On February 24, 2021

VSC trustees endorse consolidation 

Castleton University to combine with NVU and VTC, CCV to remain separate, all campuses to stay open

Staff report

On Monday, Feb. 22, the Vermont State College System board of trustees voted unanimously to move forward with the proposal outlined by the state’s Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont.

The Vermont State Colleges (VSC) system includes Castleton University (CU), Northern Vermont University (NVU), Vermont Technical College (VTC) and the Community College of Vermont (CCV).

The four campuses will remain open. CCV will remain a separate institution.

NVU was created out of the previously consolidated Lyndon State College and Johnson State College, and will serve as a model.

The plan calls for administrative cutbacks including a reduction to two presidents.  The president of the new consolidated institution will be named effective Jan. 1, 2022.

Following the board of trustees meeting, Monday, Board Chair Lynn Dickinson released the following statement: “The Board of Trustees today voted to move the Vermont State Colleges System to an organizational structure for two complementary institutions with significant administrative consolidation. The proposal will unify the three residential colleges, Castleton University, Northern Vermont University, and Vermont Technical College, under a common accreditation in Academic Year 2023-2024 while maintaining the Community College of Vermont as a separate institution. Additionally, the system will streamline services across the institutions through significant administrative consolidation. In the proposed new structure, the president of each institution would report to the chancellor and the board of trustees would oversee the chancellor, the presidents, and the two institutions. I want to be clear that the board is committed to maintaining our current campus locations. In future years, the configuration of the campuses might look a little different as we work to update our physical footprint to help bring system costs down, but we are committed to doing so in a way that keeps our current campus locations open.”

Chancellor Sophie Zdatny added, “The proposal the Board endorsed today is founded on three key concepts: 1) Student success is our singular focus, 2) Education for life and a lifetime, and 3) Vermont is our community. As we move forward over the coming months and years, we will work hard to ensure our current students feel minimal impact in their programs and coursework. Ensuring a transparent and smooth transition to a unified system, continuing access to robust financial aid, and providing the best opportunities to our students are top priorities. Unification means that students of all ages and in different places in their education and careers will have greater access to a broader and deeper range of courses, faculty, extended activities, and alumni networks.”

Chancellor Zdatny continued: “We are taking lessons learned from the unification of Northern Vermont University and past administrative consolidations and will carefully consider any change that affects employees. We know that transition of any kind will be tough and will require hard work, but we are confident that we can navigate this together and emerge as a stronger and more resilient Vermont State Colleges System. In proposing this transformative change, we acknowledge and appreciate the many contributions made by our stakeholder communities and the diversity of perspectives that were provided to and considered by the Select Committee in preparing their report, as well as the extensive public feedback that has been submitted to the Board of Trustees.

“There are many decisions to be made by the Board in the months to come, including the name of the unified institution and how individual campus brands and traditions will be incorporated into the combined entity. Over the next several months and years, we will continue to work with the state to secure the additional funding for resources the VSCS needs to manage this transition and build a higher education system for the generations of today and the future. As there have been throughout this process, there will continue to be many opportunities for public input and for stakeholder voices to be heard as we navigate the transition. There is a dedicated a page on the System website where information about transformation is compiled. It may be found at vsc.edu/transformation.”

Fighting for an independent CU

Locally, many were advocating for a different outcome, hoping Castleton would be left out of the merger.

Fred Bagley of Mendon, and Joe Kraus of Rutland (the former leader of Project Vision and current president of the Board of Trustees of Rutland Regional Medical Center) expressed their opinion in an Op-Ed that was circulated to publications throughout the state in the days leading up to the vote, Monday.

“The future of Castleton University (CU) is in serious jeopardy if the Board of Trustees of the Vermont State College System votes to consolidate it with Northern Vermont University (NVU, formerly Lyndon State College and Johnson State College) and Vermont Technical College (VTC),” they wrote.

“The contribution of Castleton University to the Rutland Region and the state of Vermont cannot be overstated. The nursing programs at the Castleton and Bennington campuses supply a steady stream of nurses to health care facilities, not just in southwestern Vermont but throughout the state. The University’s education programs develop and nurture teachers and school administrators. The Resort and Hospitality Program provides highly trained employees for ski areas throughout New England. Graduate programs in social work and accounting bring professional training to local residents. CU’s Natural Sciences Department has secured over $1.5 million in grants for faculty/student research to study Vermont’s ecology. Every year over 600 out-of-state students enroll at CU, bringing $10 million a year into the state. The University’s cultural and athletic events enlighten and entertain us throughout the year. Castleton’s art gallery and dormitory in Rutland bring vibrancy to our downtown. CU is also the fifth largest employer in Rutland County.

“It is likely to all go away if the Board votes to consolidate CU with NVU and VTC,” they wrote, citing an already disproportionate funding formula in which “in essence, Castleton students are subsidizing NVU students. Remarkably, even with this disproportionate subsidy, NVU was losing $3-5 million a year (pre-Covid) while CU was breaking even.”

“Everyone agrees that the state of Vermont has underfunded higher education,” Bagley and Kraus continue. “Vermont is consistently ranked one of the lowest in the nation in state support of its college system, and as a result has the highest in-state tuition… To the credit of the Board of Trustees, they do recognize the current funding mechanism of the system is unsustainable. The problem is their proposed solution does nothing to solve it. In fact, it makes it worse, much worse, because it will require about $164 million more over the coming years, on top of the $30 million historically provided annually by the Legislature.”

Bagley and Kraus point to the recommendations by the Select Committee on the Future of Public Higher Education in Vermont on how to reduce costs yet maintain quality, which the trustees largely adopted. In that report it clearly states:  “Business as usual is not an option, nor is incremental change to the status quo. VSC is overbuilt for the size of its student population – in both personnel and facilities. Right sizing VSC will require some combination of increasing enrollment….and reducing the size of the enterprise.”

To this, Bagley and Kraus said “We could not agree more.”

With Vermont’s high school population shrinking, however, “increasing enrollment” must happen by recruiting out-of-state, they argue. “Because Castleton brings in more out-of-state students than the other universities combined, consolidation would extinguish that strong brand recognition.”

Rather than consolidation, which wouldn’t allow the VSCS “to either expand enrollment or reduce costs,” Bagley and Kraus argue for either 1) closing underutilized and underperforming institution(s) or 2) dissolving the VSC system and “allow CU, NVU and VTC to go their separate ways, with state subsidies based on the student enrollment rather than the arbitrary and capricious formula used now.”

“The future of the VSC system is not assured, no matter what decision the Board of Trustees makes,” Bagley and Kraus continue. “None of the choices are easy and there will be pain. But we submit that for the Board of Trustees to combine CU, NVU and VTC into one enterprise, tentatively known as Vermont State University, is the wrong decision at this time. Consolidation will almost surely lead to failure of the entire system as there will be virtually no money saved and the disruption will be enormous.

“In spite of its historic strengths and relatively stronger financial status, Castleton University is not by itself capable of supporting the other institutions. In addition, there is little likelihood the Legislature will grant the requested funds for consolidation, on top of the bridge funding to keep under-performing schools open another year plus their usual annual allocation.”

Foreseeing the likelihood of the trustees to approve consolidating, Bagley and Kraus conclude: “If the Board does vote to begin the consolidation, it must commit to allocating state funds to its member institutions on a per-student basis, and preserve the Castleton University name. If the Board chooses to consolidate CU, NVU and VTC without a change in its funding allocation, we urge the Legislature not to budget any money to support the consolidation. That would in essence be a ‘no confidence’ vote on the Board’s decision.”

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