Airport Sitting: Destination Far Off

I am at Dulles awaiting a flight to Okinawa. Not exactly a short distance. I am headed to a Change of Command ceremony at Kadina, replete with parades.

This trip is so out of my wheel house in every respect that it has actually loosened my brain I think. I have more thoughts and am making more connections than normal — and normally I do pretty well connecting diverse topics.

I already wrote a piece at the airport connecting three distinct NYTimes articles; I published it today in Linkedin. I wrote a comment on InsideHigherEd too. Now this piece as I sit on a plane to Montreal.

Here’s my point: if you are traveling far, I have realized you can think “far.” Your brain seems to travel — literally and figuratively.

For me, this involves thinking yet again about Southern Vermont College.

I have been deeply saddened as many know by the closing of small colleges, Southern Vermont College in particular and where I was its president for 8 plus years (until 2014). I have written about the lack of necessity for small colleges shuttering. Not all of them need to go the way of the dodo bird.

I now see the advertisements of sale of the SVC campus. Students, faculty and staff have been scattering. There’s a GoFundMe account which the college has received under an odd set of GOFundMe rules — I wonder if they will return the dollars to the 150 plus donors. The money was intended for steps to save the college, not pay for its liquidation.

The demise of SVC has been messy. There were concerns about having sufficient dollars to pay faculty, staff and coaches. That seems resolved in large part, except trustee repayment apparently. There are at least two lawsuits brought by donors. There has been an absence of transparency. Lots of people are sad. Some are mad. Seeing St. Joes reviving itself makes me fall over with envy. Where’s the 2018 audit?

Me? I am beyond mad. I’ve had to threaten someone with a libel lawsuit and constant legal monitoring. Good thing I was a law prof many moons ago. Some trustees are mad I have worked to try to save the college, something I thought was their role. I have lost friends … many … because I spoke about what wasn’t done that should and could have been done. Truth hurts it we see our own truth.

But, at least so far, and this really has me bent out of shape, I haven’t seen a public apology. I haven’t seen anyone falling on their sword. I haven’t seen humility. I have not seen the former president owning his actions or inactions. Surely he can’t think he did everything right…

Where is role modeling? Students, grads, faculty and staff still need that from their leader — even if no longer officially employed.

I haven’t seen the trustees stepping up and out. Sure, the trustees have donated and lent money but they apparently did not see the ship sinking in advance (they missed the leaks?). With few exceptions on the board, remarkable exceptional exceptions too, they have not reflected on where they went wrong — publicly. Perhaps they have done so in private.

Maybe because I am headed to Japan, which has a culture of apology — to the point of suicide sadly — the absence of even one iota of remorse publicly is noticeable. It is actually more than noticeable now given my destination. It is like a neon sign begging to be heard and heard again. I get that some people just can’t apologize…..too painful?

I’d like to say I will forget my SVC salvation efforts. Nope. Not happening. I haven’t and I won’t. I plan to write some of my udeas so other leaders and boards can, just perhaps, see writing in the wall and act. I have a terrific co-author. I will encourage this among many things: Change leaders early. See leaders for what they are, not what they say. Find new aporiaches to old problems. Distinguish truth from hyperbole. Be innovative. Read between the lines. Take risks. Be smart and bold. Don’t flush good money after bad. Hire well. Stay on mission. Don’t accept gifts that keep on taking. Listen to faculty — they have ideas and they know the institution.

The above are general. There will be legal suggestions. There will be HR suggestions. There will be strategies. There will be warning sign lists. It will be pragmatic — the ideas are too important to lose even if SVC never rises from the ashes.

Everyone, well almost everyone, has a bad taste in their mouth regarding the SVC demise. It survived since 1926. Who wouldn’t be upset? If you tank a college, own it. If you make mistakes, own them. Don’t lie; it catches up with you. Transparency is soothing.

Lives were damaged. Programs were disrupted. Dreams squashed. That needs to be owned. The Japanese may take this notion too far, with too much guilt. But, at least for me, apologies are a key quality of a leader and a board. Ponder which leaders have apologized over time and which haven’t. Reflect on the veracity of the apology.

Think Boeing. Think Admissions scandal. Think institutions like Penn State and others where people acted badly to put it mildly.

Step up. Maybe my trip will calm me down. I suspect not. Maybe it will just enable me to re-energize to try to save SVC and other small places. And perhaps it will give me the patience to await the public apology. Later is better than never. I’m usually in a rush. Not now. I will wait forever for a apology.

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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