Coordinator of Learning Services, CCV 1972 – 1976

Reinventing College from Scratch

I think it probably began with Steve Hochschild. He and I had known each other at Harvard, and on my return from doctoral work in New Guinea we got together. He explained that he was working as a Planner for a new “open college” in Vermont and proceeded to describe a system that had no campus, no paid faculty, and no credits. And it was free! The president was a “really cool guy” named Peter Smith, at 27 said to be the youngest college president in the country. “We’re inventing higher education from scratch,” Steve told me, “but we need someone who can help us organize our learning systems.” Was I interested?

It was the fall of 1971. Vermont was feeling the first twinges of a back-to-the-land movement that would dramatically reshape the state—and in many ways the nation’s culture as well. As one who was building a geodesic dome in the middle of a Northeast Kingdom hayfield, reinventing higher education sounded pretty good to me.

Influenced by the emerging “open university” movement, elaborated by Peter Smith’s remarkable vision, and saddled with the lamentable moniker, the “Vermont Regional Community College Commission” (how it became CCV rather than “Justin Morgan College” is another story), this fledgling experimental proposition had just received a hotly contested Title III grant from the federal Office of Economic Opportunity. It was convened to bring people who wanted to learn together with those who had the knowledge they sought. Period. That was the deep purpose of the institution—if it could be called an institution at all. We referred to it, rather darkly I thought, as a “learning delivery system.” And the strategy? Well, there were caveats. It was to be student-centered: courses were to be designed in collaboration with the learners themselves. There were to be no time-based credits: learning would be evaluated in terms of outcomes. Credentials for faculty? Naturally, but it was to be the credentials of earned experience, not mere book learning, that mattered. Want to learn community organizing? We’ll hire you a community organizer, not a sociologist. There were some on the staff at the time who were convinced that an advanced degree was a severe handicap. Would there be a degree? Of course, but how it would be determined lay before us, a trackless wilderness. It was thrilling.

So I signed on with a six-month contract as a consultant to design a learning system for the place. The system was to include “student support” on the one hand, and “teacher support” on the other. At the time, in addition to a small central office located on Langdon St. in Montpelier, there were sites in Montpelier, Brattleboro, and St. Johnsbury, each with its own Coordinator and support staff for students. Shortly after that, a “teacher support” person was hired at each site. For the next six months I worked with each site team to come up with a “learning support system” that delineated each person’s roles and the relationships among them. I drew diagrams and maps, typed bullet-points and caveats, spoke of “competencies,” “interventions,” and “evaluation criteria.” Peter thought it was great, Steve was duly impressed, our resident radical, John Chater, and the site Coordinators rolled their eyes, staff shrugged, and I was hired under a fresh Carnegie grant at $12,000 a year to become “Learning Services Coordinator” for the college, its first…um…academic dean.

My recollection of those early days features above all else the boistrous and testosterone-soaked Wednesday morning “Management Team” meetings. At one end of the table Peter, wearing his signature leather vest, leans back in his chair, feet defiantly on the table, and exuberantly shreds this or that academic evildoer; beside him Planner Steve Hochschild, necktied and trimly pressed, pleads for a coherent management plan, while Chuck Parker, the Finance Guy, throws out a stream of pecuniary and scatological jargon and warns darkly of fiscal disaster. Meanwhile, as the Site Coordinators argue fiercely for local control, I doodle in my notes my emerging “wagon wheel theory” of administrative order: everyone at the hub wants the spokes to be identical while each spoke, its outer end regularly ground into the mud, demands autonomy. And at the other end of the table sits John Holden, elder statesman planted among us by unseen wiser powers to provide something like common sense. Proving his sagacity, he rarely says a thing. What he was thinking amidst all that cacophony was anyone’s guess, but his presence must have reminded us when we took the time to glance in his direction, that we were about something more important than our own thrashing impact on the tiny world of higher education in Vermont.

By late 1972, we had lots of courses running, but still no degree program. Community Colleges conventionally offer Associates Degrees, so that was a given. But we had declared credits to be the baggage of a moribund system. How, then, did you know when a person merited the degree? “When they are competent, of course,” roared the competency-based ideology, but how competent, how do you know that, and at what? What’s more, although we were committed to recognizing prior experiential learning, almost every other college who did that (and there were a scant handful at the time) also gave credits. Yet since credits were based on time spent in a classroom, how would we assess the educational value of experience out of the classroom without some academic reference point?

As it happened, Peter had wrangled his way into a coalition of non-traditional colleges under the auspices of the Educational Testing Service to create principles of good practice for assessing experiential learning. Its acronym, CAEL, stood at the time for “Council for the Assessment of Experiential Learning,” and, headed by Antioch’s venerable Morris Keaton, it was to remain a vital force in non-traditional education for decades. I became the college’s academic representative, and over the next several years—we are talking the early ‘70’s here—under steady fire from our fellow state colleges and their nettled faculties, we wrestled with tough and very real questions: what’s the difference between teaching and learning? what is the interplay among assessment, documentation and certification? how do we establish evaluation criteria and assess achievement against standards? The College worked hard to shape a rigorous process of planning, implementing, and evaluating a quality degree program without sacrificing vital student engagement in setting learning outcomes.

