LYNDON — Anxious about the possible closing of Northern Vermont University-Lyndon, students and faculty are calling for dismantling the chancellor’s office.
“We are the lynchpin, economically, of the Northeast Kingdom,” psychology professor Patricia Shine told a panel of Vermont State Colleges system leaders at a packed campus meeting Thursday.
Any decision to close the campus would be “incredibly stupid,” Shine said.
Officials organized the standing-room-only meeting as part of five campus visits statewide to gain input on their “Securing the Future Project,” which began in June as an effort to evaluate enrollment declines, lack of government funding and apparent competition from online programs.
Chancellor Jeb Spaulding insisted at the meeting that while classes and programs at the college have been cut, no decision has been made to close the Lyndon campus.
But he didn’t seem to convince the 50 people who spoke in the Moore Community Room auditorium.
“It appears that there’s a belief that we students can be manipulated into viewing these cuts to our education — the downsizing of opportunities for us to learn — we can be manipulated into seeing these as positive,” Lyndon senior Margaret Stuart said. “Which indicates a frankly insulting assumption that we are incapable of analytical, original thought.”
Spaulding in June released a report detailing “the negative and powerful external forces that continue to bear down on almost all colleges and universities generally, but that are particularly acute in Vermont.”
Those included a shrinking pool of high-school graduates to draw from; the Legislature’s paltry funding of public higher education, relative to the rest of the country; tuition discounts elsewhere proving difficult to compete with; and students choosing to enroll in online programs, rather than brick-and-mortar institutions.
State support for the Vermont State Colleges system has declined from 49% in 1980 to 17% in 2018.
The Lyndon campus experienced a more than 27% decline in enrollment from 2012 to 2018, according to fall headcount data, going from 1,508 students to 1,092. At the same time, scholarship expenses have risen — from more than $1,878,000 for the 2017 fiscal year to a projected total of almost $3,595,000 for the third quarter of the 2019 fiscal year.
A Board of Trustees planning committee, tasked with studying those challenges and coming up with solutions for them, is set to deliver a suite of recommendations to the board by the end of the year.
The scores of attendees Thursday were adamant about what shouldn’t be included in those recommendations: shuttering the Northeast Kingdom campus — one of only two four-year colleges in the three-county region.
“NVU is a cultural, educational and economic part of this world in the Northeast Kingdom,” said Carl Bayer, a retired Vermont Student Assistance Corp. counselor.
He added that the college system should prioritize affordability as it moves forward, particularly for the sake of families and students in the financially challenged region.
Instead of saving money by stripping away programs, or the campus itself, several speakers suggested breaking up the chancellor’s office and spreading its responsibilities among the individual schools in the state college system.
“This institution is being driven into financial peril because we are forced to take $1.7 million out of our budget to prop up the chancellor’s office every year,” criminal justice professor Brandon Stroup said in a speech that drew heavy applause.
“There is no reason why such a small system should be putting up so much money for a central office. We need to decentralize the chancellor’s office,” Stroup said, adding, “That is real leadership. That is real courage.”
On Friday, a spokesperson for the college system said via email that Northern Vermont University will send $3.1 million to the central office for the 2020 fiscal year. Those funds, and millions from the other system campuses, support shared services for all the colleges, said the spokesperson, Tricia Coates.
Many speakers during the three-hour session criticized Northern Vermont University Online, the expansion of which in the last year has, in their view, siphoned funds from the university’s physical campuses in Lyndon and Johnson.
Some said officials might close those campuses to only offer the online program. Administrators denied that allegation.
“There are many students here that need one-on-one learning with professors, or hands-on learning. I should know because I’m one of those students,” said second-year Curtis Bates.
“If it does come to the point where it’s just NVU Online, then all that would just vanish,” Bates said.
Students felt the merger last year of Johnson State College and Lyndon State College — resulting in Northern Vermont University — happened too quickly. They accused the administration of misleading the public with assurances that no decision had been made to close campuses. That kind of bait and switch mirrored the type of language used when the merger had been only a possibility, too, they said.
“Excuse everyone who’s shaking right now,” said a senior tour guide named Courtney, who didn’t announce her full name. “Because lot of ‘ifs’ come true here, and that’s scary.”
Spaulding said the unification has been working and acknowledged the angst in the room.
He said that the board’s committee had compiled a list of more than 200 ideas to address the future of the college system, but ruled out making a concrete statement that closing Lyndon would not be considered.
“We really can’t make any statements until we finish the process and get together with the trustees,” he said.
He said that the online program is meant to supplement the physical campuses, not overtake them.
Board of Trustees Chair Churchill Hindes said early on that he recognized people’s positive emotions about the Lyndon campus were “doing battle” with their anxieties about what happens next.
“I would not pretend to understand how you’re feeling, but I know you’re feeling that way,” he said, adding that leaving Lyndon and other campuses alone, as some have asked, would be a mistake.
Among the suggestions from the audience were building apprenticeship-style partnerships with local businesses to attract more students; creating a committee to overcome splintered trust by acting as a go-between for students and administrators; and making sure the Northeast Kingdom is represented on the planning committee.
And over and over, people pleaded for more communication and more transparency.
“I have a challenge for you all: I would like you to go to a class, one class, on this campus,” student government president Kate Henriques said.
“The work that we do on this campus — I don’t even know if you’ve ever seen it before,” Henriques said, “because I’ve never seen any of your faces on this campus.”
If you want to keep tabs on Vermont's education news, sign up here to get a weekly email with all of VTDigger's reporting on higher education, early childhood programs and K-12 education policy.