Some fighting to keep SVC open

Brett Pawlak, right, and business courses professor Eric Drouart are shown at the time of Pawlak's graduation from Southern Vermont College. Pawlak has begun an online petition hoping to save SVC from closure.

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BENNINGTON — The ranks of greater Southern Vermont College community members who refuse to give up without a fight continues to expand by the day.

College officials announced Monday that SVC will close after this semester because of debt issues and sliding enrollment figures, prompting a social media storm around news posts and college-related Facebook pages.

A Facebook post of the first Banner article reached more than 28,500 people and more than 380 shared the shocking news.

Brett Pawlak, a graduate and former member of the baseball team at SVC, said the concerns fellow alumni began expressing after the announcement soon led to the idea for an online petition to be presented to Gov. Phil Scott and the Vermont House and Senate.

"Initially, it started with former classmates on social media," Pawlak said Wednesday. Soon after, he decided to launch a "Save Southern Vermont College" petition on the website.

"It started with 46 signatures, and today we have more than 500," he said.

The goal is to collect 1,200 to 1,500 names to present to Vermont officials.

Former president

Also not prepared to give up is former SVC President Karen Gross, who began posting on Facebook and Twitter after the announcement, saying it is too early for that decision.

"I believe that it is too early to attend an SVC funeral," Gross posted on her Facebook page Tuesday. "I certainly don't know what happened over the past four-plus years since I left the institution. We were in good shape I have hope that there can be some `angel' — and I think, as Yogi Berra said, `it ain't over till it's over.'"

Gross added, "I am saddened and surprised and absolutely stunned by the college's speedy demise. While it is easy to attribute blame, I think we need to see if there is a salvation strategy And I can come up with several ideas worth pursing — now before time passes."

Reached Wednesday evening, Gross declined to discuss specifically proposals she has heard might be pending. But she said, "The message I am getting is that there is remarkable support for this institution and hope it will have a bright future."

State lawmakers, including Sen. Brian Campion, D-Bennington, said they are looking for other options than simply closing down SVC at the end of the summer. Campion and fellow Bennington County Sen. Dick Sears said they will seek help from the Scott administration, specifically from the Vermont state college system.

The lawmakers said the state should explore other educational options for the 371-acre campus on the former Edward Everett estate.

SVC President David R. Evans said following a student news conference Wednesday afternoon on the campus that he has spoken with Campion and would support efforts to bring some type of state college facility to the campus. However, he said his prime focus now is on assisting students as they attempt to transfer academic credits and their studies to another college or university.

Emotional attachment

Like many graduates, Pawlak said he has a strong emotional tie to the Bennington campus and its beauty, and he cited the way faculty and staff, including Gross, helped him through a difficult time in his life and toward a degree in business administration.

He said he now lives in Connecticut where he was raised and is seeking a master's degree at Post University in sports management.

But Pawlak was a collegiate baseball player who wanted to pursue a career in the sport when he transferred to SVC in 2009 to play for a former assistant coach he knew at Post University. Don Schaffer had become the baseball coach at SVC.

Unfortunately, Pawlak's baseball dream ended when he was stricken by testicular cancer while in Bennington and eventually received chemotherapy and other treatment at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center.

SVC was "a nurturing environment" throughout his ordeal, he said, which allowed him to begin concentrating more on his studies and get his degree. The cancer, he said, has been in remission for about eight years.

Positive attitudes

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From alumni and former classmates, "everything I hear, I am just getting positive vibes" about the chances SVC can be saved from closure, Pawlak said. "Everyone is trying and doing what they can to help it stay open."

Of the more than 500 petition signatures, he said, about 85 to 90 percent appear to be alumni or current students and most of the rest are family members or from the Bennington community.

Most are from the Vermont-New-York, Massachusetts region but others are from all around the country.

While most recent social media posts and letters to the editor about SVC expressed sadness at the closure news, there was anger as well.

In a harsh letter to the Banner from SVC graduate Richard Lavariere, of Newington, Conn., he said in part, "When the board of trustees named David Evans SVC's ninth president in 2014, the college was healing. However, over the last five years, rather than recover, the college crumbled under Evans' tenure."

Three SVC Student Government Association leaders who spoke Wednesday during the media conference on campus were critical of the SVC board of trustees for not trying harder to stave off a closure and for the disruption caused in the lives of students and staff and faculty.

The students also leveled criticism at the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE), the accreditation organization, for seeming to move too quickly in voting to withdraw SVC's academic accreditation as of Aug. 31.

NECHE had found the college could no longer meet the accreditation standard for having sufficient financial resources to continue.

However, the students praised the support shown by staff members since the announcement in considering the students' needs and concerns while having to deal with the loss of their jobs by the end of the summer.

Vote to close

The SVC trustees had voted March 1 to begin the closure process, determining that there was "no way forward" for the college because of enrollment decline and related debt issues.

The decision came a day after a show-cause hearing before NECHE to determine whether SVC should be placed on probation for failing to meet the financial resources standard for continued accreditation.

College officials held a series of campus meetings Monday to announce the closure and explain the details to students, faculty and staff members. Media reports subsequently sparked some intense online conversations among members of the SVC community and throughout the area and region.

NECHE voted after the Feb. 28 show-cause hearing with SVC officials to withdraw the school's accreditation as of Aug. 31, when college officials plan to cease all educational programming.

SVC now has about 340 students, which is down from a peak of about 500 in 2012. A sharp decline was experienced over the next few years following issues that for a time threatened accreditation for the school's nursing program. The total of full-time nursing students fell by about 80 during that period.

Unrelated negative publicity occurred at the same time concerning alleged embezzlement of more than $800,000 by a former college financial officer, who later committed suicide in 2013 during the police investigation.

Those situations had an impact on recruitment and the size of SVC graduating classes, which fell from 127 grads in May 2015 to an expected 70 this spring.

The school's problems are similar to those reported at many small colleges around New England and nationally that have been forced to close or have announced they are struggling financially.

Those include Green Mountain College in Poultney, and Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., which have closed or are expected to in the spring; the College of St. Joseph in Rutland, which will lose its accreditation Aug. 31 barring a significant financial turnaround, and Goddard College in Plainfield, which NECHE has placed on probation.

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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