Saturday, December 20, 2014

Back to the Seventies: Leaving Burlington College

The original name -- Vermont Institute of Community Involvement -- was unusual for a college, and a little misleading – especially if you assume involvement means a deep engagement with local politics. What VICI founder Steward LaCasce had in mind was more modest and much more practical, the use of local venues – libraries, galleries, public buildings, other schools and so on – as meeting spaces for its classes. Involvement was primarily a matter of location for what was called “a school without walls.”

After four years VICI - which later changed that unwieldy name to Burlington College (BC) -- had about 100 students, 15 faculty members, and an annual budget of around $200,000. In addition to using existing community spaces for classes rather than focusing on "bricks and mortar," it allowed students to design their own academic experience, and used qualitative, written evaluations rather than grades to assess performance.

Author as
Vanguard Press Editor, 1980
In 1976, however, enrollment in the school’s associate degree program dropped for the first time. LaCasce, a professor of literature who had launched VICI with a group of friends in 1972, attributed the financial troubles to a decrease in the number of veterans enrolling and a delay in degree-granting privileges for its new B.A. program.

Faced with a growing deficit, he told the board of trustees in February 1977 that either staff salaries needed to be cut or the school might be forced to close. VICI survived that early brush with insolvency and won full accreditation in 1982. Over the next decades it became Burlington College, bought property on North Avenue to accommodate a growing staff and provide some in-house classroom space, and doubled the student body. In 2011 it moved to much larger campus on land purchased from the Catholic Diocese for $10 million.

At first the admissions strategy was to attract what were then called “non-traditional” learners, a catch-all for anyone not between 18 and 22 or who wanted an alternative to conventional academic restrictions. About a third of the first students were young Vietnam era vets. Others were single parents and “adult learners,” people returning to school after a break.

At the 1976 annual meeting the previous October, I'd joined the board of trustees as one of two elected faculty members. There were also two student board members. After approving a series of bylaws amendments, we voted to have the chair set up a special committee to evaluate the president’s performance, since he was coming to the end of a five-year term.

Shortly after that, I was elected to the executive committee, which led to an unusual assignment. I was tasked to complete a system analysis of the college’s administrative structure and processes, in line with other bylaws changes being considered and, especially, the concern that the school might face budget cuts in the near future. As part of my due diligence I reviewed documents, observed meetings, and conducted interviews with the staff.

The result was a report, issued in early January, concluding that the administration was divided, morale was low, and the president was viewed as mistrustful and isolated. The problems had been brewing, but this put them on paper. My concern, mentioned at the end of a summary, was that “organizational health may soon be jeopardized.”

A month later, as Lou Colasanti became the school’s first recipient of a bachelor of arts degree, LaCasce responded with an analysis of his own during a “special meeting” of the trustees. He acknowledged an atmosphere he described with words like “conflict,” “demoralization” and “confusion.” But his main point was that fewer vets were applying and the associate degree program had been neglected in favor of the new psychology and self-designed B.A. programs.

The result was a serious, survival-threatening situation. As LaCasce outlined it to the board of trustees in his Feb. 5 report, there were three choices:

1. Cut all staff salaries by 10 percent, but increase a half-time institutional services position to full time to improve morale. That would mean more work over the next months to balance the budget;

2. Eliminate almost all staff positions, with the president and a few others taking on more work. This would be even more demoralizing, he admitted, and would require that the board of trustees begin fundraising; or

3.Close the college on June 30, 1977.

But not only that. Unless the school was going to close LaCasce wanted “the authority to suspend the current College committee structure until the Spring Meeting of the Board.” It was a bold move to quiet criticism of his performance and quell discontent among faculty and students.

Two days later he asked me into his office and explained that I was being fired – for three reasons. First, during the previous week I had participated in a student meeting that he considered disruptive. Second, I had said at a meeting that I was willing to accept a reduced salary due to the budget problems. This undermined other staff members, he explained. And third, unity was necessary and other staff members didn’t trust me.

