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Mike Faher/VtDigger and The Commons file photo

The entrance to the School for International Training in Brattleboro.

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SIT to cut 30 staff positions in Brattleboro

Declining enrollments will shift full-time graduate programs from flagship campus to foreign sites

BRATTLEBORO—The School for International Training is about to undergo a major transition.

SIT still will have its headquarters in Brattleboro, but according to its president, Dr. Sophia Howlett, its educational programs will expand to the more than 30 countries where SIT has learning sites.

Last week, SIT issued a news release saying it would no longer offer full-time graduate programs in Brattleboro. The emphasis will be shifted to developing a new, full-time, global master’s degree program that will instead use SIT’s overseas program centers.

In a Jan. 8 interview with The Commons, Howlett said that as result of this change, up to 30 positions on the Brattleboro campus would be eliminated by the end of fiscal year 2019.

“This is not a case of SIT moving away from Vermont, or that we’re in trouble and shutting down,” she said. “We’re doing this precisely because we want to avoid being in trouble. We are not in decent shape [financially] and by doing this, we will be in decent shape by the end of fiscal 2019.”

A new approach

While Brattleboro will still be the headquarters for the SIT Graduate Institute, the Experiment in International Living, and the administrative and philanthropic staff of SIT’s parent, World Learning, Howlett said there will be fewer positions needed in Brattleboro and more needed at SIT’s international sites.

SIT and World Learning employ about 160 people in Brattleboro, and Howlett said the SIT staff reductions will be made gradually over the next six months.

The ultimate number of positions that will be cut are independent of how many people take early retirement or seek work elsewhere, Howlett said.

Howlett said the financial issues afflicting SIT aren’t new, and aren’t a secret. They have been present for years, and people associated with the institution have been aware of them. But one trend in particular, she said, has been unmistakable.

“We’ve been seeing declining enrollment for our graduate programs [in Brattleboro],” she said. “However, we have seen record-breaking enrollment for our study-abroad programs. We now have more than 2,500 students in our study abroad programs every year.”

The trouble, she said is that the money SIT is making on the study-abroad programs is being swallowed up by the deficits in the on-campus graduate programs.

Howlett, who took over as SIT’s president in January 2017, said the determination that something needed to be done became clear last month, when she learned that SIT wasn’t going to make its enrollment target for January. The target was about 40 new students, but by early December, only 10 had signed up.

“The idea of this new model is to change it around, get us to the point where we’re not in deficit in 2019, and then we can say, ‘let’s take a breath and start building again,’” Howlett said.

Pending accreditation, SIT hopes to launch a one-year Master’s degree program in Climate Change and Global Sustainability in the fall.

Two semesters will be taught in Iceland and Tanzania, countries known for their innovative approaches to dealing with global warming and climate change. In the third semester, students will conduct their own practicums at any location in the world to apply what they’ve learned.

Looking outward

There has been a decline in international enrollment in U.S. colleges and universities, Howlett said — particularly in the programs that SIT offers. But the sharp increase in U.S. students wanting to study abroad gives her hope.

The Experiment in International Living was started in Putney in 1932 by Donald Watt “to burst bubbles” Howlett said, and to expose U.S. students to other cultures. That tradition continues at SIT.

“It’s important to get U.S. students out of the country and get them thinking more globally and approaching the things that affect us on a global level,” she said.

Two programs will continue on the SIT campus. One is a low-residency program for international education and Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL), and the other is CONTACT, a summer peace-building program that brings together children from nations in conflict.

Howlett said she has been talking with her peers, such as Marlboro College president Kevin Quigley and Landmark College president Peter Eden, “not to compare notes, but to make sure they know what’s going on.”

“On one hand, there’s a lot of pain,” she said, “but there’s also a determination from faculty that what they created and invested in continues and hopefully improves for the better. It’s like a grieving process. You get anger, you get tears, you get people asking ‘why?’ Part of my role is to guide people through it.”

That is why she has also been meeting with local alumni in the Brattleboro area to outline the changes. She said she wants to be as transparent as possible and to ensure that they understand “why it is necessary to make the changes.”

“There’s so much about the old model that is loved — all the amazing faculty that devoted their lives to SIT and all the amazing alumni,” Howlett said. “Everyone has been working like crazy trying to get this right. It’s a tightrope, but if everything goes as planned, ultimately this will be positive.”

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Randolph T. Holhut/The Commons

Dr. Sophia Howlett, president of the School for International Training in Brattleboro.

Originally published in The Commons issue #441 (Wednesday, January 10, 2018). This story appeared on page A1.

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