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Montpelier miracle; Novelist and Worcester native Thomas Greene creates a new college.

Byline: Pamela H. Sacks

The following correction was published July 16, 2008:

Union Institute & University is located in Cincinnati. Because of incorrect information provided to the Telegram & Gazette, the location was misidentified in a story in yesterday's Telegram & Gazette.

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Thomas Christopher Greene knows something about the power of words. He is an award-winning author with three novels to his credit.

Over the past two years, Mr. Greene applied his skill at telling a compelling story in a surprising way: He created a vision of a fine arts college that would be a Mecca for writers and artists from across the country.

As Mr. Greene spun his tale, he gathered support from people in educational, business and political circles. He put together a powerful board of directors and, with the help of his business partner, Bill Kaplan, raised nearly $13 million in a tough economic environment. Mr. Greene then figured out how to navigate the world of academia to gain accreditation for his institution.

Late last month, all the hard work paid off. The Vermont College of Fine Arts signed a purchase agreement for $10.75 million with Union Institute & University of Cleveland, (SEE CORRECTION) Ohio, to buy the 33-acre campus of the former Vermont College in Montpelier, Vt., as well as three master of fine arts programs for writing and the visual arts.

Mr. Greene, a Worcester native, and his backers have succeeded in forming the first new independent college in Vermont in 23 years. Mr. Greene pointed out that it is also the only low-residency graduate school devoted exclusively to fine arts education.

"I think if I had known how hard and long it would be to do this, I might not have made the decision so easily - although I'm certainly glad I did," Mr. Greene said, sounding exhausted, relieved and pleased all at the same time. "What we had on our side was a strong mission and a strong vision. People got really jazzed and fired up about it. That vision provided our compass."

In actuality, Mr. Greene did have some practical experience in academia to fall back on. He had served as a senior administrator and director of public relations at Norwich University and Goddard College - both, like the new institution, located in Vermont, before turning to writing full time.

He also had two key advisers close at hand. His father, Richard Greene, was a dean at Assumption College and has served as president of several other colleges, including Goddard College. His brother, David, is the vice president for strategic initiatives at the University of Chicago.

"I had my own little kitchen cabinet," Thomas Greene remarked.

The elder Mr. Greene called the creation of the Vermont College of Fine Arts "a remarkable achievement." When the idea first came up, he told his son he would need a business plan, a strong board and community support, adding, "You have a beautiful but aging campus, and you don't have a dime."

"We tried to take one thing at a time," the elder Mr. Greene said. "We've been on the phone a lot over the last two years."

So how did the younger Mr. Greene - who lives in Montpelier with his wife, Tia, and their 2-year-old daughter, Sarah - get involved in all this?

Mr. Greene, who is 39, attended Worcester schools, Suffield Academy and Hobart College. He earned an MFA in writing from Vermont College 15 years ago.

In 2001, Vermont College, then owned by Norwich University, was purchased by Union Institute & University, a "university without walls." In April 2006, an administrator at Union asked Mr. Greene, who was working on his third novel, if he would run the MFA program for three months. It was in trouble.

"Three months sounded palatable to me and an interesting thing to do," Mr. Greene said. "I came back."

Union, facing its own financial troubles, had negotiated a deal with the University of Vermont to buy the campus and the three MFA programs. Just as Mr. Greene returned, the deal fell through, and Union was talking about selling the campus to a developer.

"People were in despair about what that meant," Mr. Greene recalled. "Among the staff, we talked about developing a business plan to buy the place ourselves."

Mr. Greene immediately became the point man. He was able to attract the interest of Mr. Kaplan, an experienced businessman. Like Mr. Greene, Mr. Kaplan, 42, is a Massachusetts transplant who has a special feeling about Montpelier. In an interview, Mr. Kaplan pointed out that the town has two movie houses, five bookstores and an art and framing store, and that it is home to the New England Culinary Institute.

"It is an idyllic and diverse spot, and it has a community sense from yesteryear," Mr. Kaplan said. "A college is a key part of keeping a community intellectually vibrant and cohesive. To think it was going to be condos made it very motivating to help out."

Mr. Greene said that at first he and Mr. Kaplan were "just two guys with cell phones." Mr. Greene fine-tuned the vision. The partners attracted a top notch 16-member board. They raised $380,000 from the board members and others interested in the arts and the community to pay for consultants and lawyers. They built a viable business plan that called for raising $13 million.

Having gained credibility with Union, Mr. Greene and Mr. Kaplan entered into tough negotiations and settled on the purchase price for the 174-year-old campus and the three programs. They would use an additional $2 million as working capital.

Meanwhile, the two men built a political network at the federal, state and local levels. They won the backing of U.S. Sen. Patrick J. Leahy and Gov. Jim Douglas, as well as the mayor of Montpelier, Mary Hooper.

"It is so important for Montpelier," Ms. Hooper said. "The Vermont College of Fine Arts has over 100 jobs associated with it and it brings fabulous students into the community. The college is in the heart of the city, and it's very much a part of our heart and soul. The fact that it is locally owned is phenomenal."

It was tough to find the $13 million, particularly as the economy declined; but they managed to piece together a patchwork of financing from private and public sources. Mr. Greene has spent the last six months negotiating the labyrinthine world of higher education to gain accreditation from the New England Association of Schools and Colleges and degree-granting authority from the Vermont State Board of Education.

The degree programs continued while the purchase was in the works, and Mr. Greene has been serving as president of the college since February 2007. The college currently has an enrollment of 250 students, and there are plans to introduce new degree and non-degree programs. Mr. Kaplan, who serves as vice president, said his goal is to increase the college's endowment from $400,000 to $5 million.

At first, Mr. Greene thought he would remain president for a year and then hand the reins to a successor so that he could return to writing full time. The board has asked him to stay indefinitely and find time to write, as well. He has not quite figured out how he will do that, but he said that right now he is committed to making the college a success.

"This is a huge project for this community that I care deeply about and is now my home," Mr. Greene said.

Richard Greene said he could not be prouder of his son.

"I can see the college growing and becoming a national center for fine arts," he said. "It was a remarkable and tremendous effort on the part of everyone involved."

For more information on programs offered by the Vermont College of Fine Arts see: www.vermontcollege.edu

Contact Pamela H. Sacks at packs@telegram.com

ART: PHOTOS

CUTLINE: A building belonging to the newly created Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier. Last month, Worcester native Thomas Green (photo inset above) and his backers purchased the campus of what was formerly Vermont College - an achievement described as "phenomenal" by Montpelier Mayor Mary Hooper.
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Title Annotation:LIVING
Publication:Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)
Date:Jul 15, 2008
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