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This story was updated at 5:29 p.m.
The Vermont State Colleges could shutter three campuses and cut 500 employees under a radical restructuring proposal its leadership plans to bring to trustees in an effort to manage the pandemic’s financial fallout.
The plan would close down Northern Vermont University, which has campuses in Lyndon and Johnson, and consolidate Vermont Technical College’s operations onto its Williston campus. VTC would close its Randolph Center campus and deliver its programming using low-residency, regional delivery and distance learning methods.
The system’s residential, liberal arts programs, including many currently offered at NVU, would be delivered at Castleton University.
“I believe that if we didn’t make a tough decision, it was very likely that the Vermont State Colleges, which is a single corporation, would not be able to continue,” Chancellor Jeb Spaulding said in an interview.
Under the restructuring plan, the chancellor’s office — which has already cut four positions, according to Spaulding — would also be further downsized starting next year.
“We’re seriously considering whether the chancellor’s office as a leadership role, as opposed to a shared service center, providing services that are requested by the colleges, will still be needed,” he said.
System leaders planned to make the announcement Friday afternoon, but the news broke earlier that day during an all-Senate caucus that was live-streamed online. Several lawmakers reacted with alarm to the plan, noting that the schools were major employers in the state’s poorest regions.
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“Throw in Lyndon as a place to be eliminated and you really end up wiping out three counties,” said Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia. “That’s not the kind of decision that, in my opinion, that a small group of unelected officials should be making.”
Sen. Richie Westman, R-Lamoille, said the effects of such a restructuring would be “devastating.”
“This is a decision that goes far beyond the state colleges and we’re all going to feel the repercussions of it, and this is going to stretch from Orange County to the Canadian border,” he said.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington, even suggested the Senate vote on a resolution saying Vermont State Colleges System trustees couldn’t take this decision themselves.
But Senate Education Chair Phil Baruth, D/P-Chittenden, said such a proposal was unrealistic.
“If anybody believes that we’re going to move this decision into the Legislature to vote to keep these campuses open and get away without a price tag of hundreds of millions of dollars you’re kidding yourself,” Baruth said.
The system also includes the Community College of Vermont, which operates 12 centers across the state. The restructuring would largely leave CCV as-is for now. Spaulding said the changes would likely see the community colleges take on an expanded role to create on-ramps to the system’s four-year degrees.
The state colleges returned over $5 million in room and board fees to its students after pivoting to online instruction in March. The system is projecting an operating deficit between $7 million and $10 million this fiscal year, according to officials, including $3 million in federal assistance.
Anticipating a drop in enrollment between 15-20% at its residential schools, officials say they project next year’s deficit will balloon to at least $12 million without a restructuring.
Because of immediate closing costs, including employee payouts, Spaulding said the system’s deficit, under his plan, will actually climb by at least $2 million in the first year and likely require “bridge financing” from the state. But the system should begin operating in the black once more by fiscal year 2022, he said.
The state colleges were on rocky financial footing even before Covid-19 swept the country. Vermont invests in public higher education at a lesser rate than nearly every other state in the country, and northern New England’s aging demographics have translated into a steady decline in enrollment at the tuition-dependent schools.
To tackle the system’s budgetary woes, Spaulding announced last summer that the system would embark on a path to major reform. State college system trustees had yet to endorse any changes when the pandemic hit, but the recommendations being put forward now by the chancellor’s office reflect strategies leadership at the system had long been hinting at, including a move away from residential and liberal arts focused degrees.
Still, the plan will catch many by surprise. Just this fall, trustees had endorsed a resolution reassuring the NVU community that there were no plans to close the school.
Linda Olson, the president of the faculty union, blasted the plan as short-sighted and extreme. The system had the opportunity to propose something that could be “visionary and transforming,” she said, that could position the colleges as key to the Covid-19 recovery.
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“Instead we’ve decided to retreat when we should be pushing forward. So no, I think it’s a complete disaster. And I think it’s going to be devastating. Not only to our students, the faculty and staff, but the communities where these colleges reside,” she said.
Olson said the union intended to mobilize to fight the plan, and hoped to see lawmakers choose to re-invest in the system instead of opting for austerity measures.
“We need the Legislature to step up. Which they have not done since 1980. So I can’t put this all on the chancellor’s office,” she said.
The plan is seeing immediate pushback in the wider college system community. An online petition started by NVU-Lyndon sophomore Patrick Wickstrom urging the state to reinvest in the system had over 5,800 signatures by 4:30 p.m.
“The chancellor’s plan does not take into account Vermont communities. It does not take into account the long-term impacts that this would have across the state,” the atmospheric and climate change science student said. “It’s only going to make it harder for the state of Vermont to recover from this.”
At a press conference Friday, Gov. Phil Scott called the chancellor’s proposal “tremendously unfortunate,” but he implied there was little he could do. The state colleges were only “one sector” in an economy brought to its knees by the pandemic, Scott said.
“Whatever we do, whatever we invest in has to keep that in mind. It’s not going to bring this back the way we were before. Because the future is going to look much different,” he said.
The system’s trustees are scheduled to review Spaulding’s recommendations at a meeting held remotely by videoconference on Monday.
Xander Landen contributed reporting.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to include that the trustees’ meeting on Monday will be held by remote videoconference.
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