Analysis: What happened to Vermont Tech?

In October 2012, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Vermont Technical College staff and students show U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis the school's apple orchard during her visit to the college. Photo by Adam Caira/Department of Labor
In October 2012, Gov. Peter Shumlin, Vermont Technical College staff and students show U.S. Department of Labor Secretary Hilda Solis the school’s apple orchard during her visit to the college. Photo by Adam Caira/U.S. Department of Labor

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.”

Dan Smith was appointed acting president of Vermont Technical College by Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Tim Donovan on March 25, 2014. Smith is posing with artwork by Sabra Field of Languin Farm at VTC. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger
Dan Smith was appointed acting president of Vermont Technical College by Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Tim Donovan on March 25, 2014. Smith is posing with artwork by Sabra Field of Languin Farm at VTC. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

“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.

Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Timothy J. Donovan posing in his office with Red Sox baseball memorabilia of Ted Williams' last at-bat Sept. 28, 1960, in which the Splendid Splinter homered. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger
Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Timothy J. Donovan posing in his office with Red Sox baseball memorabilia of Ted Williams’ last at-bat Sept. 28, 1960, in which the Splendid Splinter homered. Photo by Roger Crowley/for VTDigger

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.

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Jack Crowl

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  • Dave Bellini

    “… ongoing financial problems facing Vermont Tech and the other state colleges, are largely a result of the state’s unwillingness to provide more funds…”
    This is the same story across state government: The teachers pension, ESD, pick a department………….
    Vermont government is big on ideas and short on support. When Vermont moves to a “single payer” health system the problem of underfunding will be much worse than the state colleges. Funding will be deferred until “next year” decisions will not be made, financial projections will be outright lies or at the very least, misleading. The major players making the decisions today will not be in office when things collapse. Jim Douglas left us with “challenges for change” and wiped out social services by cutting staff when they were needed most. Shumlin will be out of town when the financial reality of a state only run “single payer” crashes. Key legislators will have tucked their tails between their legs and scurried off to some patronage job.

  • An excellent and troubling piece, thank you for this.

  • Neither a city of 650,000 nor a state can afford four state colleges, the Community College system and a major university. It is particularly difficult for a state with many other major expenses, which are directly related to basic functions. It seems clear that at least Johnson, Lyndon and Castleton should be “privatized”. Private colleges in Vermont appear to be doing quite well, especially St. Michael’s, Champlain and Green Mountain. This was even an issue
    in the 1958 gubernatorial campaign.

    • Bruce Post

      I think the 1962 Ray Keyser-Phil Hoff gubernatorial election turned, in part, against Keyser because of his proposal to either sell or lease Lyndon State College.

  • Kevin McGrath

    If the State of Vermont wants to have a viable state college system in the future it will need to make major changes in the very near future to make it viable in the distant future. My personal opinion is that the state should role all the the state colleges into one Vermont State University with an emphasis on providing a quality education at an affordable price by consolidating the administration and providing the necessary support to insure success. The issues facing the state college system are very similar to the school funding issues in the state. The biggest obstacle in both cases is bloated self-serving education administrators who garner huge salaries and deliver very little. They are very similar the mortgage bankers in the housing industry who saw an opportunity to exploit the the federally back housing agencies (Freddie and Fannie), destroy communities and send the bill to the American taxpayer. They are exploiting the federally backed student loan program (Sallie Mae); higher education is playing from the same playbook and it will end just as badly unless drastic changes are made.

  • Joseph Whelan

    Chancellor Donovan and the VSC Trustees need to decide whether VTC is going to be a two-year college with emphasis on technology or part of a community college system with much broader offerings taught by low-paid adjuncts. Furthermore, Governor Shumlin and his administrators need to decide if better funding of all of the State Colleges will encourage more students to choose those colleges and to contribute to the economy of our State after graduation. A well educated population will attract the kinds of businesses desired by Vermont, thereby reducing or eliminating the exodus of graduates. I’m not coming out of the blue on this matter. I taught at VTC for 21 years.

  • Pat Robins

    There is a deeper and more perplexing problem at VTC. It is the tiny number of Vermont high school seniors who are can meet VTC’s high admission standards, probably because of mediocre preparation in the STEM group of courses. It will force VTC to recruit with greater success outside Vermont against tough competition for these kinds of students.

    • Ron Pulcer

      Interesting, due to Challenges for Change, the pressure to cut school budgets resulted in Stafford Tech dropping their Information Technology program in 2011. But fortunately in 2014-15, Stafford will begin a new STEM program, with focus first on Engineering. It is as if the pipeline from high school to college programs was cut off for a few years. I don’t know about other Vermont schools beyond our local tech center high school.

  • I have a young friend whose skills in things electronic and software are incredible. He is a member of the current Vermont Tech class (EE and ME), graduating on May 17th.

    I have had many discussions with him regarding his coursework in programming, specifically the microcontrollers that are the heart of the currently trendoid ‘Internet of Things.’ Regardless of where the ‘IoT’ is going, my friend’s experience in VT’s microcontroller programming courses was abysmal.
    The key issue was the person teaching the course – he was an engineer of my generation (I’m 64) who did not seem to have spent the time or expended the effort to keep up with current technology. He was using teaching platforms that were obsolete when I started my first company in the early ’80s despite the fact that current technology development platforms can be purchased for $10-50 (or given away by) many companies – TI, NXP, Analog Devices, Arduino, many ARM-spin-offs – the list is too long for this note.

    Why was VT keeping this old wood on the staff? A seniority system? I can understand the need to support people who have given their careers to an educational institution – but there must be some give-back: that person must be committed to keeping their skills up to date and preparing students for what they will be living with then they graduate – obsolete skills are not a ticket to employment, they are only a ticket to unemployment and unpayable student loan debt.

