Op/Ed

Editorial: Uproar over VSC’s fate may spark a way forward

The surprise news story of the week was the announcement by Vermont State Colleges Chancellor Jeb Spaulding that he would propose closing three of the state college campuses in light of more losses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. His proposal, he outlined late last week, would close Northern Vermont University and the Vermont Technical College campus in Randolph. The reason was financial: the losses those colleges were incurring were more than the state could afford.
To spring such a proposal on the Legislature and public without warning, however, was ill-considered. The public backlash could have been expected, even if, as Spaulding and the board of directors surely thought, the economic hardships caused by the pandemic provided a foil that could be used to broach what is a bad-news story. Propose it now, they must have thought, and the public might accept it as part of the toll taken by the pandemic in these unprecedented times.
The public response, however, was quite the opposite. In a dramatic show of support for the colleges, the reaction was swift and overwhelming. Spaulding and the VSC board backed down, reversed course, and will once again go about the business of trying to propose a better VSC system.
Before that better system is considered, however, let’s first recognize that it was no surprise to the Legislature or those college communities that the state college system has been in financial trouble for several years. Spaulding even wrote a white paper a year ago suggesting what he proposed last week — and to a similar response by college faculty, students and legislative leaders. Spaulding’s failure was not in proposing such a drastic solution, but in not pursing that conversation a year ago to logical ends. The job of the chancellor is not just to sound the alarm, but to forge ahead with acceptable solutions.
Vermont legislators and Vermont residents have to accept those financial realities before any progress can be made.
Today, however, with prospective students wary of applying to colleges with an unknown future, any solution will be more difficult. And it’s doubtful, at this point, that Spaulding will have the confidence of all those involved to lead that change. To that end, the calls over the past several days for a task force of educational, state and community leaders to propose solutions seems a likely next step.
In that discussion, the brightest star among the state college system — CCV — should figure prominently. One practical step forward could be to morph the state colleges into a stronger CCV-like college network that acted as a two-year feeder program into UVM and, perhaps Castleton University, while beefing up a tech program at VTC’s Randolph campus. It seems likely that the state cannot afford to maintain separate and competing college campuses. It might be that organizing them under a single CCV structure works to the public’s benefit.
Such changes are within reason. What’s critical, however, is that rural Vermont does not lose access to higher educational opportunities close to home. The VTC campus, for example, should not meld with the campus in Williston. Chittenden County doesn’t need more growth, whereas Randolph needs the VTC campus to keep its community vital. The Legislature has to find a way to keep the college’s rural presence viable. Similarly, NVU as an institution may have to be closed, but it’s imperative that the campus be made suitable for an energized CCV outpost in its place. And it could be that Castleton University becomes an outpost of UVM, or a lead campus amongst CCV’s network, rather than a standalone university that’s competing for state funds.
Whatever the solution, a restructuring is needed. In that, Spaulding was right and if his miscalculations of the public response did not work to his benefit, at least it served to get the Legislature focused on the issue and might even prompt that body to increase its neglected funding. To that end, the uproar could yet yield a valuable outcome.
Angelo Lynn

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