Drive-through protesters push back on state college closure plan

Several hundred people in more than 100 cars participate in a honking protest parade in downtown Montpelier on Monday, April 20, 2020. Demonstrators are opposed to a plan to close three Vermont State College campuses in Johnson, Lyndon and Randolph. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

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Traffic snarled downtown Montpelier on Monday morning and the city echoed with the sound of car horns as hundreds descended on the capital in a drive-through demonstration protesting a plan to close three Vermont state college campuses.

Ben Luce, a professor of physics at Northern Vermont University-Lyndon, helped organize Monday's protest, which came just hours before college trustees were set to receive a presentation on the proposal from Jeb Spaulding, the college system’s chancellor. The board is set to vote on the proposal a week from today after a public outcry delayed a vote originally planned for Monday.

Luce said his goal was to show Vermonters the state colleges have been financially left behind for years.

"Most Vermonters have no idea that the state colleges are so badly underfunded," Luce said. "That's crazy, because we're also desperately trying to hold on to our young people, and the four-year local education that they get from these state colleges is enormously effective at keeping young people here."

Spaulding’s plan would close Northern Vermont University, which has campuses in Lyndon and Johnson, and shutter Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus to consolidate operations at its Williston location. Most NVU programing, and those NVU students who wanted to transfer, would migrate to Castleton University, which would be the system’s only remaining residential, four-year school.

The system’s finances have been rocky for some years as enrollment declines, and the pandemic’s budgetary impacts have compounded the problem. VSCS officials now say they project a near-term operating deficit approaching $10 million, and Spaulding argues immediate, radical action is needed to protect the larger system from insolvency.

Luce, who has worked in the VSC system for 12 years, said he was "completely flabbergasted" when he heard about the proposal to close the three campuses. "Our students are freaking out right now," he said, due to the disruptions to the academic year and postponement of graduation ceremonies. 

He said state officials should be prepared to double the funding for the state colleges system. "This is just clearly a move to use the crisis as an excuse to carry out an agenda that they've been trying to carry out for several years of shutting these institutions down," Luce said, "instead of just simply doing what's right and increasing the budget to what would be a normal level for a state for funding its state colleges."

The staff union and faculty assemblies in the VSCS have all taken a vote of no confidence in Spaulding. In a statement released Monday morning, VSC United Professionals president Kate Gold said the union was “dismayed with the Chancellor's representation of the needs of the Colleges to the legislature.”

“Representatives from the unions have listened in as the Chancellor testified before both the House and Senate Education Committees. He presented no clear asks of legislators since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic,” Gold said.

Many of the signs took direct aim at Spaulding. “Fire Jeb!” read one cardboard sign, “JEB MUST GO” read another.

VTC administrator and union leader Nate Ball came to the protest with his husband Steven, and said he wanted to see Spaulding gone. Like many who attended, Ball said the Legislature was also to blame. Vermont funds public higher education at a lower rate, he said, than nearly every other state in the country.

“But I think our mismanagement by the board of trustees and Jeb Spaulding have exacerbated the problem,” Ball said.

Jake Fortin, a recent NVU-Lyndon graduate, drove through with his dog, Buddy, in the back seat. Fortin now lives in East Burke and works at the nearby ski resort. He came to NVU from upstate New York, and said it was the college that brought him to Vermont and convinced him to stay.

“Higher education is extremely important. If it was not for Lyndon, I would not have moved to the state,” he said.

DeAnne and Tony Blueter drove to the protest with an NVU banner draped over their silver pickup truck. DeAnne Blueter said she and her husband had met 30 years ago at the school, back when it was Johnson State College. 

One daughter graduated from the school, and another is currently taking classes. And the couple both now work at the school, she as a part-time professor, and he as the director of Upward Bound, a federally funded program that helps at-risk students get a college degree.

“We’ve been saying it’s been a 30-year love affair,” Tony Blueter said. 

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Lola Duffort

About Lola

Lola Duffort is a political reporter for VTDigger, covering Vermont state government, the congressional delegation and elections. She previously covered education for Digger, the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire and the Rutland Herald. She has also freelanced for the Miami Herald in Florida, where she grew up. She is a graduate of McGill University in Canada.

Email: [email protected]

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