Lyndon, Johnson colleges merge

Lyndon and Johnson state colleges will become one institution with two campuses in an effort to avert financial disaster at the small, tuition-dependent schools, the Vermont State Colleges trustees decided last week.
The freshman class of 2018 will be the first to attend the new, not-yet-named institution.
The board, on Sept. 29,  agreed unanimously with Chancellor Jeb Spaulding’s unification plan.
“The reality is we can’t keep operating the way we are,” Spaulding told the board at its annual retreat in Fairlee. “By unifying these colleges we can save some money, attract more students and increase revenue, and, more importantly, we can expand opportunities for students.”
Vermont’s smaller public colleges are seeing enrollments decline at a time when they are dependent on tuition to run their operations due to a lack of support from the state. Tuition and fees make up 58 percent of their revenue; room and board, 17 percent; and state support, 16 percent.
Right now, each college funds three deans, a comptroller and a president while serving a little more than 1,000 students. They have to comply with federal and state regulations and pay for facilities and services. Together, their budgets in fiscal 2017 represent $57.2 million in revenues and $60.3 million in expenses. Sixty percent of their spending goes for salary and benefits; 19 percent for supplies, services and travel; and 8 percent for scholarships and fellowships.
If the colleges don’t unify, they will continue to operate in deficit and will be out of reserve money by the end of fiscal 2018, according to Spaulding’s report to the board.
After analyzing the financials at both colleges and the expected trajectory, Spaulding said, he concluded that they could not continue as they had been.
“The current status quo is much more risky than choosing to become stronger through unification. Despite valiant efforts at both colleges, enrollment, the primary source of revenue to pay the bills, has continued to decline,” he said.
Johnson State College President Elaine Collins will be the head of the combined institution. The two administrations will join together under one budget and share resources. Lyndon and Johnson will continue to have two campuses with their own cultures, sports, mascots and student activities, but there will be a larger faculty, more course offerings and more research opportunities, according to the board documents.
One-time transition costs are estimated to reach $2 million. The board will apply for grants and ask the Legislature for an appropriation. The unification is projected to lower spending by about $2 million by fiscal year 2020. Ultimately it’s expected to result in reduced spending and modest increases in enrollment — due to improved course offerings — that Spaulding estimates will result in an additional $4 million a year in revenue.
“Change is difficult,” Spaulding told the public attending the meeting. But staying the same isn’t really an option, he added.
Before the board voted, some members of the public objected to the pace of the process. Several faculty members at Lyndon said they felt like decisions were being made to them instead of with them.
Jason Shafer, professor of atmospheric science at Lyndon, spoke of a growing frustration and anger toward unification. “We are feeling marginalized and have had unequal access in this process so far,” he said. He urged the board to vote no.
Meaghan Meachem, professor of electronic journalism arts at Lyndon, told the board that even though members have been discussing this for a year, the campuses have been aware of it for only a couple of months. “We think given where we started the conversation, that it is going too fast,” she said, asking the board to delay its vote for 30 to 60 days to give the communities time to process it and have input.
But a Johnson faculty member, Sharon Twigg, told the board she doesn’t think the pace is too fast. Twigg said she is tired of watching cuts being made and classes being canceled, and watching students leave because of weakening programs.
“We have done a lot of belt tightening. People are working harder and people are working more, and we can’t hard work our way out of this. We have to have a new structure, a new vision in order to make sure both campuses can really thrive again,” Twigg said.
The head of the math department at Johnson, Julie Theoret, said there is an equal amount of concern and fear on her campus, but she agreed something has to be done. “We can’t keep going along the path we have been going on,” she said.
After 15 years at Lyndon, visual arts professor Barclay Tucker said he is crestfallen. “I think it is important for you to understand that what a lot of us are going to be experiencing is that Lyndon is dead as I know it and love it, and that is what I feel — a great loss — a great pain in the knowledge that Nolan (Atkins) is the last president of Lyndon State College,” he said while choking back tears.
Chair Martha O’Connor was moved, saying the hope is that unification will save the college.
Rep. Jim Masland, D-Thetford, who is a board member, said that while he understood delaying the vote might make some people feel more comfortable, he didn’t believe waiting would change the outcome. “I appreciate your sentiments, but the task going forward is not to scratch our heads but to, basically, get on with this business.”
After the board voted unanimously to bring both campuses together under the same tent, Atkins, Lyndon’s interim president, said he looks forward to working with Collins and the leadership team she sets up to usher in a new era.
“We heard a lot of folks express emotion. I’m feeling it right now. I have spent my career at Lyndon. … This is a big moment. But I’m really excited about the potential of what this unified institution can provide students,” Atkins said.
“This has not been an easy decision, but I believe it is the right decision and we are moving forward,” O’Connor said.
Collins will assemble a leadership team with equal members from both campuses, and both presidents remain in place until July 1. A new name will be considered at the December trustees meeting.
Next year, admissions staff will start recruiting the first class of students to enter the unified institution.

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