The “competency-based” education movement was in ascendance at the time (as it appears to be again today), and it quickly became evident why “credits” were far simpler. Colleges turned themselves and their students into pretzels trying to specify in advance and in excruciating detail precisely what behaviors their students should exhibit. While I liked the idea of being clear about what had been learned, I found the effort to base a curriculum, much less an educational philosophy on so mechanistic and prescriptive an approach, repugnant. Art Chickering, who, with his wife, Joanne, was profoundly helpful to us in those years, put it succinctly. “The goal of a training program is that everyone should come out the same,” he told us once. “But the ideal of a good education is that each student emerge unique.” Out of all this, we became convinced that our curriculum would develop competence but not enumerate “competencies.” And then the Big Question reared its ugly head. I even later used it as the title of a journal article: Now They are Competent, So What? in which I argued forcefully for the primacy of deep reflection on the purpose of learning over the mere “technique” of assessment technology.

What, then, was the ultimate purpose of learning at CCV? Peter used to joke that in the early days if we were busted, we’d all be found pockets bulging with dog-eared copies of John Holt, Ivan Illich, Jonathan Kozol, Paulo Freire, and Neil Postman. These were primary texts in our formation, and it showed. The purpose of education was clearly to help people learn how to learn, and the aim of education (Kohlberg’s mighty eponymous essay and Chickering’s powerful Goddard-born book notwithstanding), was autonomy. Echoing a good New England tradition, we called it “education for self-reliance.” I sharply recall Margery Walker, Montpelier’s doughty Coordinator and the only female on the Management Team, raising a Quakerly eyebrow at the individualistic tone of the epithet. “Don’t you think learning happens best in community?” she asked archly. But she was politely ignored and it was only decades later that I came to recognize how right she was.

What kinds of competence would make for self-reliant learners? After a year of painstaking conversation with students, teachers, staff, employers, and the public, I proudly presented Peter with a list of several dozen clusters of competence. “You’ve got to be kidding!” he bellowed. “No more than ten—at the most!” I knew he was right, the clusters hit the shredder, and we went back to the scissors and paste. What finally emerged were ten “Areas of Competence”: Self-awareness, Communication, Cultural Awareness, Community Relations, Interpersonal Relationships, Creative Competence, Manual and Physical Competence, Environmental Awareness, Analytical Competence, and [oh yes!] Knowledge. Looking back, I recognize it as clearly a committee scramble, but hey, we were trying to re-invent higher education, weren’t we? You could do worse.

So there was one more challenge. How would we decide when a person was ready to graduate? And who would decide? What we came up with is not unlike the portfolio process used today in widely diverse educational settings: students developed a “learning contract” complete with learning goals developed in consultation with CCV staff; they assessed their prior learning against those goals, took courses and independent studies to meet them, and throughout the process met with a “Local Review Committee” made up minimally of a community member, college staff, a fellow student, and faculty. Upon approval, the portfolio went to a college-wide committee for final review.

All of this and more I wrote up in a document for CAEL and the College. It remains, frankly, one of my proudest achievements though surely long forgotten and unread. Titled Standard Setting by Students and Community: How Much Is Enough?, it became the founding framework for the CCV Associate’s Degree and a model for a number of other non-traditional institutions seeking to be a part of a truly student-centered, community-based approach to promoting educational quality grounded not in hours spent in a classroom or degrees held by faculty but by the relevance and appropriateness, the goodness of fit with both local and global constraints. It was a bid, I still believe, for a more rooted, integrated, and connected vision of education, but a bid too tender to stand.

Like the CAEL report, much of the founding charism of CCV was far too heady to last. Many of those early dreams were simply the stuff of any initial start-up, bound to take more substantial form in the rub of the world. And much of it was sheer youthful idealism, some avowedly misguided, an outgrowth of our own 60’s counter-dependence. We knew what we were against, but were less adept at creating something that would reliably replace it. Clearly the free tuition and unpaid faculty impulse was unsustainable; tuition and teacher pay rapidly returned, as did the practice of paying for instructional space. And, with accumulating experience, it made sense to hire the same excellent teachers over and over, thus establishing a kind of permanent faculty. Then, several years after our inclusion in the State College system, credits swept back in. A purely competence-based system was too radical an assault on institutional collaboration, too wrenching a demand for the larger system to accommodate. Myrna Miller, who as President in the early eighties consolidated much of this retrenchment, deserves great credit for bringing about changes that were undeniably essential for the college’s long-term survival. And she did so while continuing to nourish the deep commitment to students that has remained at the heart of the college and that ultimately enabled it to thrive.

More than four decades later, I look back on those years, at once appalled by our arrogance, gratified by the courage of our aspirations, astonished by our achievement, and deeply proud of what CCV has become. I leaf through the handsome publications, scan the inspiring diversity of course offerings across the state, see the strength and pride on the faces of the graduates, and am filled with gratitude that we were given the opportunity to lay the groundwork in those early years for what has become such an extraordinary, inspiring, and truly excellent educational institution.

August 11, 2015