The VT State College System Board’s decision to close three VSC college campuses

I am writing to suggest that the entire process leading up to a VSC Board vote this coming Monday to close three campuses and consolidate VT Tech in Williston is deeply flawed. Yes, there will remain the programs in Castleton and CCV will continue to thrive, but the hoped-for reimagining of the other campuses went nowhere because of a failed process and governance structure.

I have followed (and written about) the crisis facing higher ed and most especially the Vermont State College system for several years. I was asked to testify, along with Ellen Kahler of the VT Sustainable Jobs Fund, Emerson Lynn of the St Albans Messenger, and Betsy Bishop of the VT State Chamber last year during what was apparently a pro forma “listening tour.”

I read the Board’s problem statement at the time, and have since read Friday’s email to VSC students and seen the video presentation by the Chancellor to his Board. To announce a decision of this magnitude on a Friday and call a Board vote on Monday knowing that the legislature will resume on Tuesday is an odd if not devious process.

Like many, I have seen the numbers and both the magnitude of current and impending losses is clear. As chair of a private, non-profit Vermont college, I am acutely aware of both the demographic challenges facing higher ed and the implosion brought about by the current pandemic. Many of us in higher ed have seen the need for reinvention and change well before the pandemic occurred.

If the VSC Board bears the responsibility for the fiscal well-being and mission of the system, it has failed in its duties. So the flaw is as much a governance flaw as it is an educational one. The annual pleas to the legislature and efforts to shame them into ponying up for losses in a state of 630,000 Vermonters, about half of whom are taxpayers is fruitless. The money is not, and has not, been there for a decade which means the system was and is unsustainable. The Board’s earlier failure to reinvent and right-size the VSC system to meet the changing demographics and needs of Vermont’s higher ed marketplace is the problem.

Since college life is suspended until at least this fall, I would suggest the legislature take up the issue in special session (not a “study”) and explore its options, since the Board cannot sell the closed campuses without legislative approval. I would also suggest the legislature consider replacing the entire Chancellorship bureaucracy with a team comprised of the presidents of the colleges, UVM, and VT Law School, and, in addition, recruit a few recognized professional educators and enterprise change-agents.

Our practice of populating higher ed governing boards with otherwise-occupied-legislators rather than experts in their field and filling leadership positions with politicians has exacerbated the problem.

It’s mandatory that we right-size the system. We can’t sustain the losses. But right-sizing considers competition, demographic and marketplace change, equitable access and affordability, new pedagogical technology, and other entities in the constellation that includes higher ed such as high schools, corrections, UVM, and the business sector.

Shutting down the Randolph campus, which if appropriately re-engineered, could provide the fundamental education necessary to support a resurgent local agricultural economy, makes no sense when the dairy industry is in free-fall and diversified, regenerative agriculture is on the rise.

The failure here is less with our stressed colleges than with their governing body, whose mission is to provide strategic direction. Let’s get this right before we destroy the very infrastructure we will need going forward, as well as the host communities, faculty, and staff that have sustained them.

Bill Schubart