Afterward, I asked around and learned that his decision had been unilateral. No member of the staff or board had requested my dismissal. In fact, the core staff objected since, in the long term, if he could do this any of them might be next. As it worked out, several more soon left.

Over the next few days a petition circulated and a community meeting was arranged. The idea was to combine my firing with some proactive ideas, including a fundraising project and more student involvement in recruitment, curriculum and development. In the meantime, LaCasce sent me two letters. The first was an official, immediate dismissal, although it ended with this:

“I’m extremely sorry that things have worked out this way, and I believe that many of your ideas will, in time, be incorporated as part of VICI.” I can't say that the prediction was true.

The second letter was dated Feb. 10, the day before a community meeting at which we would both appear. “Many of your friends and students have asked me for specific details to support my decision,” he wrote. “I have said that I thought you could not work constructively within VICI this spring to help us reorganize the College and reach the goals that our trustees set at their February 5th meeting.”

He was willing to attend, however, and said he would be more specific in public. When he did appear nothing much more was revealed. The real motivation for such an abrupt dismissal, I’ve concluded, was most likely a course I had added to my load — Systems and Change — and its long-term group project, to conduct a deeper analysis of the school.

I could have sued and did confer with a lawyer. But what was the point? To win a few thousand dollars after years of legal sparring and potentially deeper bitterness. That felt like the optimistic forecast. No, I still loved the idea of the school. It seemed better for now to let it go.

A few weeks later I turned 30. As a birthday present I decided to give myself a vacation, the first in years and also the first outside North America. (The destination was Haiti but that’s another story.) In less than two years I was editing a new weekly newspaper called The Vermont Vanguard Press, and also back teaching at the college.
. . . and the story continues...

Thursday, December 18, 2014

From Lifeboat Ethics to Global Consciousness

By Greg Guma

For more than half a century humanity has been learning the lesson that "everything is connected." The realization of physical limits to human and material growth, the impact of development and pollution on ecological systems and the atmosphere, the integration of economic systems – no matter what ideology or religion dominates – and the tragic consequences of massive mal-distribution of resources make it obvious that the planet is one organism. 
     But many proposed solutions to such problems aim to "minimize" the losses rather than acknowledge the responsibilities of interdependence. When faced with famines in under-developed nations, Philip Handler, President of the National Academy of Sciences in the 1970s, publicly proposed that we "give them up as hopeless." Assistance that would "barely manage to keep people alive and hungry" could only lead to tragedy later, he advised.
     Although not often voiced so clearly, expressions of "lifeboat ethics" have become more common as humanity grapples with the harsh realities of spaceship earth. Garrett Harden, who coined the term, also provided the basic argument for its implementation.
     "We are all the descendants of thieves," he wrote, "and the world's resources are inequitably distributed. But we must begin the journey to tomorrow from the point where we are today. We cannot remake the past. We cannot safely divide the wealth equitably among all peoples so long as people reproduce at different rates. To do so would guarantee that our grandchildren, and everyone else's grandchildren would have only a ruined world to inhabit."

The Trilateral Commission's EC meets with President Ford in 1974;
to Ford's immediate left, David Rockefeller and Zbigniew Brzezinski.

