Today, America’s small colleges are facing disastrous financial difficulties. Some have closed their doors, leaving students who had yet to graduate frantically looking for another institution that will let them in. Some have merged with larger colleges and campus life continued without serious interruption. But it isn’t just the students who are left adrift. Faculty and staff are in limbo as well–often trying to find other positions before another semester starts.
Following is a piece of fiction based on the closing of a small college and the blow-back from such a closing.
The World Outside My Window
I could never live or work in a space without windows. During my early years teaching at NYU when I looked from the one window in my small apartment onto the blank brick wall of the building next door, I imagined stories being written, history being made, the sometimes-bleak dramaturgy that is life being played out behind the wall. Sunlight withdrew in jagged rectangles across the bricks at dusk. Dawn sunlight moved diagonally across the wall. On a parapet high above, a daily scatter of white doves vied with one another for space on the narrow ledge.
That was the world outside my window.
Today, the world outside my window is a sad and lonely place.
The snow of a Vermont winter smothers the Newton College campus. The trees are blank, their naked branches lifted to a lifeless sky. In spring, the view from my office window is a world drawn wistfully in bright crayons and pastel watercolors on fine linen. Today it is scratched in #7 pencil on white paper, encircled with a dried brown coffee-cup ring.
The massive Doric columns of Building #303 / Registration and Administration frame my view. Once-white Texas limestone sits astride these columns; Newton College, est. 1897–Education Forever chiseled into the slab. Indelible. Permanent. It is the beginning of a lie. There is no permanence, no Education Forever.
Newton College, founded in 1897 by Alfred Adonais Newton, will instead close forever at the end of spring semester 2018; in May, when the intimate campus is most beautiful.
The announcement came in a meeting called two weeks before the end of winter semester by the pompous, strawberry-faced attorneys for The Board—indifferent, sharp-edged in their finality. The silence of stunned faculty at the end of the death knell was suffocating. The looks passed around the room between colleagues–incredulous.
I barely held back the rage that was inside me. What cruel power gave these people such a vicious task? Most certainly, the anonymous Board. They can go to hell.We will say No! Emphatically. No! We will thumb our noses at the impending apocalypse and return to campus fall semester 2018 ready to encourage young minds to learn.
Faculty met the night after, allowing twenty-four hours for the shock to set in. Time carved out for serious thought, for defining options–if there were any. We met in the little bar just off campus–aptly named The Library–that we, individually or as a group, visited frequently.
One round of drinks in, the irascible, sometimes angry lacrosse coach demanded that we sue. The music theory professor demurred, saying it would create a war we couldn’t win. The young Dean of the College, the one with the most to lose, slumped in his chair, fingers together across his brow, nodded. It would neither be wise nor practical to instigate an action against such a formidable army as The Board—a gaggle of faceless names. And, practically speaking, he said, the finances are not there to keep the doors open. Alumni were already stretched thin with regular donations. What little money might trickle in would not be enough to sustain us for even one more semester.
We were done.
Castigating no one in particular, he reminded us that some– a few–refused to recognize the long-ago truth: we should have embraced technology, offering courses online, more electronic interaction in class. The mere suggestion of such a break with traditional learning incited the few who insisted that our students deserved more than a computer image and an audio lecture. They became virtually apoplectic at the thought.
Following hours of runaway emotions, open grief and acrimony, only one definitive statement evolved from our meeting —-this is not an ending that affirms meaning. Just words, it was merely a declaration of surrender to reality—a symbolic white flag.
I left the meeting feeling guilty for being angry and afraid. I’m not ready to move on, fearful of a new start in an unknown place. After three years at NYU, I had been invited to fill a teaching position here. My first visit to the campus affirmed my decision to accept. Situated on two hundred acres of rolling farmland, with handsome Georgian architecture and an atmosphere conducive to learning, it enjoyed an enviable reputation for academic rigor. Now, after nineteen years, I have been told that my days at Newton–and those of 210 colleagues–are numbered.
Today, on winter break, a few days before Christmas, I am finalizing last semester’s grades in my office on campus, attempting to ignore the hard grasp of sentimentality; a hollow feeling exacerbated by silent hallways and empty classrooms.
For nearly two decades, I lived for the spirited pandemonium outside my office between classes; the students who stopped by with a question, a personal anecdote, or “Hi, professor. How are you? See you in class later.” They will forget me just as I will never forget them. I shall miss the camaraderie, the conviviality of my colleagues. We were, in Dumas’ words,all for one and one for all–each of us intent on providing an amazing learning experience for the young people who implicitly trusted us to do so.
Much too soon, it will all be a memory. There will be days of grief ahead—mourning an old friend who is gone, leaving us apart and bereft.
A door opened at the top of the stairs. A colleague temporarily occupied his office knowing time would move inexorably toward Newton’s end and, ultimately, our displacement. Music drifted out–Vivaldi perhaps–and descended the empty stairs, a mournful ghost.
Suddenly, a chill not due entirely to the dreary season shook my bones. Outside my window, the bare trees shivered in the brutal wind. An inhospitable grey scrim descended across the landscape in a prelude to the final act of a tragedy.
In the anemic light of this late winter afternoon, the world outside my window is a sad and lonely place.