The library on the Johnson campus — as well as all the other Vermont State University campuses — is set to be repurposed. Photo by Cayla Fronfofer/Basement Medicine

Vermont State University plans to repurpose libraries on its five campuses and move to an “all-digital academic library” system when it launches as a unified institution in July. The university also expects to move one athletic program to a different conference and convert another to a club program. 

Parwinder Grewal, who is set to become president of the new university, announced the “two major transformation decisions” in an email to students, faculty and staff Tuesday afternoon. The goal of the changes, Grewal said, “is to strengthen and expand access to our athletics offerings and provide greater equity of access to our library services.”

But the announcement drew swift rebukes from some students. 

Deanna Oakes, a senior at Northern Vermont University’s Johnson campus, said she and other students felt “blindsided” by the administration’s decisions. 

“It’s kind of sad,” she said. “And it feels like a real loss to me.”

The changes come as the Vermont State Colleges System seeks to consolidate its sprawling network of campuses. After merging Johnson State College and Lyndon State College into Northern Vermont University in 2018, it is now combining the latter institution with Castleton University and Vermont Technical College. 

The resulting Vermont State University expects to “transform the physical libraries” on its Castleton, Johnson, Lyndon, Randolph and Williston campuses this summer “to respond to what works for students today and best supports them holistically on their educational journey,” Grewal wrote.

That involves eliminating all physical resources in the university’s libraries and transitioning to a digital-only library. Books, collections and other materials are set to be redistributed, in part to community members, according to an FAQ published by the university

Books are roped off at the Johnson campus library for sanitation reasons during the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. “It takes on a whole new meaning now, though,” student Deanna Oakes said. Photo by Rebecca Flieder/Basement Medicine

The buildings themselves will remain open, according to the FAQ, and could be used for “community commons, enhanced study spaces, student services, and access to other innovations and tools.” The university expects to issue a request-for-proposal “to engage architectural resources for this purpose.” 

The move will result in the elimination of “a small number of positions on our campuses,” Grewal wrote. He did not specify a precise number of expected layoffs. 

“We will work with each individual impacted to discuss their professional opportunities and work with the unions to identify a plan that best meets each person’s professional interests and needs,” Grewal said.

According to the FAQ, the decision to close the libraries was “data-driven” and follows “year-over-year declines in circulation of physical materials, a trend that hasn’t reversed since a return to pre-pandemic enrollment levels.”

Alexia Murray, a freshman biology major on the Johnson campus, expressed disappointment at the decision and called librarians essential to her studies.

“It’s a lot easier to get help” from librarians, Murray said. “Online, all I could really do was maybe Google it — and I’d end up getting some either vague or too complicated answer”

Murray said she was weighing whether to stay enrolled in a school without a physical library and said she was worried for the school’s future.

“It’s an incredible stress,” the first-generation college student said. “Am I going to wait until, you know, possibly the campus gets shut down? Or am I going to make the jump and then have to scramble for resources or help from other people?”

Northern Vermont University’s library is set to be repurposed. Photo by Rebecca Flieder/Basement Medicine

In his email Tuesday, Grewal also announced major changes to the university’s athletics programs, starting in the 2024-25 academic year. 

Teams from the Castleton and Lyndon campuses will continue to compete in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division III, but the Johnson campus — which currently also competes in the NCAA Division III — will move to the United States Collegiate Athletic Association, Grewal said. Other Vermont schools that compete in the NCAA’s Division III include Norwich University, Middlebury College and Castleton University. 

Vermont Technical College’s Randolph campus, which often partners with the Williston campus in athletics, is currently affiliated with the USCAA. The Randolph campus “will move to a club sports model” in the 2024-25 academic year, meaning students from those campuses will no longer compete in an official league.

School officials held remote meetings Tuesday evening to discuss the changes with students, faculty and staff. 

Oakes, the Northern Vermont University senior, attended one of the sessions and left unimpressed. 

“It really felt like we were not being heard,” she said. “It felt like either they didn’t really have answers or they didn’t want to validate our concerns.”

Oakes said she raised concerns at Tuesday’s meeting that neighboring communities — not just students — would feel the loss of the campus library.

“I was told that they didn’t really have a plan for those community members other than potentially donating some books to local libraries or to the schools,” she said. “But there is no concrete plan for the members of the community who will likely be more blindsided because I don’t think that they will have gotten this email.”