As anyone who has ever had the honor of serving as a college president will tell you, each fall semester presents itself, after careful planning and no small amount of anticipation, with both expected and unexpected outcomes. Here at Sterling College, I am pleased to report that one of the most commonly shared observations in the community at the start of this academic year is that this is a remarkable entering class.
At this time of the year, it is typical for a president to regale anyone within earshot with stories of the accolades the entering class has received; the number of states and countries from which they hail, the stories of invention, academic prowess, good deeds, and world travel. Typically these stories are framed as evidence of institutional momentum. This entering class is unique, and based on many measures, I believe it is exceptional, but what is changing is the whole community’s perception of Sterling itself. There are signs that Sterling has growing institutional confidence, and nowhere is that more important than in the self-assuredness of its faculty and students. With apologies to Daniel Webster and Dartmouth, Sterling has always been a small college, but there are those who love it. This semester—these past several semesters—I believe this college is reclaiming something that is elemental to its grassroots history.
This is, after all, a revolutionary place. At its core, Sterling fundamentally shifts our perception of what is likely or even possible. Nearly forty years ago, a small band of faculty decided that Sterling should build on the legacy of its first two decades as a boarding school, inspired by the experiential educational philosophy of Kurt Hahn and others, to launch a new kind of curriculum focused on environmental stewardship. This isn’t a history lesson, it is an observation that the same boldness I associate with the Grassroots period of Sterling’s history is evident today.
As Distinguished Professor Ned Houston has often repeated to me, “the fact that Sterling exists, is remarkable enough.” Ned is right. Sterling’s perseverance and its persistence are the best evidence that this class joins a community worthy of their accomplishments and one in which they fit into a long history of remarkable people who have influenced the development of this College. The confluence of urgency, our sense that our mission of environmental stewardship education is perceived to be increasingly pertinent to society, and the support from our alumni, friends, and supporters has recalibrated our sense of what is possible. The strength of this entering class is simply one example.
If, when I arrived as president, just a little over three years ago, I had suggested that Sterling would be more than halfway through the Nourish the Roots $9 million campaign, I might have gotten some incredulous looks. I think a few of those looks would have come from the very folks who have made our fundraising efforts successful today. What is remarkable about this campaign, which today stands at $4.9 million, is that it is evidence of confidence in our mission and the academic excellence of Sterling. It requires confidence to ask for your support. Our early success has led others to meet the many challenges we have put before you, and we believe that we have only just begun.
Just as in the natural world, the health of the College is tied to its capacity to adapt to changes in our environment. I see the creative focus of our faculty in a number of key areas over the past several semesters as evidence of the confidence I see across the College. We are fortunate to have a remarkably talented and committed faculty; one that has recently grown and includes new faculty who have been drawn to Sterling by its mission and the hard work over many decades.
The launch of the Rian Fried Center for Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems (RFC) has not only included a complete restoration and expansion of our facilities, it has involved the development of an inspired curricular vision of an ecologically focused model that provides our students with the skills and critical thinking to address the most important issues facing humanity and the natural world.
In the past year, with the support of changes that made it possible for all students to participate, our Global Field Study (GFS) program has evolved and grown. The number of programs and the way in which faculty collaborate to develop compelling programing is a result of growing confidence too. In the past year, Ecology faculty member David Gilligan has developed a new plan for GFS with the faculty that has made it possible for us to offer new programs, such as the new trip that Outdoor Education faculty member Anne Morse led to Labrador this summer, and to continue successful programs, such as Ecology faculty Farley Brown’s program to Belize.
One sign of change at Sterling over the past two years, and particularly this past semester, has been the increased focus on community governance, a model similar to “shared governance,” but one that places emphasis on closely linking responsibility with authority. The Community Council, composed of students, faculty, and staff, has begun to tackle important issues that range from instituting a policy for the use of cellular phones (yes, service has reached Craftsbury Common) to reviewing the judiciary policies of the College. Our students are more active in governance this year than at any point in my brief tenure at Sterling, which is an indication both of investment in the College and a sign that as alumni they will continue to support its mission.
Reading that the president sees signs of growing confidence at a college is not exactly fodder for a bold headline in even the local newspaper. At Sterling, where many presidents have paced, worried, and carefully stewarded the college’s interests, perhaps it is more newsworthy. Ultimately, my observation has more gravity at the moment because this is the year in which the College completes its ten-year self-study for the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, our accreditor. After reading the last report submitted by President Emeritus Jed Williamson in 2006, I am struck by the progress of the last decade, but also how utterly faithful Sterling has been to its mission. This is the greatest rationale for confidence, that we are unapologetic in our commitment to environmental stewardship education and we have made, and are making, great measurable strides as a community to ensure that Sterling thrives.
This fall our enrollment reached a headcount of 128 students. This includes a handful of students who are on official leave, and with a further fifty continuing education students, this year nearly 180 students will have the opportunity to work with our faculty and participate in our mission. This fall, we will dedicate the renovated Behrend Admission Center on the first floor of Kane Hall, named for alumnus David Behrend ’60. With David’s generous gift we will welcome coming generations of students to Sterling. Each class will have its strengths and unique qualities, but for now we continue to enjoy the joyful experience of this moment.