SVC drops accreditation decision appeal

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BENNINGTON — Five days after filing a notice of appeal, Southern Vermont College has dropped its challenge of a New England Commission of Higher Education decision to withdraw the school's accreditation after the spring semester.

"We initiated our appeal to support conversations that the board of trustees and I were having with a potential partner/acquirer, who might carry on the college's critical mission of helping students from diverse backgrounds to define and fulfill their potential," SVC President David R. Evans said in a statement released Tuesday morning.

He added that "the potential partner/acquirer was unable to raise the funds required to support our appeal to NECHE and meet other critical parameters, which did not suggest real promise for finding the much more substantial funding necessary for the college to continue operations."

Evans said later that he could not name the party because of a non-disclosure agreement.

Notice of appeal

The college had filed a notice of intent shortly before a March 14 deadline to appeal the NECHE vote to withdraw SVC's academic accreditation as of Aug. 31. A formal written submission was then due within 15 days, providing the college's evidence and argument in support of its appeal.

Evans said the trustees have discontinued the appeal and now hope to "conserve our limited financial resources, and focus our dedicated faculty and staff on our top priority: educating our students and completing their academic year."

"We felt an obligation to explore any avenue that would enable SVC to continue," said Ira Wagner, chairman of the board of trustees, in the release. "Filing the intent to appeal our accreditation decision last week was part of keeping that option alive for these discussions."

Word of the letter of intent created a surge of enthusiasm last week among alumni and others who have waged a campaign to support the effort financially.

Prominent among those was former SVC President Karen Gross, who has insisted in social media posts that she and many others "are not ready to give up" on the college.

Contacted Tuesday evening, Gross said in part, "I appreciate that the board and management has made their decision to close SVC by withdrawing the appeal. They may have given up the fight but I have not. As I always shared with students, faculty and staff, when one door closes, others open ... You can call what I am doing Hail Mary passes; but for the record and with the advent of March Madness, I believe in taking the last shot or making the desperation throw. Sometime, just sometimes, they work. Think Doug Flutie."

Gross said she now intends to take some time to consider other possibilities to save the college from closing. "We are reflecting on other options and opportunities," she said.

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Gross said she knew and had recommended the group that proposed a plan to keep SVC open, but she also declined to name the leaders at this point.

"The [trustees] felt they had not satisfied the conditions the board set," Gross said, adding, "but I don't see this as the final nail in the coffin for SVC."

"SVC deeply appreciates the heartfelt demonstrations of support from our various communities as we go through this extremely difficult and painful closure process," Evans said in the announcement Tuesday. "The work of the college has always been upheld by idealism and optimism, and this support has demonstrated the durability of the college's character."

However, he said, "the reality of SVC's situation is that we would need a very large infusion of monetary support to have any chance of success in appealing to NECHE, much less of continuing operations in an effective and ethical way. I am sincerely sorry that our filing of the appeal has raised hopes that have not been met."

Fund drive

A GoFundMe drive was posted online after the initial closure announcement by Kyle Gilrain.

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And Brett Pawlak, a 2011 SVC graduate, has set up a "Save Southern Vermont College" petition on the website.

Pawlak said Tuesday that the board's decision "is very disheartening. I feel our alumni, faculty/staff, community all were on board with the mission to save Southern Vermont College. Over the initial weeks, all of us have banded together ... Over this short time the petition included 1,526 signatures to date."

The signatures, he said, were those of "former alumni, current students, parents, community activists and leaders, as well as former board members. It spanned not just Vermont or the surrounding New England states; it showcased how vast our alumni group and supporters are from a national demographic."

Noting that the GoFundMe campaign has raised more than $19,000 in pledges, Pawlak added, "I'm further enthralled to have reconnected with all the alumni, current students, former faculty and staff. ... SVC's former mission will always be instilled in all of us and for that I am ever grateful. I'm just saddened that those in power do not see or hear where we are coming from and won't. For this I say fight on!"

Sens. Brian Campion and Dick Sears, both Bennington County Democrats, said Tuesday that they will be meeting with representatives from the state colleges, community colleges and the University of Vermont to discuss how the students now at SVC might be served at state institutions and whether some of the faculty and staff employees, as well as some educational programs at SVC, might be brought into the state system.

However, they noted that the state system has had to deal with staff reductions of its own and has implemented restructuring plans to reduce costs.

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The question now, they said, is how the expected closure unfolds — especially concerning the fate of the campus property and other assets of the college. Campion said that process could be complex and "could take years," as it is expected to with the closure of Green Mountain College, before anything else can be done with the property.

The state "can only do so much" until the fate of the 371-acre SVC campus and buildings becomes clear, Sears said.

Discussions with banks

Two banks, Community Bank and the Bank of Bennington, hold mortgages stemming from bonds the school obtained totaling about $6 million.

Evans said college officials met with bank representatives on Friday but no final decisions were made.

"We don't know what the banks are thinking," he said Tuesday. "We proposed a plan to them that included some strategies to reduce the drain on the college's cash, and that would not include foreclosure. I hesitate to comment on what they will end up doing, but it's in our mutual interest and will maximize the value of our assets if we can arrive at a cooperative arrangement."

He added, "The asset question is part of the bank discussion. We have not gone deep into the question of asset disposal yet, but at some point it will be part of the conversation with the banks. The [Laumeister] art center is separate and should not be part of the assets to which the bank might lay claim, but again, that is a legal question that remains to be answered."

Also complicating the process, he said, is the fact the Vermont Land Trust holds a conservation easement on 226 acres of the campus west of the Everett Mansion at the base of Mount Anthony, stemming from a 2005 agreement with the college.

The Land Trust also holds a first-purchase option on that land if it were to be sold.

The assessed value of the campus buildings and the surrounding 371 acres totals $9,028,900. The SVC admissions office, located at 897 Monument Ave., is assessed at $369,900.

The college dates back to 1974 as Southern Vermont College, moving at that time to the current campus. The school evolved from the former Saint Joseph College, which was founded in downtown Bennington in 1926.

Jim Therrien writes for New England Newspapers in Southern Vermont, including the Bennington Banner, Brattleboro Reformer and Manchester Journal. Twitter: @BB_therrien


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