It is my habit to walk to work each morning on the grass path behind the hedges that leads toward Mager Hall. This trip takes me along a section of stone wall that is really just a beautiful pile of rocks, heaved by frost and thaw over the seasons since the last hands touched it, in the iconic style of a Vermont stone wall.
The southerly section of this same wall shows greater care. The right angles and uniform height of this part of the wall frames our flower gardens for eight yards or so. Both sections are picturesque, neither seeming out of place with the pastures and view of Mt. Mansfield in the distance, although to some eyes the reason for the ragged section calls for explanation.
Recently, a master stone layer has, with no small effort, been working to bring the pile of stones into order. The stones, of great and modest size alike, were first stripped away. The stone layer made a hard packed level base. He then aligned the larger stones and slowly and methodically brought symmetry and balance to the wall from end to end.
Without, I hope, belaboring the metaphor, Sterling has brought greater order to its stone wall these past four years. After meeting with the commissioners of the New England Association of Schools and Colleges (NEASC), the progress is clear and I can report that our accreditation will be continued for the next decade and our next onsite visit is scheduled for 2027.
The stones that NEASC felt were best in order are reflected in our mission and purposes, our organization and governance, and our institutional commitment to long term and sophisticated planning. The academic program and, to a lesser degree, the educational resources of the institution were deemed to meet the the standards set by our peers.
The commissioners took special note of the work we have been doing on the wall to make it more sturdy. The implementation of the Nourish the Roots Strategic Plan and the plan’s accompanying comprehensive fundraising campaign were each recognized as distinct improvements in the integrity and financial health of the College, without which our reaccreditation may have been in doubt.
It was also noted that the steps we have taken to improve the campus and invest in infrastructure are good indications of a commitment to durability and, with continued work, a future in which each of these stones at the base hold up those above. Without this sound base, our campus cannot reach its full height.
Among the challenges we face is knowing how to straighten the stones. One of my greatest challenges as president, is in the dearth of tools for assessment. Challenged by resources, our effort in institutional research and measurement of effectiveness are anemic compared to our peers. As we implement our student information system and benefit from new resources in finance, we will be increasingly confident in the decisions we make.
You will read in this issue of Common Voice the names of supporters who gave this past year to the Nourish the Roots campaign. We have, as of this writing, raised just under $8 million dollars, an unprecedented amount; and an equally exciting development is that giving by alumni, families, and past Trustees increased last fiscal year. Clearly, many of our supporters know we are not finished with the wall.
The successful conclusion of the accreditation process expands our freedom to think about the nature of the stones in our wall and how we want the whole length of it to look. In 2018, Sterling will celebrate the 60th year since its founding and the conclusion of its first seven figure comprehensive campaign. There is much of which to be proud, but also much work left to do.
This year I am enjoying the opportunity of working even more closely with the faculty to examine the stones in our walls that make up our mission and educational outcomes, and turning over more than a few financial rocks with our new chief financial officer. The sensation I have is one of shared accomplishment, undiminished commitment to the work, and a fresh sense of purpose.
In too few weeks, the beautifully restored stone wall will disappear under a blanket of snow. The winter will serve as a reminder for me and all of us to avoid the perils of pride. It isn’t time for us to rest. Stone walls take persistence and fortitude. Undoubtedly the spring thaw will have tumbled a rock or two from its perch. Our values are most clearly visible in our stewardship of its angles and lines. •
Matthew Derr, President
Note: the stone wall behind the Brown Library had three ten-foot sections rebuilt for “Robert Frost Day” 20 years ago. President Emeritus Jed Williamson, Perry Williamson, and Ross Morgan organized the event, and about 20 students, faculty, and staff participated.