An End and a Beginning

Facing enrollment declines and deficits, the SIT Graduate Institute makes big changes. But unlike other institutions in similar straits, it has a global network of scholars and campus sites at its disposal.


May 25, 2018
Courtesy of the School for International Training

John Ungerleider, a professor of peacebuilding and conflict transformation at the School for International Training Graduate Institute, played an original song at the May 12 commencement. Titled “Graduation Celebration,” the song was appropriately celebratory but also, in one verse, somber:

We've been bridging borders, for all these years
people from many nations learning to, bring down the walls of fear
Come next September, your classrooms will sit silent
your younger siblings, will not be arriving

The SIT Graduate Institute announced in January that it would end full-time programs at its campus in the small town of Brattleboro, Vt., in favor of a new model in which it will teach its master’s programs across an existing network of global campus sites.

Ungerleider is one of a group of faculty members who have been laid off as part of the changes. He has taught at the SIT Graduate Institute-- a small, niche institution that offers master's degrees in fields including international education, peace and justice leadership, teaching English as a second language, and sustainable development -- for 29 years.

“I understand the math,” Ungerleider said of the enrollment declines that led to the decision to end full-time programs in Brattleboro and suspend new programs at a satellite campus in Washington, D.C. “I’m sad for the legacy.”

The graduate institute “brought people together from all over the world into this very unique rural retreat setting. People got to learn from each other outside of their home cultures and their home countries,” Ungerleider said.

“It’s that mixing of people together intensively for a couple of semesters that was unique, and that was the goal of it. The goal was to have people live together from around the world, as a way to build peace, nonviolent relationships, communication and intercultural understanding. And plus it really is a cornerstone of the town here, where you have so many people who come from around the country, around the world, and lived for decades and contributed, especially people who are interested in social justice.”

“It’s been a big part of a small town in southern Vermont since 1964, and people aren’t going to be coming here anymore. It’s going to be more of an administrative center, with some short-term summer programs, not a college campus with people that are here full-time,” said Ungerleider.

The story of what’s happening at SIT Graduate Institute is on the one hand a somewhat familiar story of enrollment woes and financial deficits at a small private institution leading to faculty and staff layoffs and triggering drastic change in educational models.

It is at the same time a much more unusual story about a highly unusual graduate institution couched within a larger organization that operates study abroad programs around the world. It is the story of an institution that, when it comes to rebuilding, has unique assets to build upon.

Enrollment Declines and Deficits

The regionally accredited School for International Training has an unusual structure. SIT is part of a nongovernmental organization, World Learning, and has two components: the graduate institute, which enrolled fewer than 150 students in the 2017-18 academic year, and the much bigger undergraduate study abroad programs, which enroll 2,400 students in programs around the world.

“I inherited this organization that is registered in 70 countries and is living and breathing in 40 countries,” said Sophia Howlett, SIT’s president.

“I think my ‘aha moment’ really was when I started to look at who I’ve got running things in our study abroad world,” Howlett said. “I suddenly realized that this is not a group of individuals as maybe it was 30 years ago who were great administrators, people who were running trips for students who wanted to see [for example] Ecuador, but in fact that we’d managed to put together this group of academics, people who were established in their own fields, who were publishing and working in their own fields who were bringing to our programs in places like Ecuador a network of faculty from Ecuador.”

"It became very obvious to me that our future should be leveraging that and bringing that same excitement to our graduate programming -- which ironically had just sat in Brattleboro,” Howlett said.

“In Brattleboro we were teaching on a hill in Vermont. We talked about experiential learning and we talked about intercultural communication but we weren't really doing it. SIT was originally based on this idea of taking students, and taking young people, and getting them out there into the world and getting them to confront and engage with people from different cultures and lifestyles."

"Our undergraduate programs were really showing us where things could be.”

When big changes happened at the SIT Graduate Institute they happened quickly and without prior alumni and faculty consultation, much less a faculty vote. Howlett said when she assumed the presidency in January 2017 she was told there was money for three years. 

