On February 10, 2021

CU should remain separate from VSC merger

By John Casella, president, and Lyle P. Jepson, executive director of CEDRR

The following is a letter to the Vermont State Colleges (VSC) board of trustees dated Feb. 2, from the Chamber & Economic Development of the Rutland Region (CEDRR) representing its membership of approximately 400 Rutland County businesses, as well as many municipalities.

This letter is being sent to you out of concern for the sustainability of the Vermont State College system, as well as for the impact on the success story that Castleton University has become.

The report provided by The National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) is well researched and confirms the dire financial situation. There is little to debate about the need for immediate change. Now is the time to acknowledge the problem and boldly take action.

In the work that we do, we recognize that there are times that branches of a business may need to consolidate and even close in order to preserve the corporation. As you consider bold action, we encourage you to keep in mind the following. The VSC faces a fiscal crisis for two reasons: the declining number of college-age students in New England and the level of funding from the State of Vermont. We do not see how the unification proposed by the Trustees will solve these two key issues.

There is no reason to think that a merger will solve the demographic challenge, which is that there are not enough college-age students in New England to support four residential colleges in Vermont. And, there is very little evidence that a merger will achieve the cost savings necessary to remain solvent. The plan presented by NCHEMS appears to rely on four assumptions:

That the Legislature will give VSAC another $5 million a year.

That the colleges will be able to cut $5 million per year in each of the next 5 years.

That the state will increase its regular contribution by more than 50% (to $47.5 million a year).

That the state will provide one-time funding of $77 million over the next 5 years to support the transformation.

We are not confident that the Legislature will find this to be a sustainable path. We question it, as well.

Before proceeding down that path, we ask you to consider an alternative. The alternative addresses the need for a skilled and knowledgeable labor force to help our state’s businesses thrive and grow. We believe that a successful combination ofthe talents and expertise provided through a merger of Vermont Tech, the Community College of Vermont and the state’s technical centers will result in a highly competitive and efficient community technical college system. The infrastructure is already in place. CCV has 12 locations, each of which has a local technical center. Accessing CCV academic coursework, in combination with the skills of Vermont Tech faculty within technical center facilities that are already outfitted with the necessary lab space and equipment must be considered. Doing so will provide equal higher education access to all Vermonters in an accessible and affordable manner.

This plan should also include preserving Castleton University’s role as the lead residential university within the system. Infrastructure work completed at Castleton University over the past 20 years has positioned the facility in a manner that provides the opportunity to deliver education well into the future. The programs provided are needed for the entire state economy to thrive. Diminishing its stature, autonomy and brand will not allow Castleton University to continue to attract young people to move to Vermont and become a skilled part of our work force. This hurts us all.

Ultimately, we are concerned that making Castleton University another branch of “Vermont State University” will damage its brand, a brand that has evolved to a point of being essential to its recruiting, especially with out-of-state students, each of whom is vital to our region’s economy. Accordingly, if the Board approves a merger, we request that it take steps to ensure that:

• Castleton can preserve its attractive brand (name, logo, athletic teams, etc.),

• Castleton can retain its residential experience and,

• Castleton can keep its signature academic programs (Nursing, Business, Education, Communication, Science, Resort Management, etc.), each of which is critical to our region’s economy.

Yet, we hope that this is not the path you choose. We are not convinced that a reorganization and renaming of the schools within the system will result in sustainability. The time is now, for you to act boldly and strategically. It is time to consolidate and close a branch or branches of the organization that are not fiscally capable of surviving on their own merits. It is also time to connect the entire K-16 educational system in a manner that capitalizes on what already exists, which will strengthen the system with a community technical college system that all Vermonters and out of state students can access.

We stand ready to help make positive change. And, we thank you for your service to Vermont and look forward to learning more about how you intend to proceed.

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