UVM’s Challenge & Opportunity
UVM was kind enough to admit me to its junior class in 1966 after I explained my abysmal record at Kenyon College and the life lessons I had learned in the intervening years of work and marriage. I graduated in 1968, at 23, with a degree in Romance languages and two fine sons, and began a brief career teaching French at Mt. Abe in Bristol. I liked UVM, but I especially valued the outstanding teachers I met there. They changed me. Education is about people not institutions.
Today, UVM has its challenges and President Sullivan seems to have a grasp of them. But he must be given the chance. He has the experience and vision to integrate UVM’s seemingly conflicting efforts to both be a leading Ivy and to honor the local tenets of its Land Grant status. Contrary to assumptions, the goals are, in fact, integral, combining affordability, liberal arts, applied science, experiential learning, and economic development.
The question of whether to invest in plant or people has already been answered. UVM has over-invested in buildings that will lose educational relevance in the future while burdening it with heavy costs. UVM already has half a billion dollars in deferred maintenance on its existing hodgepodge of buildings.
Another problem: a bill lying fallow in the legislature declares the largely constituent governing board of UVM intrinsically conflicted by virtue of the nine legislative directors who comprise a significant bloc in the annual decision about how much Vermonters should contribute to UVM’s annual operating budget.
Having chaired several boards, I’m against constituent directors. They must constantly weigh the interests of the organizations they represent against the interests of the institution on whose board they serve. When I was elected to chair Fletcher Allen in 2003, the board was largely composed of directors from four organizations with varying special interests. Our first order of business was to change a constituent board into a self-perpetuating one to eliminate conflict and ensure that directors were accountable only to Fletcher Allen as defined by its mission to serve the well being of the broader community it served. UVM was one of those constituents and graciously gave up their four appointed positions to Fletcher Allen’s Nominating and Governance Committee where the choice belonged. The legislature must do the same for UVM to thrive.
The world of higher ed. is changing. It will not be displaced by technology as some suggest, but it will be altered by it. Like healthcare, the current cost of higher ed. is unsustainable.
The institutions that survive and flourish will be defined first and foremost by teaching excellence, the agility and content-depth of their networks, reduced residency, agility of decision making, and experiential learning opportunities. Success will no longer be judged by buildings or social amenities. President Sullivan has a vision. The question is whether a constituent governing board, a partially tenured faculty senate and a faculty union will give him the leadership mandate to make UVM a resource to Vermont and a player in the rapidly changing world of higher education.