Vermont State University… a way forward


Photo courtesy of Northern Vermont University

I’m hearing from friends around the country about the soon-to-be Vermont State University’s (VSU) recent decision and subsequent back-pedaling about removing physical books from its component college, Northern Vermont University’s (NVU) library.

A friend, the department chair for Celtic Studies at Berkeley, wrote me to inquire about it, as have other academic friends. The Boston Globe, Inside Higher Ed and other national news media have all covered the library story, though all ignored the fact that the four underlying institutions are not financially viable and, to survive, must reduce costs by or add revenue of $5M a year and fund $55M in deferred maintenance.

Still, understandably, it was the library closure that caught fire and became the subject of a fervent campaign to engage influencers, opinion writers, and commentators to condemn the decision and urge leadership to reverse it.

On February 7th, the recently hired President, Parwinder Grewal, who, starting July 1, will lead the new Vermont State University after the consolidation of Vermont’s three remaining state colleges (Northern University [Johnson/Lyndon], Castleton University, and Vermont Technical College [Randolph/Williston]) is complete, issued a statement detailing the plan to eliminate all physical resources in Northern University’s libraries and transition to a digital-only library. Books, collections and other materials would be distributed in part to community members, according to an FAQ published by the University.

The decision was “data-driven,” according to the announcement. Some 60% of books acquired by the library had never been checked out. Before the pandemic, circulation figures were around 25,000 annually and, when the pandemic ended, returned to only about 5,000.

Also, starting in ’20-‘24, there will also be major changes in athletics, reducing opportunities for regional and national team competition significantly.

On March 9th, the NVU issued a “refined plan” on its website modifying to some degree its earlier plan by retaining “well-circulated” and “academically valuable” books in its campus libraries.

“Furthermore,” the revised plan says, “we’re investing approximately $500,000 in one-time funds to renovate and improve the library spaces across our campuses prior to the Fall semester.” We’re left to wonder how this expense compares to the intended “savings.” There’s general consensus that the communication rollout was a disaster.

The choice to remove books from libraries offered an ideal call-to-arms, conjuring up book-burnings, censorship, and current calls by the far-right to remove books from school and community libraries   ̶   Vermont becomes Florida   ̶   completely missing the challenge of how we create a sustainable community college system out of four unsustainable colleges. Vermont has already lost six colleges. Having adapted to change, UVM and Community College of Vermont are in good shape.

Now, having read most of what’s out there on the library issue, it feels like we’re standing at the bedside of a leukemia patient arguing about a pedicure.

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I grew up in Morrisville. Neighboring Johnson was not only a great cultural asset, it was a way out of poverty for many young men and women who did not want to go into agriculture, lumbering, or work at the Atlas Plywood plant or the Eden asbestos mine.

Johnson State College had “A commitment to educating the whole student in an interdisciplinary manner, begun in the 1920s and 1930s, that set in place a history of bringing visiting poets, playwrights, politicians, and artists to the college.”

I was chair of the Vermont Arts Council when Johnson built the Dibden Center for the Arts as a performing arts center. I attended an early performance there of the soon-to-become-world-famous Pilobolus Dance Company and was proud of how significant Johnson had become to the arts and to the humanities as a teaching college. My sixth grade teacher in Morrisville, Polly Brigham, had just graduated from Johnson.

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The back story of VSU is a cobbling together of our four financially struggling state colleges. After a number of confusing missteps by former chancellors and trustees, the obvious notion of a merger with a goal of combining and reducing administrative expenses evolved. But this focus on consolidation, cost-cutting, and technology sidestepped innovations in mission and academic repositioning which would have built on the vital contribution each campus makes to the community in which it resides and vice versa.

With a front-and-center goal in mind of “meeting learners where they are,” any system changes will need to support a new understanding of “learner.” Today’s qualified students may be of any age, residential or non-residential, employed or unemployed, Indigenous, refugee, or resettled, abled or disabled, single or coupled parents, non-English speaking, continuous or sporadic.

As of now, the executive team, governance/trustees, marketing/public relations, admissions, finance/audit, purchasing, human resources, maintenance, buildings & grounds, legislative liaison, and IT/data management are being consolidated. Might a next step be redundant building infrastructure sales or net-leasing to a developer for affordable community housing within a life-long learning community? After consolidation and cost-cutting, what then is a sustainable market-driven institutional model in the emerging learner market?

The following plan anticipates significant financial value to Vermont’s state budget as well as to Vermont’s broader economy by making our VSU’s campuses into alternate problem-solving and research resources that marshal faculty, business, and nonprofit leaders, and students to research and suggest practical and strategic solutions to Vermont’s challenges consistent with each institution’s specific course of study. It anticipates project-based and ongoing partnerships with business and nonprofit organizations, both to assess and solve problems and to create engaged learning opportunities.

Each campus will have a specific community-based educational mission and focus, linked to Vermont’s strategic challenges and engaging learners in real-world problems. This will best prepare them for careers by participating in problem analysis and solution development in all three economic sectors — government, business & nonprofit. During their college career (or lifetime). a student may spend time on one or more campuses depending on their educational and career goals.

