Higher Education Spotlight on Vermont College of Fine Arts: Interview with President (and Author) Thomas Christopher Greene

by Carla Occaso and Nat Frothingham

VCFA President Thomas Greene. Photo by Carla Occaso.

VCFA President Thomas Greene. Photo by Carla Occaso.

Nat Frothingham: We are putting together a series of profile on the six institutions of higher education in Washington County. Vermont College of Fine Arts is one of them. Please describe the college.

Thomas Greene: Vermont College of Fine Arts has quickly become one of the leading graduate arts institutions in the country. We are bringing artists across the disciplines here to Montpelier from all around the country and around the world. We have students who come from South America and Asia. They are writers, designers, musicians, artists, filmmakers, and, next year, we are going to start educating teachers as well. We have something that is allowing us not to get caught up in some of the challenging trends other higher education institutions are caught in.

Frothingham: Please elaborate on that.

Greene: Adult students, who are primarily our population of graduate students, aren’t interested in living in a college campus for two or three years. They want to have the ability to work, to have jobs. The low-residency model we have lets them do it. There has been a great democratization in technology that has changed both the way art is taught, and also how art is made. Film is a great example of that. Ten years ago, to have a film school you needed a $5 million building full of expensive equipment. Now people can shoot an entire movie on an iPhone.

Frothingham: Tell us more.

Greene:  Everything we do is built on trying to be the best. Our writing program is always ranked one, two, or three in the country. Every year since we started the college we’ve had finalists for the National Book Awards in that field. Our graphic design program, which is only three years old, was just ranked in the top 11 in the country by Print Magazine. Our film program is attracting students in some ways that are more accomplished than the faculty. We have a student in the program who wrote the screenplay for the film “Joe,” which is out right now starring Nicholas Cage.

People don’t realize how significant the college is to this community because our students look like they just live here. They might be 60. They might be 25. Every time we add a new program, we infuse about $100,000 in direct spending into the downtown merchants. We have become a real transformative force economically for the city of Montpelier.

Frothingham: I know the impact is there in the dollars, and I see the students from time to time, but it doesn’t feel clamorous.

Greene: We have a very opaque campus. It is brick, and you can’t see through the doors. You often cannot hear the music that is happening in the chapel unless you are in the chapel. We are about to invest $3.5 million into two significant architectural projects. We are going to be redoing Alumni Hall into a state-of-the-art arts center. It is going to have a glass front inside the pillars so when you drive up the hill and there is an exhibition there or an event, you’ll be able to see right into it. We are going to be creating a new faculty center right here. The garage is going to be taken down and turned into a contemporary architect-designed building where faculty will live. There will be a sculpture garden out front.

The next iteration of what we are doing as an institution is building a campus that is reflective of our mission as a 21st-century fine arts college. We are going to make the first investments in this campus since 1965.

Carla Occaso: What is the most popular program?

Greene: Our largest and oldest program is writing. You get to study fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, and some students work in translation. There are 130 students in that program. I am a graduate of that program myself.

Occaso: Tell me about why you were inspired to take this on.

Greene: I am a novelist, I am a graduate of the program, and I had been an administrator here for years before leaving to write full time. And, I initially started with the idea that I just wanted to save the campus and the jobs that were here. The people were colleagues of mine, back when it looked like the college would close. I led the effort with my colleague Bill Kaplan to save the campus. That turned into a much larger mission of becoming a national center for education in the arts. We are the fastest growing college in the state of Vermont.

Occaso: How did you save it? That sounds like a tall order.

Greene: We attracted a board of trustees. We raised half a million dollars in capital to buy the campus and three academic programs. We put together a long-term business plan. We built a plan for growth. We became the fastest college to achieve accreditation in the history of New England, and we are the first people in a long time to figure out how to make this campus work.

Occaso: What is the key to success?

Greene: We have a clear vision of where we are headed. We have a business model that works financially, and the college is financially stable when a lot of institutions are not.

Frothingham: Kids are laboring under a debt load of many thousands of dollars as they try to enter the workforce — postponing family life, postponing home ownership.

Greene: The average student graduates with around $25,000 in debt. In other words, the price of a Toyota. Except unlike a Toyota, it is not gone in four years. You carry it with you for life. And the average income that a graduate of a four-year college makes over the course of a lifetime amounts to a million dollar difference between having the degree and not having it.

Frothingham: Do we really need more artists? Do we need more writers?

Greene: I think it is less about production and what is created, although that is important. It is the experience of what it means to be an artist. Our mission says we support emerging and established artists to create a more humane world. I think when you wrestle with ideas, language, visuals, art, you get at the heart of what it means to be human.

Frothingham: What are you doing that is cutting new ground? How are you transforming lives?

Greene: We are creating communities of artists that become lifetime communities. It is a very hard thing to explain to someone who has not been here. If you are a writer, an artist, a designer, that is the only thing you are while you are here. You are not a mother, father, partner, or dentist, or whatever you do in your life. You create art when you are here.



  • 1834 Newbury Seminary
  • 1841 Newbury Theological Institute
  • 1846 Springfield Wesleyan Seminary
  • 1865 Vermont Conference Seminary
  • 1870 Vermont Methodist Seminary
  • 1894 Montpelier Seminary
  • 1941 Vermont Junior College
  • 1958 Vermont College
  • 1972 Vermont College of Norwich University
  • 2001 Union Institute & University
  • 2008 Vermont College of Fine Arts
  • 2009 175th Anniversary of Vermont College



Location: 36 College St., Montpelier, Vermont

Format: Low-residency

Tuition (Varies per program. Below are two examples):

  $9,683 per semester for MFA in writing plus $750 room and board per residency.

  $10,750.00 per semester MFA in film plus $525 room and board and $637 equipment fee per residency

Financial Aid: Need-based and merit-based scholarships

Accreditation: Accredited by the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, Inc. through its Commission on Institutions of Higher Education.

Programs:  Writing, Writing and Publishing, Writing for Children and Young Adults, Film, Visual Art, Music Composition, Graphic Design, Art and Design Education,

Enrollment: 375 combined programs

Faculty: 80–90

Mission Statement: “Vermont College of Fine Arts is a national center for education in the arts, fostering the excellence of emerging and established artists and advancing the arts to create a more humane world.” From their website: http://vcfa.edu/about-vcfa

Housing: dormitory

History: For the last 175 years, Vermont College has served as a pillar institution in Vermont, serving thousands of students from across the country. From its beginnings as Newbury Seminary to its illustrious history as Vermont Junior College and Vermont College, the institution has provided opportunities for students of all disciplines to pursue their educational goals. Vermont College officially opened its doors as Newbury Seminary in Newbury, Vermont, in 1834.

Since 1868, Vermont College has been located on a 31-acre campus in Montpelier at the intersection of East State Street and College Street. The striking campus, patterned with brick buildings and centered by a scenic college green, was previously the site of a Civil War hospital.

In June 2008, Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) bought the historic Vermont College campus and three MFA programs from Union Institute & University, which had owned the campus since 2001.

Admission contact:  To speak with an admissions counselor, call toll-free 1-866-935-VCFA or 802-828-8600 or contact the Admissions office via email. admissions@vcfa.edu.

Photo by Carla Occaso.

Photo by Carla Occaso.

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