You all have a stronger voice if you were to write a letter to the AG asking her to intervene,” Stoleroff told the selectboard. 

“It does feel really awkward that the sale was done in executive session with no input from the community and no communication with the community at all,” Plainfield selectboard member Karl Bissex said. “Essentially the town supported Goddard College by not charging them taxes for — what? 78 years? And the community has been very supportive generally.”

Plainfield Town Clerk Bram Towbin said it was “troubling” that the Goddard Board of Trustees did not consult with local property owners who are hooked up to the town’s sewer system. They could be affected if the property was further developed. He said he urged trustees “if you don’t have those conversations, you’ll end up with more litigation.” 

The selectboard said it would schedule a special meeting as soon as possible in order to approve a letter that they would send to state officials. “It sounds like the pressure the board can put on these agencies should make a difference,” Bissex said. 

Private vs. Community Ownership 

Beyond issues of legality, Stoleroff said the potential sale could have financial impacts on the town by removing an important “conservation feature” — the campus. She pointed to “rumors” of a commercial real estate developer buying the college and said that if commercial development is on the horizon for that potential buyer, “it might be problematic for Plainfield.” 

Towbin said he had already reached out to the “rumored buyer” to introduce members of government who the buyer would need to deal with in terms of zoning, water usage, and other systems. He said that while he supported “the spirit” of what the community was asking the town to do in sending a letter to the state, he was concerned whether potential litigation could disrupt large payments made to the town for water usage on the property — whether by the college or the subsequent buyer. 

“I don’t think that that’s an issue,” Stoleroff said. “I know there was another group of people who offered the same amount of money, with visions that we’re hoping for on that property, and the trustees have just ignored it.”

Stoleroff was referring to local nonprofits that placed bids on the college only to be met with silence by the Goddard Board of Trustees shortly after. One of those nonprofits, Cooperation Vermont, had hoped to transition the campus to a community land trust — maintaining access for local organizations that are tenants on the college campus and otherwise protecting it from privatization. Cooperation Vermont board member Jason Hirsch spoke about their desire to create a community fabrication studio in order to build low-cost, net-zero modular housing with and for local residents. 

Goddard College was founded in 1938 with an ethos of integrating education with the community. Self-directed learning was an important component, as students constructed various campus buildings, grew food, and filled other campus jobs. 

Cooperation Vermont Director Michelle McCormick spoke at a public event hosted by community groups on the Goddard campus on June 1, in part debriefing about how local organizations, despite wanting to carry on the community-oriented mission of the school, were not seriously considered as buyers by the Board of Trustees. 

Hirsch, also president of the board of directors at the Vermont Center for Integrative Herbalism, a current tenant of the college, said “this is a piece of land that has been supportive of, and supported by, this community for decades. To imagine it being turned over by the nonprofit Goddard College to a private developer is difficult to swallow.” 

A Brass Band and a Letter

Community groups say they have good reason to believe that commercial real estate developer Patrick Malone, owner of Malone Properties, is the buyer of the college. On Wednesday, June 5, community members demonstrated peacefully in front of Malone’s home in Worcester, bringing with them a small brass band and Bread and Puppet-scale puppets. 

A group of about 30 delivered and read a letter to Malone, asking him to back out of the sale of the college. “We have heard from a number of sources that you are actively trying to buy the Goddard campus,” they said to him, “and we are here to ask you to stop those negotiations and cancel any contracts.” 

“There is mounting evidence that this is not a legal sale,” they read from the letter, signed by the Goddard Campus Community Delegation. They also said that local residents, taxpayers, and the wider Goddard community deserve a seat at the table in making decisions about the future of the college, including its buyer. 

The crowd included Goddard alumni, former faculty members, residents who said they frequented the campus for walking and skiing, and one who said she attended preschool at Goddard as a child. 

“If I don’t [buy it],” Malone asked the group, “what’s going to happen?” 

A community member told Malone that “we’re going to try to figure out whatever we can to make sure this benefits the community and is not run for profit — that it’s run in the same spirit as Goddard College. That’s what we’re trying to do.”

In a brief interaction, Malone told the group, “I heard you loud and clear. You have no idea what the plans are. I have no idea what the plans are. I don’t even know if I’m buying it.” 

The Bridge reached out repeatedly to Malone by telephone, but he was not available to comment. 

Couldn’t Beat Inflationary Pressures

At Monday night’s Plainfield selectboard meeting, Towbin said he had reached out to the Goddard Board of Trustees — noting that none of the seven
trustees currently live in Vermont — but has not heard back. 

“I encouraged them very strongly to have a public meeting, and they did not seem to be interested in that, and I said ‘it’s very important that you get people on your side,’” Towbin said. 

Mark Jones, chair of the Goddard College Board of Trustees, told The Bridge that the board has “no further comment on personnel matters” beyond their statement put out on May 28, which reads that among several potential buyers, “we entered a contract with the buyer that submitted the only offer that would allow us to meet our fiduciary responsibility to pay our faculty and staff, pay off the debts to our creditors, and ensure a smooth transition for our students.”

In early April, the board announced it would be closing the 86-year-old college because of declining enrollment, down to 220 enrolled students this past academic year. The board wrote in a press release that the college “could not beat the trends of inflationary pressures, demographic shifts, and changing educational preferences.”

The school wrote on its website that students enrolled at the time of closure have the option of finishing their degrees at Prescott College in Arizona and other partnering institutions under the same tuition rate. The website also states that Goddard is working to find positions for staff at Prescott College and Cabot Creamery. 

“Goddard has gone through phases of being on the edge financially for as long as I can remember,” said Brian Tokar, a former Goddard faculty member who attended the June 5 demonstration. He said when he left his teaching position in 2001, the board’s agenda was not focused on what could have been a successful selling point — the school’s experimental history legacy. 

 “The faculty of Goddard have historically been linked to social movements, to various alternative cultural movements, in all spheres of activity,” he said, “and if Goddard promoted that, and was proud of its alternative nature, instead of twisting themselves around to try and figure out how to appeal to more mainstream students, people feel they would have a much easier time recruiting students.” 

But in addition to the school’s closure, recent community efforts are heavily focused on the legalities of its sale. Goddard alumni Nick Gomez, who also participated in the June 5 demonstration, said of the Board of Trustees’ actions with the sale, “it’s disgusting.” 

Gomez arrived on the Goddard campus in the late 1990s, at 21 years old. “When I came, it really opened up a lot of things for me,” he said, recalling how he held his instructor’s baby on the first day of class — an instructor with whom he is still close. He reminisced about student demonstrations about pressing social and political issues on campus. When Gomez heard about the school’s closure and sale, “it didn’t surprise me,” he said. “All good things must come to an end, but not like this.”