How Goddard’s New President Plans to Save His Struggling Experimental...

EdSurge Podcast

How Goddard’s New President Plans to Save His Struggling Experimental College

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 14, 2019

How Goddard’s New President Plans to Save His Struggling Experimental College

This article is part of the guide: The EdSurge Podcast.

Bernard Bull has long been a champion of experimental higher ed models—ones that cast off outdated notions of how things have always been done.

And one of his biggest inspirations throughout his career has been a tiny college in Vermont called Goddard College with fewer than 500 students. For years Bull carried around a tattered copy of the book about the college’s model in his backpack as he progressed in his own career as an education professor and later a chief innovation officer at Concordia University Wisconsin.

Goddard is a place that doesn’t believe in letter grades—and doesn’t use them at all. There are no traditional courses, and students design their own curriculum (with the help of faculty and fellow students). Students only come to campus once a semester, for about a week-and-a-half each visit, in what is known as a “low-residency program.” They do the rest of their work from wherever they like, communicating with faculty from a distance.

The college has shaped a list of famous cultural figures who attended, including the playwright David Mamet, actor William H. Macy and the jam-band Phish.

And one day Bull got offered his dream job: becoming the president of Goddard. But there was one kind of monumental catch. As he went through the interview process, he learned the famed college was broke, and in danger of closing. Its accreditor has put it on probation over concern about the college’s financial stability and oversight.

Bull said he’s quickly learned that it is much harder to convince someone to give to save an experimental college that exists than it is to convince them to fund something brand new.

Can he pull it off?

EdSurge sat down with Bull last week to talk about his ideas for turning the college around, and he made his case for why there should be more small-scale colleges trying a range of educational approaches.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on the Apple Podcast app, Spotify, Stitcher, Google Play Music or wherever you listen. Or read a portion of the interview below, lightly edited for clarity.

EdSurge: Goddard College is famously different. For instance, you have no letter grades. Could you quickly give the elevator pitch about what the model is?

Bernard Bull: Goddard was launched in the 1930s amid the growth of fascism in the West, with the belief that people in a democratic society needed to have voice, choice, ownership and agency. That if we have a citizenship who believe their voice doesn't matter—they can't make a difference—there's going to be a problem in the democracy. And so it was created in part around the question, “What does it look like to create a learning community where people’s voices are honored and nurtured, where they develop the capacity to make complex choices?” The learners are co-creators of what they learn.

At Goddard, we don't have traditional courses, and we don't have letter grades. Instead, we use rich narrative feedback. Transcripts look unlike anything most people have ever seen in higher ed. A transcript could be 15-20 pages in some cases [explaining what students learned].

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Also, we're low-residency in our current version, so students come for ten days each semester. (It varies a little bit by program.) During those ten days, there’s a lot of rich community building—connecting with faculty and other students. If it's a writing group, the students might just spontaneously develop an evening of readings where they all come in and they read their piece of writing and give each other feedback.

There are some requirements to graduate, but the students have a lot of freedom. There are not really courses in the way people think of it.

And you've had some famous alumni, like David Mamet, the playwright, and the band Phish?

Yeah. And William H. Macy also, who was a student under David Mamet, and some incredible musicians and actors and activists. I believe that this community has nurtured people who have a bit of an entrepreneurial spirit to them. Not “Silicon Valley” entrepreneur, although we have had some of those too, but more social entrepreneurs, with a bit of an activist side to them. They have really strong social-justice values.

And in the education world, we have a lot of [alumni who become] school founders—a lot of founders of Montessori schools and other kinds of alternative, innovative K-12 schools come from Goddard.

But this is a challenging time, since your accreditor recently put the institution on probation. Can you describe the current state of that?

Absolutely. I actually came because of the probation. I was a candidate before I knew about Goddard being on probation, but then when I heard that it was on probation, that's one of the reasons I really wanted the job.

We'd made a lot of progress. We raised more money in the first four months that I was there than we had in any single 12 month period in the last ten years—not because of me, but because of a new development director who did a great job. We still have a lot of room to go.