     Until an effective world government is established, Harden argued, a harsh ethic is unavoidable. And the first step? Control of reproduction. To ensure compliance, Paul Erhlich linked population to food in his controversial book The Population Bomb. "We may have to announce," he wrote, "that we will no longer ship food to countries unwilling or unable to bring their population increases under control." Other schemes since then have involved exchanges of needed technology and resources in return for commitments to limit reproduction.
     The thing is, green plants form the basis of food chains, and it takes more green plant production to support citizens of developed countries. In 1980 North Americans used about six times the green plant production of the average Indian. India has begun to catch up since then, but the math remains pretty simple: 500 million more people in developed countries will use up the same amount of green plants as up to three billion in underdeveloped countries.
     Advocating population control in less developed regions without radically changing habits of consumption in highly industrialized countries wouldn't just be unfair. It would be futile.
     Such considerations have nevertheless failed to deter various open conspiracies to create world order from pursuing their grandiose plans. Beginning in the 1970s two of the most prominent were the Trilateral Commission, representing the "new breed" of corporate internationalists, and the Club of Rome. The Commission, which played a prominent role during the Carter presidency and re-emerged in Age of Obama, generated a series of policy proposals based on global power sharing between three poles of economic power – the US, Western Europe, and Asia. According to Samuel Huntington, a prominent trilateral theorist, limits would have to be placed on political democracy, a goal that would require lower public expectations and greater executive power.
     The Club of Rome returned to Plato's ethical aristocracy as a model for its solution to world crises. According to founder Aurelio Peccei, politicians and businessmen are too nearsighted to take a long view of global management. What is needed instead, he argued, is the "civilized traditions of a ruling class," implemented by technocrats, diplomats and government officials, "men of influence" able to see the shape of a post-industrial world. At least he was candid.
     In the early 1990s, President George H.W. Bush inadvertently helped stimulate public discussion about global management by calling for a "new world order." The term was an unfortunate translation of the Nazi call for "Nie Ordnung," which had set the tone for German expansionism. As the US was staging Gulf War I — then the largest military campaign since World War II – Bush promised that, once Iraq was defeated, the world could turn its attention to peaceful approaches, world law and human rights. But even his "points of light" version of world order depended on a military stick, and it was really just a soft-sell of "one superpower order."
     Some theorists and thinkers suggest that the US can no longer impose its will by economic means, that it is evolving into a mercenary state, underwritten and restrained by economic partners and overseers. If so, the next world order could be an updated version of the Trilateral or Kissinger vision. All such variations serve the interests of political and economic elites, while compressing the individual into the mass.
     Whether power is centered in one superpower or shared by several, it amounts to the same thing: a global State, increasing its domain and mechanizing more aspects of life as it reduces individual sovereignty.
     One slender hope is the slow birth of a new global consciousness, a shift in thinking already underway. The Gaia theory, which grew out of research on the geophysiology of the planet, suggests an alternative, non-mechanistic vision of what it means to be part of a living whole. According to James Lovelock, who was instrumental in developing the idea, the evolution of the material environment and various organisms are part of a single and indivisible process. If that is so, a major task ahead is to recognize, as Elisabet Sahtouris put it, that we are "a body of humanity embedded in, and with much to learn from, our living parent planet, which is all we have to sustain us."
     Or, as William Thompson explained in Passages About Earth, we have reached the end of the line for industrial society. Looking over the edge of history, we are discovering that "it's a spiral and that we have turned and are now facing back in the direction of cosmic mythology." Our old maps "take on a new meaning as they warn us, Here be dragons," he warned. "Ecstasy or economics, madness or sanity, mysticism or science: where ancient dragons live modern categories die."

This is an excerpt from Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey. Greg Guma's second novel, Dons of Time, was published in October 2013 by Fomite Press.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Partners, Standards and Climate Change: Burlington's Winding Road

As Bernie Sanders flirted with the possibility of running for president in 2012, residents of Burlington, the city where he made his first electoral breakthrough, questioned the approach he and a local successor were taking to military contractor Lockheed Martin. Mayor Bob Kiss had signed an agreement with Lockheed for a local partnership to work on climate change, while Sanders arranged for Sandia Labs, a Lockheed subsidiary, to open an energy research lab at the university.

Then suddenly, on Sept. 2, 2011, the defense contractor backed out of the deal signed with Kiss in an e-mail message to the Burlington Free Press. Why the change? A few weeks earlier, after months of local debate, Burlington’s City Council had voted in favor of community standards for proposed climate-change partnerships, prompted by the agreement Kiss had signed. The resolution called for standards which, if followed, could limit or exclude working agreements with weapons manufacturers and polluters.

