In the summer of 2018, I put the finishing touches on my latest book, began plans for my next two research and writing projects, as was nearing my twelfth year at a traditional independent University in Wisconsin. My children, 11 and 14 were thriving in their homeschool community. Our family had a rich network of friends and family. I was not looking for a change. Life was steady and predictable.
Then I received an email that led to an amazing and life-changing journey. In the past, I deleted countless messages almost identical to this one, emails inviting people to apply or recommend others for college job openings around the United States. On this particular day, I was compelled to open the message because of what I read in the subject line, Goddard College Presidential Search.
For over 20 years, I’ve been dedicated to studying educational innovation, experimental and alternative models of education, and self-directed learning. While I never attended, worked for, or visited Goddard College, it played an important role as one of the most inspiring stories of a truly learner-driven higher education community that I’d come across in my decades of study. Over the years, I’ve read almost everything in print about Goddard College. I kept a copy of To Know For Real in my backpack for almost two years, reading and re-reading favorite excerpts, citing portions to anyone who would listen, and seeing this book as the seed behind many of my research and writing project. Two more copies sat on my bookshelf, right beside Democracy and Education, A Schoolmaster of the Great City, Punished by Rewards, The Underground History of American Education, Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, and The Absorbent Mind.
There are many wonderful and inspiring progressive education colleges and universities in the United States, but there were a few distinct traits that always stood out to me about Goddard. First, its core pedagogy is largely learner-driven, which is more than being learner-centered. While many schools tend to the interests and needs of students, there is a much smaller number of schools that ask that one powerful question that changes everything. “What do you want to learn?” To this day, undergraduate and graduate learners are truly co-creators of what and how they learn each semester.
Second, Goddard was and is not a static model. This is an experimental and experimenting college that has expressed itself in many ways over its lifetime, yet holding on to core elements of progressive pedagogy. Along the way, Goddard served as the birthplace of any number of programs and models that can be found across higher education.
Third, in its most recent iteration, Goddard is low-residency. Students in undergraduate and graduate programs gather twice a year in Vermont or Washington for rich, intensive learning; collaborating with others students; working with their advisors to establish a personal study plan. Amid all of this, the College community maintains a persistent passion for exploring themes of social justice across all programs.
I opened that email job posting, gathered the requested materials and submitted my application. I knew there would be a large pool of candidates, but something compelled me to add my name to the list. To my delight, the search committee wanted to explore this possibility further, and after a dozen or more conversations, I accepted the offer to become the new President of Goddard College. Now, being a little over 90 days on the job, I can say that the community has exceeded my expectations. I’ve studied and visited hundreds of delightful and inspiring K-12 and higher education learning communities over the years, but I’ve never witnessed what I see at Goddard. What most impressed me was how Goddard’s learner-driven value appears throughout the community. I see it in the dining hall; the beautiful, moving, and inspiring learner-centered graduation ceremonies where every graduate gets a moment at the podium; the informal interactions among students and faculty; the conversations about student’s learning plans; and the delightful series of learning and social activities coordinated during a residency.
As much as I admired Goddard from afar, I’ve come to believe that I probably would have declined the offer to become President if it were not for the fact that Goddard is going through a time of difficulty. I had heard nothing from the College for quite some time after my in-person interview. I assumed that they opted for another candidate until the board chair reached out to me to explain the situation. It turns out that Goddard was notified by the New England Commission of Higher Education about concerns regarding governance and long-term financial viability. This eventually resulted in Goddard being placed on probation. These concerns were not in any way related to the magical learning that takes place here.
If Goddard were not going through such a difficult time, perhaps I could have justified staying in my long and stable life in Wisconsin. Yet, I believe too deeply in the power and importance of Goddard’s progressive education. I was compelled to join the community in striving to navigate the current challenges and working toward plans for Goddard to not only survive, but thrive well into the future. There are risks and uncertainties, however this is a critical cause and a courageous community. In a sea of higher education models shaped by efficiency, standardization, mechanization, and mass production; it is more important than ever for us to nurture and cultivate deeply human pockets of educational democracy that lean into values like learner agency, adventure, experimentation, curiosity, and creativity. I am so incredibly proud to say that I am part of such a higher education community.
The immediate situation involves no guarantees and calls for our best thinking at Goddard College. We are striving to refine and improve how we connect with and invite people to become part of the Goddard community. We recently launched an aggressive fundraising campaign called “Together for Goddard College.” We are reducing our expenses to make sure that we are being responsible stewards of the tuition that students pay to the college. In addition, as we work through the immediate situation, we have any number of exciting new projects, programs, experiments to explore; ideas coming from faculty, staff, students, alumni, and other friends of the college.
As Goddard moves ahead, I am looking forward to nurturing and deepening our partnership and connection with kindred spirits in alternative education, and the AERO community is at the top of my list. I am eager to get to know many of you, exploring possibilities for partnership, and discovering how we might work together in expanding those important pockets of democracy across the education ecosystem.
President of Goddard College