Joseph Romano: The VSU libraries may be only the first to go

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This commentary is by Joseph Romano, a graduate of Montpelier High School and Lyndon State College. He retired in 2017 after serving, most recently, as vice president for administration at Wagner College in New York City. He now lives in Kenilworth, England.

As one of many Vermont high school graduates who came of age during the mid and late 1970s, I feel fortunate to have been able to take advantage of the broad, accessible and practical education that the then-Vermont State Colleges afforded many students. 

I was a member of the Lyndon State College class of 1981. That education served me in good stead throughout my life, which has included some 30-plus years as a higher education administrator taking me from Vermont to Tennessee and finally to New York City.

So, it is with a fair bit of distress that I am following the story of the nascent Vermont State University and the decision to move to an all-digital library. A sustained and fierce backlash to the plan has now prompted President Grewal, and administration, to be “contemplating” (not guaranteeing) changes to the original proposal, but these amount to little more than putting lipstick on the pig, and portend even greater, more destructive changes to the system ahead. 

According to VSU spokesperson Sylvia Plumb, “the refined plan expands upon the original concepts to address concerns … and is a natural and expected part of the input and operational process.” 

So, what are these refinements?

Among the plan's headline improvements are the addition of a “take a book, leave a book” honor system lending library to encourage popular reading, like the one on the stone wall at my neighbor's home, in a repurposed old birdhouse. 

And, he also promises now to be “contemplating” the investment of $500,000 into renovating library spaces across the system that will now scarcely resemble their original form. All of this furor, though, began when he decided to gut the libraries to save, yes, $500,000 a year. Go figure.

He also admits openly, now, that they're not going to digitize most of the collection, but will be subscribing to various services, including one that offers some 46 million articles for free called the Discovery Search. Quantity isn't quality, and I bet you could find that many and more “free” articles on Facebook alone.

The heralded access to “librarians” 24/7, one suspects, will amount to little more than the chatbots you encounter when you're trying to get to a real person on a customer service site. 

But, here is the most ominous phrase in the “refined plan” that really needs to be interrogated. Under the section “The New Library Model,” the first sentence says: “As we build Vermont State University to become a hybrid university...” 

This reveals the true, insidious nature of what is happening to the system. President Grewal appears to be transforming what were once the Vermont State Colleges, formerly vibrant and vital parts of the local and state community with roots dating to the 18th century, to an online model. And, the announced move to a digital library has, perhaps inadvertently, revealed this sooner than planned, given the resistance. 

My suspicion is that the physical campuses will follow the physical books as the next assets to be phased out in the relentless march to the future. A university is cheaper to run without buildings, after all. Otherwise, why include a sentence like “an online digital library will provide inclusive and equitable service to all students regardless of their location”?

We will not recognize what is left after all of these plans are realized. 

If what is truly needed is a thorough reimagining of the Vermont State College system, why not do it in a more intentional rather than ad hoc way? Why benchmark places like Coastline College, which was ranked 325 in the latest US News guide, has a student-faculty ratio of 36 to 1, and is primarily an online community college, rather than schools that can be aspirational and help show how to continue providing Vermonters with a solid, valuable education?

I would suggest that this is because the team in place hasn't really thought it all through and lacks the necessary vision and skills to realize such a massive transformation.

One of the reasons, I hope, that students attend college is to gain a better understanding of our world, a connection with our past, in order that they can be part of a better future in addition to having a rewarding career.

This evolving decision by President Grewal and his administration actually severs that connection in a tangible way. It is a sad day for Vermont, and leaves me with no confidence in the many other decisions that this group will have to make. 

Are we truly heading for an all-online college experience, devoid of in-person contact and the ensuing socialization problems that will bring, with UVM the only physical institution remaining, or do we want to maintain a bit of humanity and personal connection by preserving and supporting these local institutions? 

I hope Vermont chooses the latter. Our young people deserve that chance.


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