Rob Fuller, a spokesman for Lockheed Martin, said in a statement, "While several projects showed promise initially and we have learned a tremendous amount from each other, we were unable to develop a mutually beneficial implementation plan. Therefore Lockheed Martin has decided to conclude the current collaboration."

It read a bit like a Dear John, and a silent nod to public pressure. Dozens of residents had testified during public meetings, all but a few opposing the deal. Kiss nevertheless called the standards "bad public policy” and a “restrictive and regressive approach.” In a veto message, he said the policy may even have contributed to Lockheed’s decision to pull out of the Burlington agreement.

A Progressive recruited to run for mayor in 2006, Kiss found support for his opposition to community standards from Republicans and Democrats on the council, including future mayoral candidate Kurt Wright, who questioned whether such standards represented local opinion. In the end, the vote was  8-6, more than a majority but not enough to override the mayor's veto. The question of setting standards or criteria for public-private partnerships remains open.

Since then, greenhouse gas emissions have increased in Burlington by around 7 percent.  Emissions traceable to city government activity rose 15 percent in three years, while the community’s emissions went up 6 percent. The city's official goal is a 20 percent decrease overall by 2020.

Transportation is the largest source of greenhouse gas. Local emissions from that source increased by almost 25 percent between 2007 and 2010. Of total community emissions about half come from transportation. Thus, a reduction in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by residents and commuters would have the biggest impact on meeting the city's emissions reduction target.

Burlington’s City Council formed a Climate Protection Task Force more than 15 years ago. A resolution passed in 1998 proposed to reduce emissions to 10 percent below 1990 levels. An 18-month process subsequently led to the city’s first Climate Action Plan, adopted in May 2000.

A 2007 inventory showed that Burlington generated 397,272.4 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent (tCO2e). Based on that, local goals were set -- a 20 percent reduction by 2020 and an 80 percent reduction by 2050. This would require an annual 2 percent decrease. Unfortunately, the "action" since then has been in the opposite direction.

In 2009 Burlington used American Recovery Act funds to hire Spring Hill Solutions, a clean energy consulting firm, to prioritize more than 200 “mitigation actions” generated by a community process. The resulting plan was supposed to be a framework for measuring and reducing greenhouse emissions and other climate change impacts. There is no evidence that idea has been implemented.

According to the plan, three approaches offer the greatest potential for both carbon reductions and cost savings:

- Requiring any new commercial construction to follow performance guidelines that reduce energy use by at least 20 percent

- The Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) program, which provides property owners with help making energy efficiency and renewable energy improvements

-- Reducing the number of miles driven by residents by combining trips, telecommuting, carpooling and using alternatives to the automobile

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Campus Lost: Burlington College & the Church

Anatomy of an Untimely Sale

UPDATE: Exclusive Radio Interview with the new BC President

Outside BC's main building
In spring 2011, when Burlington College gathered to honor the 34 members of its graduating class at a new campus, then-President Jane Sanders acknowledged that the only man who could have brokered such a land deal with the Roman Catholic Diocese was real estate mogul Antonio Pomerleau.

A prominent local Catholic, Pomerleau had been a prime target of Bernie Sanders’ attacks when he first became Burlington mayor. But at the graduation ceremonies decades later, Jane Sanders revised that assessment. "He understands relationships," she said, "not just ‘who you know,’ but an understanding that leads to a reputation, and to trust.”

Due to more than two dozen lawsuits, the Catholic Diocese was in a spot, on the hook for $17.65 million in settlements. The property initially went on the market for $12.5 million. Although the $10 million asking price was presented as a bargain, not everyone was impressed. According to Erick Hoekstra, a local developer, the city may have overvalued the property. Even if 200 housing units were someday built on the land -- not far from the Farrell plan -- a more realistic price was probably $5 million to $7 million.

The school's leaders evidently hoped that better facilities, more majors and a larger land base would make BC dramatically more attractive to students -- and their parents. But the solution was also a marked departure from the school’s original intent – academic freedom, self-designed studies and community involvement rather than a traditional "bricks and mortar" emphasis.