We'd made some key hires and we reduced our staff because we still had staff and faculty for a much larger school. We're fewer than 500 [students] and we were staffed with maybe 600 or 800 people.

But we're on probation, and that's a tricky part because media articles, including a recent one, make it sound like most [colleges] who are on probation are on probation because there's a question about their academic quality. Which is actually not the primary means by which most schools are on probation, and it's not for us. It was a question around our financial strength and whether or not we had appropriate board oversight. Our academic programming is different, but it's really strong. And we have incredibly loyal students and alumni who love it. It may not be the model for every person, but for those it is for, they really connect with it.

Can you give some examples of things you are working to change to address both this crisis and where you want the institution to go?

There are a number of pieces to that. We did not have a full admissions staff when I arrived—we were down to a third of an admissions staff. We have a full admissions staff now. And we’re making sure the director of admissions is really well supported. That alone should help us.

Are there new ideas you're bringing to the curriculum? Are there new initiatives in that area that you're spearheading?

Because we don't have traditional courses, credits and degrees, an innovation for us was actually doing something a little more mainstream. We're going to pilot some online programs—just an online course or two, but with our residency piece. We'll use a virtual video conference just for a couple of courses. I think there are a couple [being considered] around teaching and talking about climate change, and bilingual education—likely for K-12 teachers and others. There are a number in the pipeline. I don't know which ones we'll actually be offering yet. We'll know in the next couple weeks.

It would be premature for me to share too much yet, because we'd have to get permission from the accreditors and doing that when you're on probation isn't really wise. It’s like, if you have some problem with your car that's making it hard to drive, you don't think about painting it a different color. You have to deal with the most immediate things first.

There are so many big experiments these days with large-scale online programs. But Goddard’s model are serving such a small number of students. Why is that the thing you’re focusing on at a moment when people talk about the needs in society for training, retraining students?

I'm a fan of Southern New Hampshire University and some others who are doing some great, great work in that space [of large-scale programs], and I'm an advocate for that. But if we're doing it at the expense of some of these smaller programs, [that’s a problem]. The strength of a democracy resides in how much we attend to those who might not make up the majority of the population. How do we create spaces and look out for a diverse group of people, even if one group only represents one one-thousandth of a percent of the population? And these higher ed systems do that.

And many of these small schools are really embracing the humanities' understanding of education in some beautiful ways, experimenting with some new aspects of community.

I will say this though: I actually think they're scalable.

I'm not saying scalable in terms of Goddard should have 10,000 or 20,000 or 30,000 students, but why can't there be 500 Goddards?

There could be a way for those of us in small schools to have some shared resources across institutions. There was actually a league of experimental colleges a number of years ago where they helped each other out and supported each other in some ways. What would it look like for 20 of these experimental colleges in the US to come together and to collectively create a new entity, a new nonprofit entity that sits organized as a cooperative? And we would collectively pool our resources and support [with things like marketing and recruitment]. Each school would be a member of the co-op, and we would have individuals neutrally go out and recruit market for our collection of schools.

You’ve talked about other partnerships Goddard could form. Can you give an example?

There could be a variety. Some would be partnerships that would help us recruit and that would be mutually beneficial. For example, imagine an association of K-12 schools that has a specific educational philosophy, like Waldorf or Montessori. And imagine they're looking for teachers, and the teachers who come out of traditional teacher-ed programs often don't fit. And so, our program is a great fit. They need teachers like the kinds we're able to help nurture and graduate. And we could really use some of those teachers coming back for master's degrees from us.

And if there are people in that community and their communities who wanna go and get their bachelor’s in education, we also have a path for that. It's this kind of mutually beneficial relationship. But there could also be options where there are schools that have shared degree programs. Goddard may not be for everyone for—this kind of radical, learner-driven approach. But what if we had a partnership with state schools that didn't have a lot of concerns around enrollment? What if we were the equivalent of their overseas program, so [their students] could come to us for a semester and experience it and then they could go back to that institution?

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