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President Vacarr's Inaugural Address

Dr. Barbara Vacarr Inaugurated as Goddard College’s 10th President

May 7, 2011

Greetings, Chairman Freidman, former presidents of Goddard College, present and past members of the board, faculty, students and alumni, employees, distinguished guests, visiting colleagues, friends, ladies and gentlemen…

I am especially grateful to Governor Shumlin for his thoughtful remarks and for his attendance here today. It is not only a kind gesture, but a public recognition of Goddard College’s contribution to Vermont’s history and heritage. We are grateful for that recognition, Governor.

Thank you to all of the employees at Goddard who made this day possible, especially the members of the inauguration planning committee, as well as our extraordinary maintenance crew for the all of their hard work in preparing the campus for our visitors today.

I also want to acknowledge our colleagues and partners in Port Townsend, Washington campus at the Fort Warden State Park Conference Center, who are stewarding Goddard’s future on the West Coast.

Thank you all for the honor you bestow upon me as the tenth president of Goddard College.

I come before you mindful that we are standing on the fertile soil of Greatwood Farm - one of Plainfield's largest farms in the 19th century - soil that has since yielded so many experiments in living and learning.

The story of Goddard College traverses three centuries, during which time it has consistently transformed itself, always examining and learning from each field experiment, responding to the contextual landscape in which they were conducted, and adapting to the needs of students.

What was chartered in 1863 by liberal-minded Universalists as the Green Mountain Central Institute became, in 1870, the Goddard Seminary, and in 1938 was transformed into Goddard College - an experimental response during the rise of fascism in Europe and the growth of the Progressive movement, which sought to address the inequities of education in this country.

In a 1938 speech, against the backdrop of profoundly troubling attacks on democracy in Europe, founding president Tim Pitkin described the challenges facing our nation, our world and our educational system when he said, “We are in need of a more intelligent thinking citizenry. What are we going to do about it?”

Goddard College was his answer.

An educational model that he called “radical” because it gets to the roots of education, or what I like to call the roots of human development, experience and learning.

Goddard has always been a visionary institution. It was the first college in the nation to develop a low-residency model for higher education, and one of the first to include adult learning in its charter. And today, building on this foundation, the college has once again transformed itself.

As we all know, in 2002 the experiment of the residential undergraduate program ended. It was a traumatic loss for many members of our community. We turned inward to heal and redefine direction.

YET the college ultimately did a remarkable thing. It saved itself, reinventing itself —yet again — around one of its earliest and most successful experiments — adult learning.

I honor all those who performed that rescue. You brought us to a place of stability and opportunity today. It was courageous and it was instructive for our future.

To those of you who have wondered where Goddard has been in recent years, I’m here to tell you that Goddard is back, stronger than ever, and ready to reclaim its place as a national leader in experimenting education and assume a strong public voice of educational leadership.
 

Here are the exciting facts about where we stand today:

  • I am proud to report that we have the highest enrollment in 30 years.
  • We have a contingency fund.
  • We just received a 10-year accreditation for the first time ever.

We have now a tremendous convergence of opportunity and an opening for sustainable growth.

The question is, as Tim Pitkin would say, what are we going to do about it?

We have arrived at a point in our history where we must return to our roots, and as your president I intend to take us there. Goddard College needs to get back to being what it has been from the beginning: a truly experimenting, even radical, college.

Goddard is an institution that adapts and changes with every field experiment in education we conduct. This is our strength and we must name it, own it, and practice it with intention. This is a place where people come to be uprooted and transformed, not simply educated, a space that allows things to grow—always inviting a level of wildness, ambiguity, independence and chance.

Our job as cultivators and stewards in this field is not to obstruct, but to encourage autonomy, to respect the integrity and interdependence of each organism within this ecosystem, and to consciously preserve, as we see in nature, systems that adapt because of their diversity.

This fertile field stands in contrast to the kind of educations that many of us have endured:

  • Where we were told what questions to ask and where to go for the answers;
  • Where we learned how to respond correctly, rather than learning how to find and frame our deepest questions.

I vividly remember as a child in school the disconnect I felt between what I was being asked to write to and test to, and what actually lived inside of me. It was not a place in which I could know the autonomous, smart and passionate learner that I was.

That disconnection left me wanting – I left school at 15, got a GED, started college, and then dropped out 12 credits shy of my bachelor’s degree.

And one day I found myself – like many Goddard adults – as a young wife and mother of two small children, making a decision that I will always be grateful to my husband for supporting fully. I decided to go back to school.

I enrolled at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, whose model came directly from Goddard, and that program changed my life and transformed my sense of self, my understanding of the world and my place in it.

It awakened a passion for knowing that led me to ultimately pursue and complete my master’s and my doctorate.

Each step of the way, my family cheered me on, and their support is the reason why I am standing before you today.

Please allow me to publicly thank my husband, my best friend and my life companion, Mike; my son Brian and his wife Marni; and my daughter Danielle and her wife Krissy…for being my companions in learning lessons that are truly unforgettable.

Adult learning theory suggests that transformation happens when people experience some kind of disorienting dilemma – an event that pushes us beyond our usual way of perceiving, to critically reflect on how we see the world.

I distinctly remember that moment for myself as an adult student – how different it was, once I became the person generating the questions about what I was studying – when I was asked, as all Goddard students are: “What do you most want to know? What do you already know? And, how do you want to go about knowing it?’’

I believe that traditional education develops human beings to become engines for economic development.