Almost immediately, the $10 million purchase, along with a commitment to more than $3 million in renovations, put the college under serious financial, management and academic pressure.

Four years and three presidents later, serious questions remain.  For example, why did the board believe that Sanders' enrollment goal -- 500 students within five years -- was reasonable? It was double the highest figure in the school’s history. For decades, enrollment fluctuated between 100 and 250. To double enrollment in five years, it would have to increase by 12 percent or more every year, way beyond the national average or the school’s track record.

Prior to the purchase enrollment was actually on the decline. Between 2001 and 2008, it dropped by about 40 percent, down to 156. It has risen since, again reaching somewhere around 200 students. But there is dispute about the figures --for example, how many are full-time. -- and no sign of a surge ahead. With the loss of all but about 7 acres out of 33, building enrollment becomes more challenging.

Yet, with new leadership and a concerted effort by local stakeholders, this valuable institution may yet continue to serve as an affordable education alternative -- a community-based college, and incorporate its original mission in a vision for the future -- a college that is more than its walls, for free-spirited, engaged, sometimes "non-traditional" students.

For more on BC's past and present:
Radiator Interview

Monday, December 8, 2014

DONS OF TIME: Make the Jump, Buy the Book

"A fast-paced sci-fi thriller featuring 
time travel to Victorian England."

Sept. 27, 2013
Greg Guma’s latest novel stars Tonio Wolfe, who discovers that his company, TELPORT, can use “Remote Viewing” to open wormholes to the past. After his co-workers Danny and Angel let him use the technology to search for Jack the Ripper, Tonio travels to Victorian England and tracks the killer while falling in love with radical leader Annie Besant. Meanwhile, Tonio tries to keep the knowledge of Remote Viewing from his father, ruthless Serbian mob boss Shelley, who owns and wants to exploit TELPORT for commercial use. 

The novel tracks the growth of Tonio’s political consciousness, from apathetic Mafia scion to committed opponent of institutional injustice, thanks to the influence of Annie and Tonio’s college friend Harry, a member of Occupy Wall Street. The scenes in Victorian England have an impressive amount of historical detail and include conversations among historical figures such as the playwright George Bernard Shaw and populist leader Ignatius Donnelly. Many of the novel’s subplots knit together, with Tonio’s quest to discover the true identity of Jack the Ripper mirroring his relationship with his father and his discovery of repressed memories from childhood. 

While the novel raises questions about government surveillance, it disappointingly doesn’t follow up on the implications, with the government acting as a sort of deus ex machina to help Tonio. Still, fans of historical fiction and sci-fi should enjoy this novel. It’s not deep, but it’s well-researched and entertaining, and even readers familiar with the Victorian era will learn about some interesting characters along the way.

Well-constructed, action-flooded sci-fi set in a realistic historical world.

& Fomite Press *

From the mouths of Dons

Peter Lynch, DoD/DARCAP –  "Everything we know is open to revision."

Annie Besant – "What we need is a movement of love and self-sacrifice, inspiring us to give rather than take."

Athena Metsova Wolfe – "Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good."

Helena Blavatrsky – "What writes history is the power of ideas. And every moment offers the potential to write something new."

Ignatius Donnelly – "There is a battle underway in the world, between intelligence and concentrated ignorance."

Danny Webster, TELPORT inventor, on obeying Time Commandments – "Things tend to get worse when you screw around with the past."

George Bernard Shaw to Tonio Wolfe – “Humanity has a dark side, a shadow self, an impulse toward destruction and evil."

Gianni Wolfe – ”God may not play dice with the universe, but if he won't roll somebody better step up.”

Truthsquad Collective – "We've done the digging; the next step is up to you. Nothing is inevitable."

Tonio Wolfe – “I don’t know all the details. I’m more like the canary in the coalmine or a chimp in some capsule shot into space.”

Find out their secrets and more....

"Wherever you look there you are"