Guest Editorial: Legislature should back its university

The University of Vermont is midway in the process of introducing its five finalists for president to the campus, to its faculty and to the state of Vermont.
At the same time, the Legislature is pondering its own relationship with the university, wondering whether it’s appropriate to have legislators sit on the school’s board of trustees and how, going forward, the school can eliminate the need for generous severance contracts. The candidates are probably wondering what the Legislature has in mind and how it will influence the effectiveness of the person the trustees eventually select.
Fair question.
Each of the candidates must be well aware of the tempest that marred the last moments of the Dan Fogel era. His work is largely celebrated as moving the university forward, but, in a political sense, it will be remembered for its conclusion; a victim of his wife’s epistolary romance and almost $600,000 in paid leave.
Each of the candidates has experience in higher education; each, then, is well versed in the politics of any academic institution. That legislators would seek undue influence is hardly eye opening.
But the Legislature should be wary of setting a poor stage for the school’s next president. The school is an asset that should be maximized, not a liability that should be corralled. Instead of seeing what can be done to make the relationship contentious, efforts should be made to see what can be done to make the relationship more advantageous to Vermonters.
That begins by understanding that UVM pumps over a billion dollars into the state’s economy each year. We want the best leadership available and that means spending what we need to make sure that progress continues. The contract needs to be clear and defensible. It needs to be proportionate to the school’s size and its potential. But it needs to be good enough to get the best. Top talent drives change and improves performance. Improving performance with an institution that drives a billion-dollar economic engine should be something we all support.
The Legislature continues to wax and wane about whether it’s a conflict of interest to have nine legislators serve on the school’s board of trustees. As Gov. Peter Shumlin asked: What masters do the legislator serve, the people, or the school?
But the governor and others who support the separation should be careful for what they wish. If this is the principle they elect to follow, then they will find many legislators struggling to reconcile their private lives with their legislative responsibilities.
It would be an unwise move practically, as well. UVM is the state’s research institution and it’s large and profoundly important to the state. Our level of communication needs to be strengthened, not weakened. What we don’t need is for that relationship to fall victim to political forces that don’t communicate with one another. We have enough of that already.
We are also entering a more challenging era than ever before. Tuitions continue to rise and states are not able to raise appropriations accordingly. The marketplace is asking for specific talent and educational excellence is what will separate those that will survive and those that will not.
This is not a time to invite mediocrity, or to encourage retreat. The next president will need to be an agent for change, an advocate for bold initiatives. And that next president needs to know that he or she will have the support of lawmakers who embrace that same understanding.
— Emerson Lynn

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