    As an engineer who has spent his career keeping up with the light-speed development of technology, I can’t understand how a teacher can justify his work with a new generations of engineers while using tools he must know are generations out of date.

    And, looking at the latest incarnation of leadership at VT, ‘Renewable Energy’ curricula are nice but that’s a Prius in every driveway (that can afford it) and industrial windmills on the mountain ridgelines – what we need is Energy Conservation – where’s that? ‘Renewable Energy’ makes good headlines but it’s the basic skills that engineers need that must be taught – and taught by people who are aware of the devices and systems that their students will encounter the day after they graduate. It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there – and I’m afraid VT is graduating some very edible dogs.


    • Steven Farnham

      I graduated from VTC years ago. Overall, I’d rate it a good to excellent school. Several of my professors were good or excellent, as well. But there were a few losers. One such loser was dragged out of retirement to be a lab instructor. His training and experience were in radio tubes – NO JOKE – he didn’t know a single thing about solid-state semiconductors – couldn’t tell an op-amp from a FET.

      You want to talk about “old wood”… This guy was dead wood. He didn’t belong in our lab – he belonged in a bentwood rocker on his front porch with a medic close at hand.

      In retrospect, I feel sorry for the guy. It cannot be fun at any point in life – let alone at his advanced age – to try to teach a group of students, the dumbest of whom is ten times smarter than the teacher.

      But I was also mighty angry about it. This college was taking my hard-earned money – I was paying a Cadillac price for a jalopy rust-bucket instructor.

      I never can understand why these places can take your money and flunk you with impunity if you fail to demonstrate proficiency with the material, but they don’t seem to be willing to institute a similarly rigorous standard on the staff.

      It seems that once hired, certain people won’t get fired unless they rape somebody. Of course, some don’t even get fired for that, but that’s another wardrobe of tapirs.

      Again, I emphasize that, overall, I give VTC a passing grade – most of my instructors at VTC were quite capable – but there were instances where they sure fell down on the job when it came to purging poor performers – not the least of whom was that lab instructor.

      I’m sorry to read that has not changed.

      • Jane Palmer

        I am sorry to say, my son’s experience was very similar. Although I won’t lay all the blame on VTC, I think they could do much better for the price students have to pay.

  • Paul Lorenzini

    VTC was a school for middle class type education. If you graduated, then you most likely would be a secure middle class citizen. Considering the fact that the middle class is being destroyed in America, why would anyone go there? What does the future hold for a technician in America?

  • Jason Lafontaine

    As a VTC alumni this article is quite disturbing. It also seems to provide the answer. What happened to VTC? During my years at VTC, the college did not have 4 year programs, yet most employers that generally required a 4 year degree continued to offer graduates employment positions. This is because the school offered real hands on experience. We also went to school to go to school. We crammed as many credits as most 4 year schools did into our 2 year degrees. We focused on technology and quality not a duration. The school started falling apart when it pushed out its older experienced administrators/faculty members for credited and educated fools. Lets take a step back and get back to the roots of VTC and rethink the ideas and paths going forward.

  • victor ialeggio

    Good article, Mr. Crowl.
    It should be noted that Conroy inherited close to an $850,000 surplus from his predecessor. In order to finish his first year close to $800,000 in the red he had to have gone through nearly $1.7 million. There was no director of development on staff for the first six months of Conroy’s tenure – although the outgoing DD gave ample warning of her pending retirement. Conroy may have had some success as a fund raiser in the Boston area but he arrived at Randolph Center with neither funding sources in hand nor any mature understanding of the VTC mission or student profile. Where was the oversight from the Chancellor’s office, that inaugural year? It is perhaps understandable that Chancellor Donovan is unwilling to talk about the Conroy debacle. And it is a debacle. VTC is/was a jewel — complaints about “dead wood” not withstanding — and the Chancellor stood by while it was flushed down the toilet. I hope he has a real long arm…

  • Bob Belisle

    VTC was successful as a two year technical college. Students would get a two year technical degree. If they wanted a 4 year degree many would go on to a 4 year school. The students graduating with a 2 year degree from VTC were and are valuable assets to the companies they worked for after graduation. Why the big change? Go back to the original roots.

  • Josh Fitzhugh

    Great topic for VTD, but I finished the article thinking it was way to short to adequately address the problem, causes and possible solutions. From the outside though it seems like Dan Smith is doing a good job in a difficult situation. He is undoubtably getting some advice from his dad, Peter, who has extensive background in higher ed.

  • Phyllis North

    We’re spending so much on K-12 education and social services we can’t afford to support higher education. I fear what will happen to Vermont when the next recession comes.

  • Bob Chary

    Sad this has happened, Where is the oversight from the Board?

  • John Connor

    The issues with VTC have been not only exacerbated by the most recent leadership (Phil Conroy) and poor oversight. but they predate him and reflect some of the inability of the State Government to operate as a business or in an entrepreneurial fashion. Only when money gets scarce does our government try to tighten-up and operate with any efficiency.

    I like the suggestion that perhaps one of the state colleges be sold to a private entity in that it will most likely spur investment and help the business community in variety of ways. It could bring new jobs, new construction, more notoriety and in the end represents a new and different direction.

    Often when organizations or systems languish, applying “creative destruction” often helps reset the paradigm for success and prosperity.

    In that regard, why not consider selling the VTC Randolph Campus to a private institution. It has tremendous appeal in it’s central/rural location and the views of the area from the campus are breathtaking. A private institution could make the investments in both capital and leadership that could change not only this part of Vermont, but also make bold steps forward in education. As a side benefit, the region we would see an increase in revenue from the sale, and the tax list would go up!

    Taking the idea suggested for Lyndon or Johnson, and applying that the VTC. Just a thought. Think about it…