A Former Southern Vermont College Provost Comforts Colleagues at the Endangered School

By Al DeCiccio

I was born in Lawrence, Mass., the first son of first-generation, working-class Italian-American parents—my mother, a nurse, and my dad, a shoe cutter in the old Everett Mills. The Everett Mills are across the street from the Holy Rosary Church. In that church, I walked barefooted down the aisle when I was 7 in an unsuccessful attempt to barter God for the sight back in my left eye, its cornea badly damaged by a direct hit from my then-best friend’s rock. His side won the battle that day a little more than 58 years ago.

I learned then, and I am re-learning yet again after what’s happened to Southern Vermont College (SVC), that what the witches said about Macbeth’s approaching morphed into one of the important lessons my parents tried to teach me, “Never take anything for granted.”

I have always tried not to take things or people for granted. I am fortunate to have held faculty positions and administrative positions in my career. I have been humbled to hold the provost’s position at SVC, and I have been honored to work with special people, like Greg Winterhalter, Sarah Nosek, Lynda Sinkiewich, Eric Despard and Jennifer Nelson.

A professor who studied with Howard Zinn and who cultivated in all of us a love for the fine arts, I saw Greg Winterhalter serve lunch he prepared to his first-year seminar students, and I benefited from his goodwill when he and his students helped in a project that garnered national recognition for SVC—establishing an exhibition for the Bennington Museum that displayed the genealogical histories of students following the methodology of Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and including DNA research.

I observed Sarah Nosek move through the probationary period while also advancing the research of her students (rare in an undergraduate institution) and the leadership talents of women in the social sciences (notwithstanding annoying obstacles like the time, one rainy semester, her office filled up with water).

I watched Lynda Sinkiewich, a long-time faculty leader, model professionalism for newer faculty members when she worked year after year after year to earn her doctorate while teaching a full course load and assuming all faculty responsibilities.

An adjunct faculty member and a noted musician, Eric Despard went above and beyond his contracted responsibilities by performing at every SVC event; SVC’s de facto musical director without a full-time contract, he even brought established, well-known musicians to its beautiful theater, showing his deep appreciation for and dedication to the college.

And I saw Jennifer Nelson, a mathematician with the sensibility and talent of an artist, work 36 consecutive hours every new student orientation weekend to place incoming students in appropriate foundational science and math courses, a task she gladly accepted in addition to her full teaching load, leading the division of natural sciences and mathematics, and making her Bennington home a welcoming place for all colleagues.

So, like the magnificent Mount Anthony that looms above SVC, all of you and your special colleagues will arise and rejoice in the many associations you enjoyed as part of the SVC family (past and present). Of course, I am fully aware of the loss you all feel. For all of you, certainly, “peace comes dropping slow,” as Yeats wrote in “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”). I can empathize with your loss, because I learned from Aristotle about how tragedy elicits daunting emotions. I also learned that, in the tragic experience, there can be catharsis, the purging of powerful emotions.

How might you have this catharsis?

Robert Frost, a poet who graduated from Lawrence High School as a co-Valedictorian with his future wife, Elinor White, and who’s buried behind Bennington’s First Church, wrote this verse for the end of “The Tuft of Flowers”:

“’Men work together,’ I told him from the heart,/’Whether they work together or apart.’”

I know that, throughout the years, your colleagues and your students shared much wisdom and camaraderie with you. That can never be taken away. Though apart, you will indeed continue to work with those colleagues in the higher education enterprise of shaping women and men who will help our citizenry to lead happy and healthy lives. In the days to come before SVC’s commencement at which you will celebrate graduating students, you will work with non-graduating students to provide prospective academic opportunities. While these processes and possibilities unfold, you will experience catharsis.

Community cares for those in need

Collaborating with your colleagues and working together with students, you built an SVC community.

When you worked with those at Bennington College, Williams College and the Massachusetts College of the Liberal Arts to bring in special guests like Anita Hill, you extended community. When you brought in dance groups and musicians and artists and writers such as the poet laureate of Vermont, you extended community. When you encouraged collaboration with the Oldcastle Theatre Company, with high schools, and with the Community College of Vermont, you extended community. When Tom Redden and Tracey Forrest used their spirituality to work with Bennington’s Interfaith Council to offer a community-based course on comparative religion, you extended community. When you secured money to support civic projects which your students selected for funding, as Jeb Gorham did for years, you extended community.

Community is essential so that we do not succumb to the illusion of scarcity and so that we appreciate the material reality of abundant talents. Just because SVC was small, essentially one building (the Everett Mansion) and less than 1,000 students, its stakeholders did not lament a lack of resources; they showed they could think and act as if they were big, buoyed by the many advocates they gained from the Bennington community. In Wendell Berry’s “A Jonquil for Mary Penn,” we learn that “It was a different world, a new world to [Mary Penn] … a world of … community.” Mary Penn started to heal when she saw the power of a caring community. Your healing has already started because the community you built has acknowledged your efforts. That is why newspaper story after story reports that so many in Bennington are dismayed by the decision to close and so supportive of your preparation of the area’s nurses, radiologic technologists, writers, researchers, statisticians and law enforcement agents.

Hosting talent  

SVC hosted so much talent—Andre Dubus III, Megan Mayhew Bergman, Katherine Paterson, Edward Zlotkowski, to name some—and was home to magnificent artistic performances and exhibitions. SVC made the nationally known Carnegie Classification List for Community Engagement—an astounding feat for a small college. SVC is a leader in laboratory learning. I am so sad that a college Henry Louis Gates, Jr., acknowledged as a place of excellence for first-generation and underserved students is going to close. That’s wicked. Still, SVC has left an indelible mark on higher education and in all those who have played a role advancing its noble mission.

Al DeCiccio, now dean of the School of Arts, Sciences, and Education at D’Youville College in Buffalo, N.Y., is the former provost of Southern Vermont College.

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2 Responses to “A Former Southern Vermont College Provost Comforts Colleagues at the Endangered School”

  1. Karen Gross

    What a wonderful piece about the amazing things that happened at SVC. Truly. And many of them were aided by the remarkable leadership of Provost DeCiccio. I must add, though, that I have not written SVC’s obituary yet (recognizing that may come). I am still working hard to save the College. It is a place well worth saving. And, whatever contributed to its demise after Al and I both left is irrelevant now. What matters today is whether there is enough opportunity and time to save SVC. I say yes but recognize the uphill battle before us. When I get worried about whether SVC can be saved, I think of three things: the remarkable students and graduates, the stellar faculty and staff, and the institutional culture that believed to its core in student success——often against the odds. Which gets me to my final point: phoenixes do rise from ashes. Here’s hoping SVC is another phoenix. (Karen Gross is the former president of SVC.)

    Reply
    • Darlene M. Young

      Mr. DeCiccio,
      What a fantastic article and tribute to SVC!
      Darlene M. Young
      SJC ’74/SVC ’91

      Reply

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