Diary of a Small College’s Fight For Survival

Higher Education

Diary of a Small College’s Fight For Survival

By Jeffrey R. Young     Feb 19, 2020

Diary of a Small College’s Fight For Survival

An experimental college in Vermont is among the many small colleges fighting for survival.

Last summer we interviewed the new president of Goddard College, Bernard Bull, about his plans to turn it around. Things weren’t pretty. The college, which has fewer than 500 students, most of whom participate in its signature “limited-residency program” where they do most of their studying away from the campus, was facing a budget deficit and had just been put on probation by its accreditor.

Today, Bull says there’s sunlight peeking through the institution’s cloudy outlook, and that he feels confident that accreditation will be won back. And he says he has a plan for creating a stable process to avoid falling into a similar crisis just a few years from now, after the latest fundraising efforts wrap up.

We caught up with Bull to hear the latest—in something like a diary of the college’s struggle to get back on its feet.

EdSurge: How have things been going since last summer in your efforts to stabilize Goddard College’s finances?

Bull: It’s been a roller coaster, to be sure. Because once you get that label of probation, it really becomes this constant game of Whack-a-Mole, where surprises can come up in every possible direction. Everything from insurance policies (of people saying, “I don't know if we want to take a risk on you anymore”), or the U.S. Department of Education coming through and we’re put on heightened cash management because of past work. So all sorts of things.

When we last talked, we were working on a $1.2 million deficit. We really didn’t have enough cash to make it more than a few months, in terms of payroll. And now we are operating from a balanced budget, so the deficit is gone. We have a whole new admissions team that’s rebuilt, with an admissions director with 20 years of experience.

And what’s pretty cool is we’ve put together a document that [states] our fiscal guidelines. The easiest summary [of those guidelines] is, “We will not spend what we do not have.” I’ve studied 10 to 15 colleges that were at risk of closure or closed, and I’ve had a chance to talk to a number of presidents. I’ve learned about what things work and what things don’t work, and we’ve put together a pretty clear plan. We just launched a $4-million fundraising campaign, but I don’t actually need the $4 million for us to operate physically. I need the $4 million to demonstrate to external bodies that we’re meeting a financial status of having three to six months’ cash reserves.

So we could go on for a decade, or decades, as long as we didn’t have some rapid sudden change in enrollment, with our current operation. It may not be the most exciting story, but it is really significant.

So fundraising is not the main strategy?

When I’ve talked to a lot of other colleges, some of them tried to raise money to solve their problem. The problem is, as soon as the money came in the door, it had to be spent because they didn’t have a sustainable financial model. What we did instead was, we said, “We have a bucket that’s leaking. Let’s fix the leaks in the bucket.” And we did have to do a fundraising campaign. Lots of people chipped in—mostly small-dollar amounts—and it helped us through last year. But then we started with a new fresh year, operating from a balanced budget. If we don’t hit our targets, then we’ll adjust our spending accordingly, right away.

You’ve talked before about trying innovative new practices. Do you know yet which ones you might try going forward?

We’ll have an internal review process. We have different work groups starting to form around ways in which we might look and structure things.

Some things that we’re exploring, and the community will vote upon which ones we do, are small but significant. A lot of colleges have faculty housed in different departments, but they’re kind of siloed. But at our college it’s such a distinct model. A lot of our students study across disciplines, and we have faculty who have the credentials and the skillset to teach and work with students across disciplines. So whenever appropriate, [we might try to be] a place where faculty can actually work with students regardless of what program they’re in. Or at least across some programs.

That’s an initiative that [would allow] us more flexibility. So if enrollment is down in one program but up in another, it’s not a faculty crisis. We can still adjust our spending for each program without having to let a faculty member go or something like that. Their workload moves from one place to the other. So that’s one important consideration that’s going on.

We are going to be launching a Digital Futures work group that I’m actually going to co-lead directly, as president, with one of our program directors. And that’s going to be exploring the role of emerging educational technology.

We also are going to have a number of degree programs proposed. This is up to the community to decide on, but we actually have quite a few areas at the college that relate to integrative health and integrative medicine. We have a lot of students and faculty who are interested in embodiment studies, mindfulness work, human-animal interaction, animal-assisted therapy counseling and some of those areas. And I’m interested in what it would look for us to even expand that further and have a whole suite of programs that tie into the national conversation about healthcare and that also have direct career pathways for our students. My dream would be, in 10 years, Goddard College would be known as the college for integrative medicine in the nation. But, again, that’s my dream. The community has to vote.

How is your approach different from those of other struggling colleges?

I’ve talked to colleges that raise millions of dollars, but they just spend it so quickly because they have not created a model where they really can make it off of tuition. [Many] people are saying, “Build an endowment and then you’re insulated.” Which is good, you want to build some insulation. But there’s that other side as well, which is changing our relationship with money so that we really can operate healthy without being wealthy.

That’s a real fundamental question about the higher education system right now. People say, “The only way you can exist as a college is to be rich.” Imagine if we said that about all of society: “The only individuals who have real meaning and should persist are the ones who have the greatest net worth.”

Instead, what if we say, “It’s important to be healthy.” And health can be expressed in a more healthy and sustainable use of our financial means, whether that’s from tuition, endowments or whatever.

You had to make some layoffs to balance the budget. How many people were let go?

I’ll say it this way: we reduced our expenses by about 30 percent, and a lot of that was personnel. We had a severance agreement, and so we had to budget quite a bit to pay severance in the past. So now that we are operating from a balanced budget, we won’t have to set aside as much for severance next year—which means, ironically, we’re going to actually be able to add back some positions next year.

We did reduce our expenses a little too much in some areas, and that was part of the process.

And that’s actually a good piece of advice: Sometimes you have to make decisions really quickly, so make sure you build in the systems to monitor the implications of the decisions. We’ve found places where we cut too much, too quickly. Now we’re strategically in the process of budgeting and figuring out how we can add back, or in some cases we already did add back in a place or two.

How confident are you that you’ll pass the accreditation hurdles you face?

I am confident, but I can’t be certain. External accreditors are going to evaluate us, and they’re going to be looking for a great deal of financial strength. If the accreditors came today, I don’t think we would’ve made enough progress yet.

But by the time they come on April 20th, even by the time I meet with the accrediting commission in the fall—granted that we make really good progress on our fundraising campaign—I don’t see anything that would indicate that we would lose our accreditation. I feel like we’ve met our standards or exceeded them in many cases. So yeah, I’m feeling really good about it.

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