Comments to Vt State College System Board 082219

Comments to Vt State College System Board 082219

The White Paper (Paper) does a credible job assessing the current challenges faced by VSCS (the System). It’s light, however, on offering opportunities for change, and those offered in the Paper don’t address the need for reinvention inspired by the changing culture of the higher ed marketplace and that of those who are entering it.

Before offering suggestions to fill that gap, I would make a couple of observations.

Allegiance

VSCS is a governance and strategic network of individual institutions, just as a publisher represents a panoply of individual authors. Each institution is different in culture, location and alumni base. The individual colleges are the brands, not VSCS. The public, alumni, and your potential applicants have no affinity for or allegiance to the System. They’re aware of each institution individually. Other than the targets of your lobbying – the executive and legislative branches and NECHE – the System has little of compelling interest to Vermonters. This raises issues.

  • Student, faculty, staff and alumni loyalty is to the individual college, not the System.
  • How does the Chancellor and Board manage the competing interests of its institutions?
  • Is there a shared vision for the System as opposed to its institutional components?
  • What governance principles apply and how are differences reconciled between the individual management of the institutions and the Chancellor’s office?

Tenure

One of the challenges mentioned in the Paper is the excess, cost and deferred maintenance of physical infrastructure with only an allusion to personnel infrastructure. I would suggest that both are equally resistant to the agility that significant change will require.

Specifically, I believe it is imperative that tenure be dropped as it was at Vermont Law School. Tenure evolved during the Enlightenment to protect new centers of learning from the Catholic Church. The legal code has long protected employees from “wrongful discharge” and business has evolved protocols for ending employment humanely and legally without tenure.

Also mitigating against the preservation of tenure is the geometric pace of the expansion of STEM knowledge. Textbooks are barely worth printing anymore and libraries are increasingly vacant as research moves online. Given this pace, teaching staff should be judged on merit like other employees. Who among us has tenure in our own lives?

Unions

Is there an opportunity to engage unions in this discussion in a way that enlists their input and eventual support for change. The adversarial relationship with unions – unique to the U.S.– is often driven by the fact that they are not enlisted in planning for necessary change. Their defensive posture is to defend the status quo and oppose change if they are not part of engineering that change.

The urgency expressed in the Paper demands agility in pedagogy, employment, infrastructure, revenue streams, and governance and without that agility the System will suffer a slow demise.

Three exemplary ideas:

Civic Engagement

Imagine developing a Curriculum of Civic Engagement in which students engage with professionals, legislators, non-profit agencies, and businesses to learn about the broad challenges facing society and threatening their future well-being. Young people have already evinced a strong interest in improving their future. They seek engagement rather than just the infused knowledge of traditional education – lectures, readings, and exams. They want to be engaged and to make a difference, akin to lab work in the sciences. Such engagement does not preclude being exposed to the great ideas and arts that have enlightened mankind throughout history, but it informs, enriches and contextualizes that canon of art and ideas in the real world.

Imagine that course architecture was organized around real issues such as the environment, criminal justice, health and well-being, community infrastructure (housing and public transportation), economics, finance and fintech, artificial intelligence and data analysis, public and private education, agriculture and food systems, content and media, and international relations and diplomacy.  The curriculum would bring professionals, practitioners, regulators, legislators, and theorists to the classroom as well as students to their places of work. Readings, discussion, and exposure to the great works of art and literature would further inform the engagement.

We are trying to fix an outmoded system that is largely unchanged from the time of Cardinal Newman’s Idea of the University. Without compromising the basic goals of education we must more deeply engage its beneficiaries in the process.

I also believe we must wipe clean the slate of public education grading nomenclature, each with their silly graduations: pre-school, nursery school, kindergarten, grade school, middle school, junior high, high school, college post grad etc. We must reenvisage public education and learning as integral to living to ensure that those who have fallen out along the way are not left behind. If we redesigned educational architecture along the lines of human development, it would look very different and much simpler and would extend from birth to death, becoming mandatory at around 4-5 years old.

But I digress, except to say that college is the endgame to this antiquated architecture when, in fact, ideally education would be a continuum accepting each student where they are in their development.

New Americans:

Imagine if Vermont were to designate one of its subsiding state college campuses as a welcome center for New Americans and a vocational center for traditional students, and under-skilled Vermonters to learn and work alongside each other. The campus would offer E.S.L., civics, remedial writing, basic American history – including our history of welcoming immigrants – and an employer-driven curriculum of craft and business skills to everyone. The campus would continue to offer a traditional elective curriculum for students and New Americans in mixed classes where Vermont students would enrich the acculturation process.

The tuition of New American families would be paid by regional refugee resettlement programs with federal and philanthropic dollars and would add new revenue to our struggling state college system. Graduating immigrants could integrate here and around New England becoming part of the economic and social fabric.

Criminal Justice:

Vermont spends $158M on corrections and $88M on higher ed. There are 6000 children with parents in the care of Corrections each costing about $6,000 each, adding $36 million to $158 we spend. We are unlikely to see an increase in legislative support for higher ed budget even though our four colleges are struggling with declining admissions revenue and increasing discounting (scholarships). Colleges cannot cut their way out of the dilemma. Vermont should work to lower its disproportionate corrections expense and in so doing address the fiscal stress on one of its state colleges by implementing a secure “Re-entry Curriculum”

Rather than deterring applications, establishing a broad criminal justice curriculum could well engage students. Bard, John Jay, Walla Walla and Roger Williams University, among others, have all shown considerable success here (see links below).

As a test, we might take the Chittenden Regional Correctional Facility (the So. Burlington jail/prison for women), which costs Corrections $90K per woman per year and houses about a dozen offenders with a violent past, another two dozen convicted of property crimes (many embezzlements). The other 100 women inside are either detainees awaiting trial and unable to afford bail or offenders past their release date with no place to release them to.

Top college tuition and fees for the Vt. State Colleges is $15K a year. An admissions board composed of corrections, education, mental health, law enforcement, and addiction recovery specialists would vet each “educational diversion” applicant. Each enrollee would be required to sign a “personal responsibility” contract, clarifying the terms of enrollment and attesting to the offender’s commitment.

We could reallocate the $90,000 this way:

  • $14,000 tuition to Northern VT University. (top in-state rate)
  • $8,000 tuition enhancement to Northern VT to develop and manage curriculum
  • $20,000 living stipend to the program participant
  • $5,000 annual stipend for a personal mentor
  • $3,000 admin fee to manage program and fund weekly drug testing and counselling
  • Total Cost: $46,000

Total Savings: $35,000 / inmate /year​.

The “Path to Re-entry Curriculum” would deeply enrich a criminal justice and public safety curriculum at the State College. The goal is to create a successful “path to re-entry” and invert our investments in corrections and higher ed.

See: Bard College Prison Initiative: http://bpi.bard.edu/commencement-video/ or Bard College https://www.wnyc.org/radio/#/ondemand/559527

Walla Walla College  John Jay College  Roger Williams University

Thank you for the opportunity to address you. Like you all, I care deeply about our public system of higher ed and believe we can move it to a more sustainable future. But our deliberations must be undertaken with a sense of urgency. The opportunity to reinvent the system declines as the financial stresses mount.

Bill Schubart