The Future of Vermont’s State College System

A phoenix will rise from the ashes of the Vermont State College System (VSC), but it will take courage, patience, vision, and an end to the blame game – though there’s plenty to go around. We must start by looking at the principles of a public education system and then relying on them to guide us in building a new and sustainable system, while preserving what works and discarding what used to work but does no longer.

Research tells us that public education must be re-envisioned as a lifelong continuum from womb to world. The parsing of education from preschool to kindergarten, child care, grade school, middle school/junior high, high school, and college has created a hierarchy of vested interests that get in the way of progress. By way of example, college tenure is now a legal redundancy given civil law regarding “wrongful discharge.”

In Vermont, our residential and amenity-burdened schools and campuses are hobbled by $60M in deferred and escalating maintenance and carrying costs. These siphon off the financial resources we need to invest in online learning networks which broaden access, new pedagogical resources and technologies, and adequate compensation of our most effective assets, our teachers.

Leadership and governance is another critical element in our success. We have a dysfunctional habit of loading up State governing boards with otherwise-occupied politicians and legislators. Both the VSC and UVM suffer from this.  Of the 15-member VSC Board, five are gubernatorial appointees, four are Board-elected (self-perpetuating), four are legislators elected by the General Assembly, and one is a student elected by the VSC Student Government Association. The 24-member UVM Board has nine self-perpetuating trustees, two students, and thirteen legislators or gubernatorial appointees. This is not the model for effective governing boards, which are usually fully self-perpetuating and administered by a nominating and governance committee focused on a broad spectrum of possible candidates with skills that best support and fulfill the institution’s mission.

An effective VSC system would be overseen by such a governing board including the surviving college presidents and the UVM and VT Law School presidents as well as leading lights in education, community, business, and philanthropy. The Chancellor’s office is a redundant operation. Retiring it will return some $8 million a year to the system.

Critical to any restructuring success will be the willingness of the five unions operating on each of the campuses to be willing partners in change. If they default to an adversarial stance simply to preserve their members’ former status, the opportunity to survive and thrive again through needed change will fail. The redesign leadership team will need to invite union partnership into the dialogue with an understanding that, when all is said and done, very little will be the same and everyone must be prepared to give up some prior privileges to ensure a future.

Any new design must take into account the pillars of Vermont’s current and emerging economy: vocational and IT trades, teacher training, hospitality, health care, manufacturing, environmental technology, and the working landscape (diversified, regenerative agriculture and extraction resources such as forest, water, and stone). These pillars need to be designed into the curriculum starting in grade school to make students aware of their options for economic independence.

Perhaps most critical here is preserving the Randolph campus with its 550 acres and existing farm resources. VT Tech-Randolph could become an incubator/laboratory for the burgeoning diversified agriculture and environmental technology movements.

Not only must we see education as a continuum, we must understand it as part of a social and economic constellation that includes businesses, corrections, civic institutions, other private and public schools, and the communities in which they’re resident.

The Association of Vermont Independent Colleges (AVIC) has focused on its member network of eleven surviving independent colleges. These face the same daunting demographic, infrastructure burdens, and competitive challenges that the public colleges face. But the arbitrary distinction between private and public colleges does little to ensure the broader future of higher ed, given the fact that private college discount rates often make education for needy Vermonters as accessible as our State Colleges with their limited endowments and development strategies. If we’re ever to fulfill our Vermont and federal constitutional commitments to a free public education system, we must lay to rest the competitive environment and collaborate across all sectors.

The Vermont Student Assistance Corporation (VSAC) is often challenged over its commitment to do what its name implies, assist Vermont students – rather than  Vermont public colleges – by offering all Vermont students loans and grants to attend the colleges that most closely meet their learning needs regardless of their location. Its mission is cited by some as a reason that the colleges are under stress. They claim that these state and federal funds should only be used to help Vermont students attend Vermont colleges. But what if Vermont’s fifteen remaining colleges don’t meet the needs of all Vermont students? Surely VSAC’s mission should focus on Vermont’s diverse students of all ages.

It will surprise some to see corrections included in this cluster, but the best such systems in the world focus on returning offenders to productive and safe places in the societies they’ve transgressed against. Especially since their divergence from a productive educational path may have occurred as a result of an adverse childhood experience (A.C.E.), a learning disability, or a one-off error in judgment.

We must therefore understand corrections not simply as a punitive system but rather as a short-term parallel educational path to re-entry. Reengineering  VSC in such a way as to make education accessible could help offenders re-earn the trust of society so they can return to an education track at any age. The added social benefit will be more cost-efficient educational and penal systems. Imagine one of the shuttered campuses as a low security re-entry institution for offenders who have acknowledged their offense and show evidence of their commitment to work, learn and re-earn society’s trust.

The Chancellor and his Board have ignited an appropriate sense of urgency, although I would argue, the work we have ahead of us should have begun five years ago. We must now convene, plan, and act thoughtfully and quickly to design  a sustainable VT State College System scaled at once to the emerging market, to new technical opportunities, and to socio-economic realities and, in so doing, “do no harm” to what we have that works.