By John Flowers
MIDDLEBURY — As newly appointed interim president, Dan Smith has set progressive goals over the next year to help Vermont Technical College better establish its niche in higher education, while attracting a higher number of applicants.
The goals are readily attainable, Smith said, because the college has proven itself as a wise investment for the state and its students, noting that 87 percent of its graduates either get a job in a related field or go on to further their education.
“All of the programs that we offer — two-year associates and four-year baccalaureate — are tied to the hottest industries and economic opportunities in the state,” Smith said, referring to careers in fields like health care, renewable energy, value-added agriculture and advanced manufacturing.
“Take energy; if we are going to achieve the state’s objective of 90 percent renewables by 2050, somebody is going to have to be able to site, build, manufacture and deliver all that. I think from a college perspective, we are providing the workforce and continue to be the go-to partner with employers in that sector.”
He noted 20 percent of the All Earth Renewables workforce is being filled with VTC graduates.
“People are coming after Vermont Tech graduates because, to paraphrase a major construction company in the state, ‘VTC graduates hit the ground running and contribute to our projects on the first day they are employed,’” Smith said. “We can’t turn enough [graduates] out. Our challenge and opportunity is to evolve in a way that will allow more Vermont kids to access our programs.”
Assuming the reins
It was this past spring that the Vermont State Colleges Board of Trustees appointed Smith, 39, to the interim post, which he will hold through next June. Smith took over for retiring President Phil Conroy, whose three-year tenure sparked controversy and saw several within the college’s administration leave, and from whom Smith inherits some challenges — not the least of which is a $2.4 million budget deficit.
Smith — who most recently served as director of community relations and public policy for the state colleges system — discussed VTC’s financial situation and his game plan for infusing new vitality and a larger student body into the institution during a recent, far ranging interview at the Addison Independent, a sister paper to The Mountain Times in Middlebury.
“If I, as an interim by next June, can develop some strong partnerships with employers, put the college in a strong financial position and help the faculty refine our curriculum in a way that helps us become a little more efficient… I’ll feel like I have done a decent job for the college,” Smith said.
Smith has not ruled out entering the mix of applicants for the presidency. But in the meantime, he wants to get the institution on an upward trajectory for whoever inherits the leadership mantle next year.
“The first objective I really had when I came in was making sure there was a smooth transition from the prior president, to my leadership, and getting a handle on the budget,” Smith said.
Vermont Technical College currently has an annual budget of roughly $36 million, but only $34 million in revenues to sustain that spending, according to Smith. Consequently, Smith in May outlined some budget cuts that included six layoffs from an overall staff of approximately 400 (of which 90 are faculty members). VTC serves a combined total of more than 1,300 students at its twocampuses.
Smith’s budget cuts are expected to save around $1.6 million, and while more cuts may be considered going forward, he maintains the best course of action is not to slash his way to a balanced budget. Rather, he and other VTC officials continue to aggressively recruit new students and are pressing state government to provide more financial support for its college system.
Vermont ranks as one of the nation’s most miserly states in terms of investment in its higher education system. As a result, in-state tuitions for Vermont’s college system are among the highest in the country.
Yearly in-state tuition for VTC is $12,000, plus another $10,000 for room and board for residential students. That’s “affordable” when compared to most higher education standards, but expensive when compared to public colleges and universities in other parts of the country.
“The state has made us more vulnerable by its lack of investment,” Smith said candidly. “Going forward, this state has to ask itself some of these questions — what does it want for its investment in public, post-secondary education?”
The state’s five state colleges are currently attracting around 11,000 Vermont students each year, which on its face is an impressive number. More sobering is the fact that the state’s school age population continues to decline. And while 60 percent of Vermont high school students go on to higher education, half of those students are matriculating to colleges and universities outside of the state.
Smith also lamented the fact that a majority of the high school graduates remaining in Vermont (roughly 40 percent) are not going on to college or higher education.
“That is a missed opportunity for us,” Smith said, who noted that enrollment at VTC peaked at 1,455 in 2010. That enrollment had declined to 1,302 as of last fall, according to VTC statistics.
Figuring out how to do a better job of attracting those students, as well as those bound for a college education, is one of Smith’s top priorities. “We are affordable by most standards in higher education and all of our programs are economically relevant. They are tied to a decent job after someone finishes their degree.”
Getting the word out about VTC and working more intensively with Vermont’s 64 high schools to make sure their graduates have the educational foundation for higher education and career aspirations, Smith said, is one early goal to pursue.
And, with the economy improving, Smith said he is starting to see more robust numbers in the current enrollment cycle, as well as an increasing number of student transfers to VTC.
“I do think we will come out of this [current down cycle] OK,” he said.
Goals to hit
If all proceeds according to Smith’s plan, VTC will become better known as an institution offering what he calls “a small-college experience with big-college outcomes.”
He realizes that many colleges and universities are delving into “distance learning” and Internet-based course material allowing students to study from far away. He understands those changes, but makes no apologies for VTC’s emphasis on classroom learning under the tutelage of experts in their respective fields. He believes nothing can replace the ability to speak with a faculty member face-to-face and to participate in experiments to further one’s comprehension of the subject matter.
Smith’s goals for VTC in the coming year include:
• Ensuring financial stability.
• Establishing the college as a “partner of first regard.” “When employers, the state, high schools and tech centers wonder who they can work with on a project affecting Vermont’s youth, I’m hoping they think of Vermont Tech first,” Smith said. “I think in this state, partnerships are the infrastructure of the next decade. We will succeed or fail based on how well we work with others who are trying to do the same things we are doing.”
• Creating a culture of innovation that will help VTC refine its curriculum to meet the needs of incoming students.
As Smith is traveling the state to spread the word about VTC and gather ideas for its future prosperity, he is more convinced than ever of its viability and future vitality.
“I really like the college, and I feel like it’s an important institution for Vermont,” Smith said. “I am not approaching my job as an interim; I’m approaching it by trying to help the college see itself, through the long term, make some good strategic decisions.”
John Flowers is a reporter for The Addison Independent, firstname.lastname@example.org.