The Goddard model is about human development and human potential, about creating economies that serve human communities, about creating learning experiences that cannot be measured by standardized testing, performance, grade point average, or the prestige of position.

Given the current crisis in American education and the challenges we face as a nation, Goddard brings a perspective on education that is needed, now more than ever.

The conversations that are happening nationally in higher education are reductionist conversations about assessment. They are not focused on what we know about human learning and human development…not about how to nurture critical thinkers and active citizens within a participatory democracy. Goddard knows so much about this — we need to be leading the conversations to reform education on a local, regional, and national scale.

This kind of learning demands our vulnerability and courage. It requires being fully open to possibility. It requires embracing uncertainty, and being comfortable in not knowing where an experience is going to take you.

Because in the end, experience is the real educator. Experience is the real teacher. Experience, culled from the mind, the heart, and the story of the learner.

And, it is here at Goddard, in taking these risks, that teaching and learning become inspired experiments in inventing, breaking rules, making mistakes, and developing ourselves anew.

I am very much reminded of the power of WEB Du Bois’ words, “The most important thing to remember is to be ready at any moment to give up what you are for what you might become.”

This is Goddard’s Story.

Each of our lives is made up of multiple layers of stories – stories we share, stories we hide, stories we don't even know we carry with us. If you truly want to know something, you need to start by understanding what your experience has been, the stories you know and those that remain locked in the silence of unexamined experience.

That’s precisely what this type of learning invites you to do.

Let me tell you a story of how I came to really understand this.

My father survived the Holocaust – I didn’t know that growing up. I knew that there was something that happened to him, but nobody spoke about it. In the silence of his experience, I developed a fragmented narrative about my own life that served as truth. Yet, deep inside of me there were burning questions and a desire to know more.

The first time that I got an inkling of the depth of my father’s experience, and consequently my own, was as an adult when my husband and I were having dinner at his house, and my husband turned to him and said, “Jack, why do you have a tattoo on your arm?“

Completely out of character, he told what was for me a harrowing and tragic story of the time he spent in a prison camp in Poland and about his narrow escape. I was floored…I was completely stunned.

And something happened to me in that moment. All of my life, his inability to speak his experiences had shaped my personal vision of who I am, of who he was, and of the world we shared. I suddenly understood that in the absence of my father's stories, I had shaped him in the image of stereotypes. I had perceived his silence in my life as the helpless weakness of the victim.

In that moment he completely changed in my eyes. In the emerging fullness of his story he became heroic, and in my own story everything was disoriented; I started to see my life and his life in a very different context and developed a hunger to know about that period in our world’s history and about the stories of those who lived it. This shaped the agenda of my subsequent research, studies and teaching.

Maya Angelou once said, “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.” The stories that live in silence very often have the greatest power to transform our world and our understanding of it, when we are given an opportunity to share them and to listen to them.

Students have always come to Goddard to learn and understand the stories that live inside of them, the stories that have shaped them. As we approach our 150th anniversary, I'm certain that we as a community must do the same.

  • What is the story that lives here in the bones of Goddard College?
  • Is the story we tell incomplete, based only on fragments of our history?
  • Are there parts of it that live here in a kind of sacred silence?
  • Whose stories are honored and whose are forgotten?
  • Are there aspects of our core purpose that remain hidden, even to us?

To answer these questions we must re-member our story – literally, we must piece our history back....

TOGETHER.

In order to envision our future, we must invite and speak a full narrative, one that values the arc of our history, the peaks and valleys, and honors ALL those who have participated:

All of our triumphs…

AND every pivotal moment in our past when we proved we had the courage to risk.

Goddard is an experimenting college. Over the years, some of our experiments have taken root and flourished others have not.

That is the value of experimentation.

Our success must always be measured by the questions we ask about our experiments.

  • What did we learn from them?
  • How might we own the gift of failed experiments?
  • How might they inform the experiments we’re doing now and the ones we haven’t even thought of trying yet?

I know from my understanding of human development that when people are faced with the potential for very exciting growth, as we are now, it also comes with uncertainty. It can be scary and disorienting.

Yet at this moment, we must trust in our experience, in Goddard's enduring courage to undertake new experiments in learning, to create new paradigms, to reinvent, to build communities of life-long learners: this is what we do, this is what we were founded to do, and this is both our inheritance and our power.

Now is the moment for Goddard to come home to its power… and for you who have been its story to come home to Goddard.

I truly believe we are at a critical moment in our history, one that is completely in sync with the transformative nature of our past.

The time has come for us to once again consider Tim Pitkin’s original inquiry, “We are in need of a more intelligent thinking citizenry. What are we going to do about it?”

I need each and every one of you here to help me answer this question, so that together we can open ourselves to the potential before us now:

  • The potential to build upon and transcend our past;
  • The potential to create a new future in which Goddard takes its rightful place as a national voice, a national model for what education can be and what we need it to be;
  • The potential for Goddard to once again be a bold, experimenting college that has the guts to ask the hard questions of all who come here;
  • and to be a place where these questions can be asked safely and considered thoroughly.

It is time for Goddard to publically own its mission.

And it is only in embracing that model of courageous experimentation which is at our core, that can we once again transform ourselves, our communities, and our world.

This is an exciting time to be at Goddard College, and I can’t wait to see where the experiment is going to take us next.

Thank you very much.

_____________________________________________________

Photo Captions:

President Barbara Vacarr delivers her inaugural address

Trustees Clotilde Pitkin and Andrea Leebron-Clay install Barbara Vacarr as the tenth president of Goddard

Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin speaks at the inauguration ceremony