Why a Green Mountain Center for Sustainability at Prescott College?
Written by Laird Christensen, Director of the Green Mountain Center for Sustainability
In August 2019 the Prescott College community welcomed more than 150 students, faculty, and staff from Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. Those of us who made the long trek from the leafy Taconic Mountains are grateful for the reception we’ve received here in the piney Central Highlands of Arizona, and we’re pleased to help create a nurturing space for both current Prescott students and Green Mountain College alumni—online and on campus, in the Sustainability Lounge of Cicada Hall.
With its long tradition of environmental education and emphasis on social justice, Prescott College is a natural place to carry on the work of Green Mountain College. Courses of study for undergraduates include adventure education, sustainable community development, environmental studies, and social justice and community organizing. The graduate programs already at Prescott, such as a PhD in Sustainability Education, are now bolstered by successful MS programs from Green Mountain College, such as sustainable food systems, environmental studies, and resilient and sustainable communities.
So what exactly is the role of the Green Mountain Center for Sustainability at Prescott College? Besides the basic work of supporting students and alumni, and building a sense of community on campus and beyond, the Green Mountain Center will continue to provide leadership, locally and nationally, in promoting an approach to education based on finding solutions to the problems that arise from cultural systems and practices that are simply not sustainable. In one form or another, it’s the essential work of our time.
Sustainability Leadership at GMC
Founded in 1834 at the Troy Conference Academy, Green Mountain College went through a number of transformations before finally adopting an environmental liberal arts mission in 1996. The idea was that the general education courses that made up a third of a student’s courses--history, science, English, and all the other fields you might expect from a liberal arts education--would be taught in ways that reflect on interactions between humans and their environments. Not surprisingly, it took awhile for the culture to catch up with the college’s aspirations.
When I began teaching at GMC in 2000, the environmental mission was very much in the process of redefining the institution. Some students still came to be close to ski resorts at Killington and Stratton Mountain, while others were drawn by the beauty of the countryside or distinctive majors such as Therapeutic Recreation. In 2002 the intellectual atmosphere on campus was shaken up in the best of ways by the arrival of dozens of students from Goddard College, a famously progressive institution which was forced to close its residential undergraduate programs.
By 2005 many students were coming specifically for the school’s environmental reputation, and respected scholars from around the country sought out positions on the faculty. We began offering sustainability-themed graduate programs in 2006, but it was our students who led the way as we installed a locally-sourced biomass plant for heating and energy, and convinced our Board of Trustees to divest from companies profiting from fossil fuels. We were on the right path. Residential enrollment grew to its highest point right up until the Great Recession in the 2007-08 academic year, and enrollment continued to grow in graduate programs until the very end.
Green Mountain College cemented its position as a national leader in educating for sustainability over the last decade: our rural campus became carbon neutral in 2011 and we were consistently in the top ten of Sierra Club’s “Coolest schools” (including #1 in 2010 and 2018). Our curriculum was ranked at the very top by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE) in the college’s last two years, receiving the highest scores ever awarded.
However, none of that was enough to prevent its closure in June of 2019, after 185 years anchoring the Main Street of Poultney.
Becoming Part of Prescott College
The irony is lost on no one that the nation’s leader in sustainability education proved unable to survive. To judge from the comments in the Wall Street Journal, some readers concluded that it was the very model of educating for sustainability that was to blame for the college closing. In fact, the number of colleges featuring sustainability in their curriculum has multiplied from just a handful in 2006 to over 400 today, including Cornell University, Bard College, Emory University, and state universities across the country.
No, Green Mountain College was done in by a combination of factors. Undergraduate enrollment began to drop off during the Great Recession, when many parents and students felt they could no longer afford tuition at a private liberal arts college. This was followed by a demographic slump that led to a ten-year decline in first-time student enrollments, hitting Northeastern colleges much harder than other parts of the country.
The lessons we learned along the way, however, are more important than ever. Like our colleagues here at Prescott College, we recognize the need for an approach to higher education based on finding solutions to “wicked problems”—those that resist simple solutions—in the age of climate crisis and growing economic disparity.
We are excited to spread the seeds of sustainability, both through projects here in Prescott and as far as we can through the reach of the internet. Below are a few goals of the Green Mountain Center for Sustainability that we are especially excited about:
- Here on campus we have created the Sustainability Lounge to help GMC transfer students adjust to a very different environment, building a sense of community and an emphasis on social sustainability in collaboration with other student groups.
- We are working with students through clubs, classes, and work-study opportunities to improve energy efficiency and waste reduction: current projects include campus-wide composting, education around waste sorting, and even a Free Store in the Susty Lounge.
- We are celebrating alumni and creating mentoring networks that serve undergraduates, graduate students, and alumni; we welcome your participation and ideas about how to make these processes most effective.
- We have begun work on creating a clearinghouse of resources built on our bioregional approach to distance education, allowing students and professionals to use GIS technology to link to local organizations, agencies, and opportunities with a click on a map.
And that’s just a start. Yes, we still feel the loss of our home in Vermont, but it makes things so much easier when we look around Prescott College and see so many familiar faces from GMC: people like Mark Dailey and Eleanor Tison, Robin Currey, Christina Fabrey, and Bill Prado—not to mention close to 100 undergraduates (at least some of whom seem to be in the Crossroads Cafe every time I stop by). Others, such as Meriel Brooks, Bill Throop, and Chris Brooks continue to teach online and join us on campus for occasional residencies.
We are honored to help carry on the legacy of Green Mountain College here--but I’ve come to realize that all of us are engaged in the same good work, wherever we are, whenever we share something promising from the lives we learned to live at the end of Main Street in Poultney, Vermont.