 Lyndon: Vermont: Civic systems, governance and infrastructure policy:

  • affordable housing and design: energy efficiency, various co-housing models, community gardens, shared-equity housing
  • advanced media production and literacy (journalism), civics (participatory democracy),
  • meteorology, climate-change tracking and prediction, air and water-quality monitoring and mitigation,
  • financial literacy (personal and organizational financial management),
  • criminal justice, policing, restorative justice, and corrections careers and reform, including a pathway to re-entry for offenders modeled on successful programs at Bard College and Roger Williams University,
  • training for careers in non-profit sector with mission outcomes measurement and governance,
  • Offer federal services as a new-American/refugee resettlement orientation center with ESL in partnership with the business community.

Castleton: Vermont: Health, well-being and family support systems:

  • healthcare – explore strategies to move investments upstream toward prevention from reactive treatment, (partner with Rutland Hospital)
  • chronic disease management and prevention
  • train healthcare professionals in primary care, nursing, ALS (advance life support), paramedic, and EMT
  • train child and elder care givers
  • mental health counselling — master’s degree in social work (MSW), psych, trauma-informed counselling and early childhood intervention with adverse childhood experiences (ACEs)
  • explore policies to expanding access and coverage, role of community clinics, manage costs, advance telemedicine, and community wellness,
  • explore the role of diet and lifestyle.

Randolph: Vermont: Professional, artisanal and strategic skills to support the working and recreational landscape:

  • regenerative agriculture,
  • a future model for sustainable dairy (fluid milk, yogurt, ice cream, cheese)
  • sustainable extraction practice for forestry, stone (quarrying), water resource and wildlife management,
  • reduce dependence on fossil fuels: green energy production and distribution, weatherization, home-heating/cooling alternatives, and renewable resources, and green technology development,
  • hospitality training, recreational facility design and stewardship,
  • public-private transportation policy and systems design.

Johnson: Vermont: Arts & Humanities: spirit and sense of place:

  • dance, drama, studio and performing arts,
  • music composition and performance,
  • writing and publishing,
  • filmmaking (digital storytelling),
  • history, sense of place, and indigenous cultures,
  • literature, philosophy, and religion.

The above is not meant to be a prescriptive plan for what each of the VSU campuses must be, but rather an exemplary process for linking institutions to the changing and shrinking learner marketplace and to their local communities that, taken together, could create a market model for survival and ultimate success.

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But any plan must accommodate the headwinds in higher ed:

  • Demographics: In the last decade, the number of college-age students has decreased by 2.2M or 13%, and the number of public school students decreased by one million. In the last three decades, the Vermont El-Hi population declined from 120,000-88,000.
  • Pedagogical changes: The educational goals of students have been in transition from traditional liberal arts curricula towards more dynamic and segmented learning related to current or future employment goals, personal interests, and the certainty of more frequent career changes. Arts and humanities colleges with tenured faculty rooted in traditional textbook assignments, lectures, note-taking, and exams, are of less interest to an emerging generation of college-bound students who seek engagement and experiential learning,
  • The sheer financial burden of tenured and administrative personnel and physical infrastructure (actual and deferred maintenance) is overwhelming the traditional college business model,
  • Cynicism/anxiety about the higher-ed value equation: Will my investment of between $10M and $95M a year be paid back in future earning potential? The average graduate’s college debt load is $38,000. The total US student debt is $1.75T. Among the competitors to traditional higher ed are fast-growing businesses offering low or no-cost educational alternatives tied to employment opportunity and growth.
  • Questioning whether the current college system is designed to preserve and protect privilege or open new pathways to social and economic opportunity. From the 1947 President’s Commission on Higher Education 75 years ago: “If college opportunities are restricted to those in the higher income brackets, the way is open to the creation and perpetuation of a class society which has no place in the American way of life.” In 1947, average undergraduate college tuition was $550, room and board $640, and textbooks $50. The goal of social and economic opportunity appears to have receded.
  • Professional unions will reflexively resist any changes that materially affect their members, rallying their membership to exert legislative and public pressure to defend the status quo, even though co-engineering a sustainable institutional employer might secure future employment.
  • Any change will need to be championed by the Governor and have legislative support. The Governor will need to articulate and support a conceptual vision for sustainable change, and the Legislature will then have to follow with any statutory or funding process changes. As of now, it would appear to have neither the will nor the revenues to fund the expanding deficits produced by the current VSC system. Without some form of reinvention, deficits will only increase, collapsing the entire system.

Any loss of privilege or livelihood understandably generates fear, which in turn generates resistance to change. I’m certainly sympathetic. But in my experience fear focuses less on a vision for a sustainable solution than opposition to any effective change.

As noted, the plan to combine the four unsustainable institutions has focused on cost-cutting, consolidation and technology rather than on convening stakeholders and learners to develop a compelling and sustainable mission and market positioning statement that students and faculty could have supported.

While my own education was steeped in the arts and humanities curricula which made me who I am today, whatever model emerges now, an understanding of the evolving human condition will be intrinsic to every learner’s success.


P.S. David, a retired teacher at Johnson for 30 years, wrote to suggest that Johnson’s traditional role as a teaching college is even more important today given the dire need for public school teachers. He’s right. I should have focused more on this.

In a newly envisioned VSU: an early education and child development curriculum at Castleton, STEM at VT Tech, Arts & Humanities at Johnson, and Civics and Civic engagement at Lyndon. Aspiring teachers might split their education between two campuses and be awarded teacher accreditation when completed.

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