Students and staff reacted with dismay and confusion to plans to revamp the Vermont State University’s library and sports programs.
Administrators announced Tuesday afternoon that the system’s member schools — Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College — will shuffle their athletics programs and transition its five campus libraries to an “all-digital” model.
The library shift is set to take place by July 1, and will eliminate seven full-time positions and three part-time ones, according to Parwinder Grewal, the inaugural president of Vermont State University.
The news sparked swift backlash from students, faculty and staff, including plans for protests, petitions and union discussions about votes of no confidence.
“It’s gross and horrifying, because it just feels like another step to a dystopian society where everything looks like ‘2001: A Space Odyssey,’ and we all have computers and chips in our brains,” said River Rozum, a second-year editing and publishing major at Northern Vermont University’s Johnson campus.
“It just mostly makes me sad,” he said. "Because obviously I love reading. I love books. I'm studying to go into an industry based on the physical publication of books.”
Castleton University, Northern Vermont University and Vermont Technical College are slated to be combined into a new system called Vermont State University on July 1. They are currently a part of the Vermont State Colleges System.
Grewal informed students, faculty and staff of the library and athletics changes via email Tuesday.
As part of those changes, campus libraries will shift online, meaning students will only be able to access books, academic journals and other materials online. Most of the physical books and other materials will be donated and administrators plan to “repurpose” the spaces.
Meanwhile, Johnson’s athletics program will move from the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) to the United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA), while Vermont Tech’s Randolph campus will leave the USCAA and only offer club sports. The athletics changes are scheduled to begin in the 2024-25 school year. Lyndon and Castleton will remain a part of the NCAA.
“In making these decisions, our goal is to strengthen and expand access to our athletics offerings and provide greater equity of access to our library services,” the Tuesday announcement said.
But in interviews, half a dozen students at the Johnson campus library said that they were disappointed and confused about the administration’s decision. Students said they were surprised by the changes and felt they had little opportunity to weigh in.
Students said they relied on the library as a quiet space to study, print materials or read. Some said that they disliked or struggled to read on screens.
“I don't really have any money to buy textbooks, or even rent them,” said Ava Collins, a first-year holistic health major who was studying in the library Wednesday afternoon. “So I can just read them in here and I'm good.”
“Everybody’s really upset,” Collins added. “It took everybody by surprise.”
Kaitlyn Stone, a second-year environmental science major and athlete on the triathlon and track and field teams, said the announcement that Johnson would leave the NCAA had left athletes unsure of what to think.
“We don't know what that bracket entails,” Stone said of the USCAA. “We don't know like, what that means for our sports’ longevity.”
The announcements sparked a backlash from faculty and staff members as well. Linda Olson, a sociology professor at Castleton University who represents faculty for the American Federation of Teachers, said she and her colleagues were blindsided by the changes.
“There needs to be a much more transparent process,” Olson said. “If the administration wants buy-in, they need to let us know what the hell's going on.”
Olson said that the union planned to respond to the announcement, but she declined to provide details.
Beth Walsh, a career services official and president of the Vermont State Colleges United Professionals union, which includes librarians and some athletics staff, said that the union is considering organizing a no-confidence vote and protests.
“It just feels like it's one thing after another,” Walsh said of the long, multi-step process of consolidation by the Vermont State Colleges. “You think you're getting to a place where things are getting better and oops, nope, they’re not. (They) change something else.”
Plans are already underway for protests and petitions opposing the changes at the Castleton and Johnson campuses.
In an interview, Grewal, who will become the university system’s first president this summer, framed the changes as a way to allow more people to access the university’s offerings.
The reshuffling of sports teams at the Johnson and Randolph campuses are due to the fact that both campuses struggle to fill minimum roster requirements for their respective conferences, he said.
Because of the Johnson campus’ relatively low enrollment, he said, the school’s sports teams have struggled to meet NCAA requirements about the minimum numbers of teams and players. The campus is currently on NCAA probation due to low roster numbers, according to Grewal.
By having Johnson join the USCAA, and Randolph leaving it, he said, the system will allow students to play sports by much less stringent rules.
"I do want to maintain athletics on each campus,” he said. The changes are a matter of “adjusting it, right-sizing it, so that students have (a) good experience, their well-being is taken care of, but they still have the opportunity to play.”
As for the libraries, Grewal said that interest and circulation in physical library materials had plummeted in the past five or six years — even taking the Covid-19 pandemic into account. He argued that digitizing books and other materials will make them more accessible to students who may not be on campus often.
Some books and materials specific to certain academic disciplines will remain on campus, he said, but most will likely be donated to local municipal libraries. Students will still be able to study and use computers and printers in the spaces currently used as libraries, Grewal said.
Grewal acknowledged that many community members were frustrated by the decisions and vowed to listen to students’ concerns.
“(We will) continue to work with students as to what their needs are and we will meet them,” he said, adding, “If we lose students, we are done, right? We don't have a university.”
Kate O'Farrell contributed reporting.
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