“It turned out pretty quickly that we really didn’t have three years of money,” she said. “By about November, December it became very obvious to me that we really were running out of money quickly and I needed to do something pretty bold.”

Enrollments had been steadily declining at the SIT Graduate Institute from 239 full-time equivalent students in the 2014-15 academic year to 196 in 2015-16, 151 in 2016-17, and 143 in 2017-18. The final catalyst for change, Howlett said, was when it became clear the institution would fall far below its enrollment targets for a January intake of students.  

Howlett said the graduate programs had been operating at a deficit – the institution declined to share details of the magnitude of that deficit – and had become a drag on the undergraduate study abroad programs. 

“Unfortunately the finances had become such that it was also impacting our study abroad programming,” Howlett said. “We had all these wonderful students coming and doing these great programs, but we were having to take money that we might have wanted to reinvest in those programs and we were using it to plug a black hole in our graduate programming.”

As part of the changes, SIT eliminated about two dozen jobs, about half staff and half faculty. Faculty members at SIT do not have tenure but instead teach on one- or multi-year contracts depending on their length of service. Howlett said about half of the instructors whose jobs were eliminated had contracts that were up for renewal, whereas for the other half SIT had to break their contracts. The graduate institute is in the process of negotiating separation packages.

“We gave everybody at least six months' notice," Howlett said. "They’ve been offered a series of things like maintaining title, maintaining affiliate status, maintaining email, being in good standing, all of those things. In other words we’ve really done our best to provide a sufficient bridge to their next career move."

Hopes for a Vibrant and Global Future

As SIT Graduate Institute revamps its curriculum, it has suspended new enrollments in many of its programs.

The plan for this coming academic year is to accept new students into just three degree programs, including two already existing limited-residency master’s programs, one in international education and one in teaching English as a second language. Both limited-residency programs will continue to bring graduate students to Brattleboro for short stints.

The graduate institute will also launch its first master’s program this fall in the new global campus format. Students in the master’s program in climate change and global sustainability will spend one semester in Iceland and one semester in Tanzania, followed by a third semester in which they complete a practicum at an environmental or climate change-focused organization in a location of their choice.

Over the next three years, Howlett said the plan is to scale back up to 10 programs -- five limited-residency programs and five of the global master’s programs that will use the same model of being based in multiple countries. Howlett said the five global master’s programs planned will focus on humanitarian assistance, international education, public health, and either sustainable development or environmental management, in addition to the first program in climate change and global sustainability.

Howlett said the humanitarian assistance program, to take one example, will include semesters in Jordan and Uganda. Humanitarian assistance will be a new field for the SIT Graduate Institute but Howlett said it will build on academic expertise SIT has already developed in its undergraduate study abroad programs, which include a refugee-focused program in Jordan.

“It’s building on our network and expertise,” Howlett said. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here. We’re trying to see what we have and utilize it where we’ve got the real academic depth and expertise to build on that into graduate programming.”

“The opportunity to take our programs to a global delivery model, it’s what we should be doing,” said Sora Friedman, who is staying on at SIT as a professor and chair of the international education degree program.  “I regret the circumstances that got us there, but I’m glad that we’re there.”

“Even two years from now when SIT is hopefully thriving in its new model, I’ll still regret that,” Friedman continued. 

“I can’t say what I think about the new models until I know if they work or not.  I really am decoupling: I’m separating out my emotions about the colleagues who are leaving, my emotions and regret that I won’t be working with students as much in a face-to-face situation [in Brattleboro], my excitement about this new model, and my pure hope that the institution is thriving and larger than ever two years from now. In some ways the proof will be in the pudding. We’ll know if this was a brilliant plan. I’m hopeful," Friedman said.

“Two years from now, may we be stronger than ever, more vibrant than ever, more global than ever. That’s my hope, and my students deserve that.”


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