Editor’s note: Jack Crowl is the retired founding editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy and the Chronicle of Higher Education. He now owns Thistle Hill Publications in North Pomfret.
There’s a bit of a whodunit in the tale of an institution that just a few years ago was the darling of the state-college system, with practical education programs that led to good jobs for almost all its graduates, solid ties to most of the larger businesses in the state, and statewide expansion plans with new programs and more emphasis on four-year degrees.
Today, that same institution, Vermont Technical College, is running bigger and bigger deficits, has smaller and smaller enrollments, has lost a huge number of senior administrators, and has essentially fired the president it picked after a broad search three years ago. Whodunit?
- Was it the shrinking number of high school graduates in the Northeast in recent years that has led to fierce competition for the best students among all colleges?
- Was it tight-fisted state funding that slid from paying more than half the cost at state colleges in 1980 to less than 20 percent now?
- Was it the departure of a bevy of experienced educators and administrators who might have been able to cope with growing deficits?
- Was it yielding to the temptation to expand too quickly?
- Was it a failure of leadership to have not anticipated all those problems and moved speedily enough to dampen their effects?
- Was it a morale problem brought about by insensitive leadership trying to force changes that were unpopular?
The answer, of course, is “All of the Above.”
“There’s no reason why the college should not be at the top of its game,” says Chancellor Tim Donovan of the Vermont State Colleges system. Vermont Tech is one of five institutions under his purview.
So Donovan has begun taking action. He announced last month that VTC’s president for the past three years, Phil Conroy, would retire when his contract expires in November and that he would be “on leave” until that time. He then dispatched two of VSC’s top administrators to Vermont Tech to begin efforts to turn the college around.
Dan Smith, director of public policy for VSC, was named acting president, and Tom Robbins, CFO for the system, was installed in the top financial slot at Vermont Tech, in addition to his normal duties.
The VSC board quickly approved the appointment of Smith as interim president until June 2015, to give him some breathing room to start turning the college around. In the few weeks he has been in office, he has already taken a number of steps. He has announced:
- That he has obtained a gift of $120,000 from David Blittersdorf, CEO of AllEarth Renewables, to begin a new bachelor’s degree program in renewable energy that has been on the drawing board for some time without funds to get it underway.
- That VTC will be able to cut its $2.5-million deficit in half by laying off six employees, cutting several employees’ contracts from full time to 10 or 11 months a year, and by imposing a college-wide lab fee on students.
- That he will close a dormitory building on the Randolph campus and consider refitting it to another use.
- That the college will take a hard look at all its real estate that’s not bringing in more funds than it costs to operate them, including its Small Business Enterprise Center.
Both President Smith and Chancellor Donovan insist, however, that the ongoing financial problems facing Vermont Tech and the other state colleges, are largely a result of the state’s unwillingness to provide more funds to operate its public colleges.
Vermont provides less than 20 percent of the operating funds for its state colleges, and has ranked 49th in the country in terms of financial support for higher education for many years. And the appropriation that’s working its way through the Legislature this year is likely to be no more than a token increase, if at all.
As a result, the colleges have had to rely on student tuition and fees for the bulk of their funds. So when enrollment drops, as it has at VTC in recent years, it’s quite difficult to balance the budget. And with high-school enrollments shrinking in Vermont and all over the Northeast, competition for students has become stiff.
Trouble from the start
Phil Conroy’s tenure at Vermont Tech was troubled almost from its beginning in 2011. He was given a mandate to expand VTC’s programs and campuses throughout the state. The college already had a main campus in Randolph Center, a second and growing campus in Williston, and satellite sites in Brattleboro and Bennington for its nursing program.
Conroy had come from Mount Ida College in Newton, Mass., where he had been vice president for enrollment management. Mount Ida had grown from a mostly two-year college into a mostly four-year institution, and that was the path that Vermont officials wanted VTC to take.
He also had experience as a successful fundraiser, another goal of VTC’s, at a college of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Ironically, Conroy almost took another job just a few months before he was appointed at Vermont Tech. He was one of the top two candidates to be president of Quincy College, in his hometown of Quincy, Mass.
That institution’s board voted, 6-5, to offer the job to Conroy. But the minority on the Quincy board, who strongly supported the other candidate, held up the appointment on technical legal grounds so that two months later, when he had not yet been offered a contract, Conroy withdrew. Not long after that episode, he was hired at Vermont Tech.
After a relatively calm first year in office, things began to go awry for Conroy and VTC. A combination of enrollment decline and additional expenses, much of it due to expensive new contracts with outside vendors for marketing, fundraising, and student recruitment, led to a first-year deficit of $800,000 that ballooned to $1.8 million the following year and was estimated to be headed for $2.5 million this year.
Further, word began to leak out about Conroy’s abrasive leadership style that apparently included a lot of table-pounding and, some say, intimidation. A few people on campus complained to VSC headquarters, but most of those involved either feared for their jobs or worried that adverse publicity would negatively affect the college during tough times.
But a lot of senior people began to depart. The college has lost two deans of administration, a dean of students, a director of admissions, a chief technology officer, a registrar, a director of payroll, and two marketing directors, among others.
Eventually, one former dean went public after filing a formal complaint with Donovan. Geoffrey Lindemer, former dean of administration, who was hired by Conroy, showed the Herald of Randolph last month copies of email exchanges he had had with VSC officials. “Nobody,” he said in one email, “deserves to be abused, disrespected, put down or maligned the way I have.”
Lindemer says he told VSC officials that the business plan being developed by Conroy would not work. It was nonetheless approved by the board of trustees.
Lindemer was fired by Conroy in January of this year.
Donovan and Smith are unwilling to talk about Conroy’s perceived shortcomings, citing confidentiality of personnel matters.
They both are anxious for the college to turn the corner, improve morale, and especially, get its finances in order. But neither think it will be possible in a short period of time. “It has taken 1,000 steps to get here, and it will take 1,000 steps to get back,” says Smith.