Innovative approaches still thriving in UVM res halls

Residential learning has grown to be a hallmark of the UVM undergrad experience. With the innovative new Wellness Environment, the Honors College and Green House at University Heights, the student-driven and themed suites in the Living/Learning Center, among others, students have many options to make their residence halls much more than places to eat and sleep.   

As Alumni Weekend 2016, Sept. 23-25, fast approaches, the graduates returning to campus will include a circle of pioneers of UVM residential learning, alumni of the late sixties/early seventies Experimental Program. Bold, radical, quirky, visionary, all of the above—the Experimental Program was the immediate precursor to Living/Learning and the continued growth and diversification of residential learning at UVM for decades to follow.

Paula Cope ’75 G’83 is among the program alumni who have helped lead the EP reunion effort. Cope, founder and head of Cope & Associates organizational consulting firm, recalls the societal landscape in which the Experimental Program took shape. “The environment overall was very positive during very negative times. The program started right after men landed on the moon.  We were there during the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, the draft, the energy crisis, Kent State, Nixon’s resignation, and the Beatles’ break up,” she says.

Created in 1968 as the brainchild of the late Professor Bill Daniels, the program was very much a product of the era. The venerable Richard Sugarman, professor of religion, first came to campus as a part-time teacher in the Experimental Program.

“People would always ask us, ‘Well, what’s the nature of the experiment?’” Sugarman recalls. “I would say, ‘Every day.’”

Relatively free-form in terms of curriculum and grades, the Experimental Program seemingly ran with that freedom and a group of highly motivated, liberal-minded students who were more than happy to take the path wherever higher education done differently might lead.

One example: The Dawn Seminar. As Sugarman describes it, we envision a land long ago and far away, a place where the students in Coolidge Hall awoke at dawn to the cry of a rooster named Kelvin; then, bleary-eyed, assembled for a lecture. “Six o’clock in the morning, we would have a presenter come in and speak about a subject, which would be discussed for the next several days in all classes, at all times, carrying over into the dining halls,” Sugarman says. “I think it was incredibly effective.”

A university report that made the case for the program, saw three prime failings of university education at the time—“fractionation of knowledge, lack of relevance, and loss of intellectual community”—that the EP would strive to address.

Sugarman digs even deeper into UVM’s past when he discusses the program’s roots. “Most people have come to think of John Dewey as this harmless old groggin,” Sugarman says. “But he was an influential force, a pretty radical guy in education, and I think, in part, our programs were inspired by his sense of experimentalism.”

Gary Cowan G’73, was a master’s student in history, when Professor Daniels recruited him to live in residence in the Experimental Program and teach a seminar. He would eventually become administrative assistant, under Professor Jon Fackler, Daniels’s successor as EP director. Cowan credits Fackler for not only leading the EP, but for planning efforts that led to Living/Learning’s establishment.

“I can say it was, for me personally, an unbelievably challenging and once-in-a-lifetime experience that has stayed with me through all these years,” says Cowan, who built a long, successful career first with E.J. Gallo and then more broadly in the wine industry. “Though I’m no longer in the academic world, the values, ideas, and cultural experiences gained in the Experimental Program have enhanced my life in the world of wine immeasurably.”

As Paula Cope reflects on her undergraduate years and looks forward to the coming weekend’s reunion, she says, “The Experimental Program was an act of courage for UVM. It was a demonstration of the university’s willingness to try something different when different might not have been the easiest path or the most well-respected.” 


Thomas James Weaver