State News

Castleton closes Polling Institute, eliminates two dean positions

By Kelsey Neubauer, VTDigger

The state’s only polling institute is among the casualties as Castleton University seeks to address a $1.5 million budget gap. Two dean positions have also been eliminated.

Castleton spokesperson Jeff Weld said Tuesday, March 13, that the university had cut the positions of Dean of Administration Scott Dykman and Dean of Entrepreneurial Programs Lyle Jepson.

The Castleton Polling Institute, the only of its kind in Vermont, was also being indefinitely suspended, he said.

“This is the hardest part of our job but while this is a very difficult time and difficult process,” Weld said, “but we’re looking towards a bright future.”

Weld said the polling institute directors — Rich Clark and Amanda Richardson — will continue working at the university in teaching roles.

Decisions about where to cut staffing and programs were made to minimize the impact on students, Weld said. Since the polling institute was more of a “public good” than an essential part of student curriculum, it was put on the chopping block.

Still, Weld said he is hopeful that the institute would be restarted once the university is on firmer financial footing.

“It brings a lot to the campus,” he said.

In an interview with VPR, Castleton President Karen Scolforo said the Polling Institute was costing the university $120,000 a year to run.

The institute partnered with media organizations including VTDigger, VPR and WCAX-TV on election year surveys, but also did public opinion surveys on other issues of the day.

Clark, a political science professor, could not immediately be reached for comment. But he told Seven Days he was disappointed by the program’s closure.

“What I think we were able to provide on certain policy issues was a data point that had some credibility and some transparency,” he said.

Eric Davis, a professor emeritus of political science at Middlebury College, said Vermont relied heavily on the quality polling from Castleton, carried out by student operators.

“In a relatively short period of time, Castleton Polling Institute became the place for reliable, non-partisan public opinion polls in Vermont,” he said.

Davis said the loss of the institute meant polls will probably be done by an out-of-state company. He said he is worried that future candidates will attempt to spin polls in a way they could not with in-state, live-operator polling.

“Bottom line,” he said, “it will have a significant impact on what is known about what the Vermont electorate thinks.”

Jepson, one of the deans whose position was terminated, will keep his position as executive director of the Rutland Economic Development Corp., according a March 1 statement.

“Our work at REDC will continue in earnest as we work to grow our population, increase the pool of skilled workforce, support our region’s business and industry, and create relationships that will strengthen each of the communities that we serve in Rutland County,” Jepsen stated in the release.

Weld said plans were also in place to revitalize Castleton, noting their partnership with the Community College of Vermont. Castleton students will soon be able to take classes on CCV’s Winooski and Rutland campuses.

“This partnership will help eliminate barriers across the state,” Weld said, adding these programs will allow many who cannot commute to Castleton, or students who require flexible hours due to family or work obligations, to obtain their degree and bolster Vermont’s workforce.

Vermont State Colleges System board of trustees Chair J. Churchill Hindes wrote that Castleton will continue to be a resource for Rutland and all of Vermont.

“In these circumstances, the future will favor universities and colleges with clear-headed leaders willing to act boldly and strategically,” he said. “Institutions that continue to pin their hopes on maintaining or regaining the status quo will be more likely to flounder.”

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